County standouts ready to open state tournaments

by Chris Goltermann

With five days of rest and a current temperature now 30 degrees higher than last week’s icy mess, the high school wrestling season is set to conclude — better late than never.

Following the postponement of the Georgia High School Association’s Traditional State Championships and eventual changes in venue due to previous bookings at the Gwinnett Arena, qualifiers from East Coweta and Northgate will go their separate ways today as respective Class AAAAAA and AAAAA events open with immediate challenges for a majority of six representatives.

Five Indians including sophomore Dusty Nelson (106), senior Matthew Durham (113) and juniors Kevin Lashley (160) and Dawson Ellis (285) begin the AAAAAA tournament at Chattahoochee High, with Durham and Lashley each coming off third-place finishes at the West Sectionals prior to a winter storm that wiped out last week’s schedule.

East Coweta senior Zack Gabriel, who finished as an alternate at 120 pounds after finishing ninth at sectionals, learned that he made the tournament due to a withdrawal.

“It’s a good reward for him as a senior,” said Indians head coach Josh Herring. “You learn early on, it’s not how you start, but how you wrestle at the end.”

Representing Northgate at the Class AAAAA tournament at Loganville High are Ryan McNeal (120) and Michael Martin (220).

Both tournaments feature the top-16 wrestlers in respective weight classes after qualifying through the sectional level. The change of venue may be a bit of a disappointment as far as size, but the atmosphere provides what Herring called a “throwback” to the days when he wrestled at a time where the GHSA only used individual high schools as sites for state championship tournaments.

“There are times you can get lost in the volume of the place,” Herring said of Gwinnett Arena. “It’s going to be packed [at Chattahoochee]. If you make it to that final day, it’s just you under that one spotlight. I hope to be on the floor. I’ve been there. It can be a pressure moment. I had a coach tell me once pressure is a privilege. Enjoy it. I think understand it more now as a coach.”

Survival is as much a goal from round one today, with each victory moving athletes one step closer to a top finish. Two losses, however, signals the end of the road.

An extra week of preparation has allowed state qualifiers the opportunity to get some added work in the weight room, but “you’re not going to learn anything new at this point,” Herring said. “Mostly it’s polishing things off. We think we’ll be better prepared.”

Three lightweights in East Coweta’s wrestling room have been able to feed off one another considering each has unique styles.

At 106, Nelson has been technically sound, yet equally crafty on the mat while coming off a fifth-place finish at sectionals and carrying a 41-4 record into the state tournament. He’ll face North Forsyth junior Chase Tenety (43-18), with the winner likely to matchup against unbeaten Lambert standout Matthew Sheetz (44-0) in the second round.

“He’s not going to overpower anybody. But one minute he’s not there and the next he’s in front of you,” Herring said of Nelson, who got wrapped up in a cradle in the sectionals during one of his sectional losses to eventual champion Andrew Burpee of Habersham (38-1). “I think he can go in there with the perfect gunslinger mentality. You don’t want to be gunshy, but you want to be ready for anything.”

After struggling to cut weight, Durham battled back during the final day of sectionals to reel off four unanswered wins and place third at 113 pounds for the Indians while improving his record to 27-3. The senior will face Colquitt County’s Jordan Rosales (37-8) in today’s opening round and the winner could face Wheeler standout Aslan Kilic (35-1) with a chance at reaching the semifinals.

“The thing about him is he’s so athletic. He’s explosive and quick,” Herring added of Durham. “We talked about sectionals and he knows what he did wrong. But he came back strong that final day and took care of business.”

Gabriel gets his opportunity to continue his final varsity season and takes a 37-13 record into his opening match against West Forsyth freshman Denver Stonecheck (33-5) who won all three of his matches at the AAAAAA East Sectionals.

At 160, Lashley finished the West Sectionals with a string of four consecutive victories to finish third after being caught out of position following an aggressive move to open the tournament. He defeated an area champion and a runner-up on day two to be among the top-six seeds among contenders while improving his record to 27-9.

“He did a good job,” Herring said. “He’s definitely coming along.”

Lashley opens this weekend’s tournament against South Forsyth’s Brian Troye (42-19) with the round-one winner facing either Etowah’s Brandon Reibley (32-14) or Rockdale County’s Sean Mer.

Indians heavyweight Dawson Ellis is one of four county wrestlers that will open against sectional champions along with Gabriel and Northgate teammates McNeal and Miller.

Ellis forfeited his final two matches at sectionals as much as a strategy heading into the state tournament. The East Coweta junior, still now 28-5, faces Archer’s MJ Couzan (36-1) in today’s first round.

“If you want to be the best, you’re going to have to wrestle a No. 1 guy somewhere, whether it be at the start or the finish,” Herring said.

Northgate’s program, which is coming off four consecutive individual state titles from current University of Virginia freshman Tyler Askey, has two hopefuls in today’s Class AAAAA state tournament at Loganville High.

At 120 pounds, McNeal faces J.R. Salemi of Cambridge, a state champion last year at 113 pounds.

The Viking came through with a key victory at the West Sectionals over Area 4-AAAAA rival Anthony Hecht of Ola to avenge a previous loss in the area tournament finals.

Miller also picked up a key pin over Hardaway’s Cedric Johnson to keep his season alive before finishing eighth at sectionals. He opens today’s state tournament against Matthew Moore of Apalachee, a senior who has committed to North Carolina.

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