WATKINSVILLE - The Eastside wrestling team ran the gauntlet in Area 8-AAA to win its fourth area team dual championship Saturday at Oconee County High School.
"It feels real good to have accomplished a goal through my senior year," Eastside senior Joel Stafford said. "It's a great way to go out and go to college next year. I've been so attached to my teammates, and to win four area titles with them is great."
After beating Elbert County (74-3), Stephens County (75-6) and Franklin County (83-0) on Friday, the Eagles returned Saturday to beat Hart County (75-6), Morgan County (49-22), Jackson County (38-28) and Oconee County (48-30) to win the championship.
"The very first one, it took awhile to sink in, not to say it's less exciting. But we'll do a little celebrating this weekend, then Monday we'll get back to work on winning a state duals," Eastside coach Brandon Blakeman said. "I want to congratulate the seniors who came in as freshmen when we won our first title. The seniors and the junior class are the heart and soul of this team. They have brought it to the forefront of where it is today."
I couldn't be any more proud of them. They did what they wanted to do, they accomplished their first goal of the season."
Eastside will be joined at the state team duals in Macon by Jackson County, which finished second in 8-AAA. Both schools moved down to Class AAA this year from AAAA.
Against Jackson County, Trevor Bailey (140-pound weight class), who was 3-0 for the day with two pins, put the Eagles on top with a fall to make it 6-0.
But things quickly turned for Eastside after losing the next two matches to trail for the first time in the area duals.
Jonathan Palmer put Eastside back in the lead with a pin before Dalton Temple's pin extended its lead to 18-10.
After losing the matches at 189 and 215, Eastside held on to its lead by two points, 18-16.
Eastside earned 14 points in the next three matches with a pin by Phillip King (285), a technical fall by Brandon Gatt (103) and win by Cody Durden (112) before Danny Gatt put the Eagles out of reach with a pin to make it 38-16.
"We didn't get pinned, and that's what kept the score in our favor," Blakeman said. "If we had given up pins, Jackson County could have gotten ahead and gotten momentum. When you lose it, the momentum becomes a factor psychologically. I knew that once we got to Danny (Gatt), we just had to pick up a pin. I told Joel that if Danny doesn't pin, it was up to him. But Danny wrestled his match, stayed in control and sealed the deal."
Even though the Eagles never had to rally from behind against Morgan County or Oconee County, they were hard-fought matches that could have gone either way until late.
But Blakeman sees that as a confidence booster.
"That worked out well for us," he said. "We needed those tough ones at the end because when we go to state, everybody is tough. I'm very excited and I'm glad that we kept our composure and they wrestled hard. They did what they had to do those last three matches. Hats off to our juniors and seniors; they've been phenomenal."
Against Morgan County, Eastside was not in control until the 11th bout when Durden scored a 7-5 win to make the team score 39-16.
"I knew they were going to be tough," Blakeman said. "The thing that got us was the first couple of kids won, but they didn't win by pin. That really kept it close early. Once we got through some of the early matches and we started getting pins, we started doing better. To me, pins are contagious. Once you see one or two guys do it, the other guys get fired up. Once Cody got us to 39, the most they could've come back with was 34. So we knew at that point that we had it won."
Lincoln Temple pulled off an important victory for Eastside against Oconee County at 215.
At the close of the first period, it looked like he was about to get pinned but was saved by the bell. Trailing 7-0, Lincoln Temple came back to take a 9-7 lead after the second period before winning his match 17-13.
Manny Fils can be reached at email@example.com.