Among Rockdale County senior Luis Ponce's top goals for the 2008-09 wrestling season were to win the South Metro championship and to finish his four-year career with a Class AAAA state crown.
Although Ponce was unable to capture the South Metro title, he did connect with his main target, winning the 125-pound state championship at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth.
After finishing second in state at 125 as a junior, Ponce was adamant that nobody would work harder in the 2008-09 campaign.
"When I lost last year, I was upset, and I told myself that I would do double the work, work hard over the summer and do everything in my power to achieve my goal," he said.
Ponce bested Dequan Warner of Southwest DeKalb 12-5 in the finals to win the state title, the first for a Rockdale County competitor since the early 1990s. He scored second-period pins against Jordy Henson of Woodland in the first round and against Cody Coleman of Cass in the semifinal round and defeated Ola's Zac Brown 8-2 in the second round.
"It wasn't easy for him," Rockdale County wrestling coach Craig Hargrove said. "But he was definitely focused and determined that nobody was going to stop him."
Aside from the usual nerves an elite athlete experiences before a big event, Ponce said he was determined not to let down in any of his state matches, particularly in the finals against Warner.
"I had been told (Warner) was the opponent to look out for," he said. "I'd heard he'd moved down from 130 and people told me to watch out for him. I didn't ignore that warning, but I didn't want to let him get into my head or to get any more nervous than I already was. I was mentally tough and overcame my fear of losing. Once I overcame that, I was able to make him wrestle my style."
And prior to state, Ponce was able to gain a measure of revenge for his only loss of the season. After losing to Union Grove's Ryan Devita in overtime in the finals of the South Metro tournament in mid-December, Ponce was able to defeat Devita in a tri-meet in early January.
"(Devita) beat me early in the season, but I beat him on points later," said Ponce, who completed his senior season with an astounding 49-1 record.
Ponce was one of four Bulldogs to place at the state meet, enabling Rockdale County to finish in sixth place, just 5.5 points out of fourth place, where Dalton and South Effingham tied at 75.5 points. Effingham was the team titlist with 99.5 points, followed by Whitewater (81 points) and Tucker (78.5 points).
Jake Morris finished fourth in the 103-pound division, Kafuba Donzon finished third at 152 and Lloyd Martel came in sixth place at 171.
"This is my fourth year coaching at Rockdale County, and it was the best season we've had," Hargrove said. "We had four great seniors in Luis, Kafuba (Donzon), Jimmy Brown (160) and Mohammed Bois (145). They were here together all four years and they all had common goals and common work ethics. They pushed and supported each other in and out of wrestling, which is important. Hopefully their leadership will carry over into next year because those four really set a great example."
Hargrove said he has rarely seen a competitor like Ponce when it came to preparation.
"Luis has a work ethic that's second to none," he said. "He's a very determined individual - once he sets him mind to something, he's going to accomplish it. He's a very hard-nosed, in-your-face wrestler. He just never lets up. And he did a great job with watching his weight. He's been doing that all four years, so he didn't have any problems this year. In fact, he may have been a pound or two under at the state tournament."
"This was my best year by far," added Ponce, who began wrestling as an eighth grader at Conyers Middle School. "I came into the season with a lot of confidence, and I knew that I'd have a target on my back all year. I knew guys would be coming after me, so I had to push myself to keep my distance from them."
Although his high school wrestling career has concluded, there's still plenty of mat work left for Ponce. He'll compete in the Senior Nationals at Virginia Beach, Va., in early April and has several colleges interested in him once he graduates from Rockdale.
The senior Bulldog also just began practicing with the Rockdale soccer team, a sport he's played for the past three years.
"My first soccer practice (was last Tuesday)," said Ponce, a midfielder. "They gave me a week off after wrestling to rest a little, but I'm ready to go. And for the next two months, there will be a lot of good, hard work. I'll be going to soccer practice and then I'll have wrestling practice."
Ponce said he wants to major in health and physical education in college and plans to be a teacher and wrestling coach.