Mat masters
Trio of Eagles sets high marks

COVINGTON - Joel Stafford, Trevor Bailey and Jonathan Palmer made Eastside history becoming the first time three individual wrestlers won state championships in the same season.

Stafford made his win at 125-pounds even more historic becoming the Eagles' only two-time state champion.

"For us, it's exciting to have that many kids reach the pinnacle of their sport," Eastside head coach Brandon Blakeman said. "To have that many kids that decided at one point to put in the amount of work that a lot of kids don't know how to do, or aren't willing to do, it's something."

When you look at the three state champions, one can easily see that while they are the best in their weight division in Class AAA, they have their own style.

Stafford is a very technical wrestler while Bailey, who won at 140-pound class, is very intense and relentless on the mat.

Both Stafford and Bailey are aggressive in their own way while Palmer, the 160-pound champion, is more methodical and defensive on the mat.

"It's good because it shows the younger ones that you don't have to wrestle in one particular style. You have to find a style that suits you," Blakeman said.

Even though it's nice to have three state champions, Blakeman really isn't surprised his seniors accomplished what they did.

While Stafford and Bailey were picked from the beginning of the season to win, Palmer's name was mentioned as a top contender in a division with no real front-runner.

While all three are champions, they also bring something different to the team.

Stafford brings something that Blakeman has not seen in his time as Eastside's head coach - a true dedication to the sport.

"He brought a culture of wrestling that we hadn't seen before. He was a three-time finalist and two-time state champ," he said. "It just shows you that if you want it and you put in the work and are willing to make the sacrifices, how far you can go and what you can achieve and accomplish."

Stafford won his first state championship as a sophomore taking the top spot at 103 in Class AAAA.

He finished second last season at 119 in AAAA before winning his second title, at 125, this year.

Becoming a two-time champion is what kept him focused and driven.

"I definitely had that goal in mind, for sure. The motivation was just to succeed in wrestling. I try to succeed in everything I do in life," Stafford said.

"When I won in my sophomore year, I wanted to be a three-timer. Coming up short my junior year, I really wanted to win in my senior year to become Eastside's first two-time state champion, and it all worked out."

Stafford will continue wrestling at the next level at Liberty University where he hopes to become an All-American.

"I want to set my goals high," he said. "It gives me something to look forward to."

Like Stafford, Bailey also felt like he had some unfinished business after coming in second in state at 135 his junior year.

He decided after the end of last season that it would not happen again and made up for it by going that extra distance.

"I knew I had to go to extra practices on the weekdays. We'd leave practice (at Eastside) and to (The Wrestling Center) and practice against better competition," Bailey said. "If you wrestle with the best pretty soon you start to become the best."

It was easy to tell that Bailey meant business this year on the mat. The look in his eye and the intensity on the mat quickly let everyone know that the state championship went through him.

When Bailey is on the mat, he only has one thing in mind. "I think about just whooping the dude," he said. "I go out there and try to win."

While he plans on wrestling at the collegiate level, he's still weighing his options.

"I definitely plan on wrestling in college, somewhere. There are several colleges I'm looking at right now," Bailey said.

Like a tiger stalking its prey, Palmer waits until his opponent makes the first move before he jumps on him.

"I find it easier to wrestle when I know what they're going to do. If they do something I can counter, I usually counter it and take it from there," he said.

Even though most wrestlers like to make the first move, Palmer likes to wait for them to expose their weakness.

"He's very patient," Blakeman said. "He doesn't initiate the action, he allows his opponents to, but he's so good with his defense that he frustrates people and allows them to make mistakes. When they do make mistakes, he's able to score his points."

Coming up short last season was also a big motivater for Palmer.

After finishing sixth at 171 in Class AAAA, he dropped down to 160 and started working for the gold from there.

"I wanted to be a state champion," Palmer said. "I just made sure that I trained harder than they did and wrestle to my best ability."

Palmer is going to accept a wrestling scholarship to Mercer next year.

When asked who would win if they were all in the same weight class, there was an eerie silence as the three looked at each other like a staredown in a western movie before Stafford broke the silence.

"If we're all in the same weight class, I don't know," he said. "I've been wrestling longer and have a little more technique but Trevor comes at you hard. It would be interesting."

Manny Fils can be reached at manny.fils@newtoncitizen.com.