EC seniors leave their mark in final varsity efforts
by Chris Goltermann
Matthew Durham and Zack Gabriel fell just short of reaching the podium before they exited this weekend’s GHSA State Traditional Wrestling Tournament in their final varsity appearance.
But they made their mark on East Coweta’s program in more ways than one on Saturday.
With a host of young wrestlers watching from the stands from Chattahoochee High School, including at least one sibling, the two Indians seniors went out with two victories before leaving the varsity mat for a final time.
Durham capped off his senior year by finishing 31-7 after going 2-2 in a competitive 113-pound weight class. Gabriel posted the same record at 120 pounds, going from a ninth-place finisher at the West Sectionals that was fortunate enough to make state as an alternate, into a true contender in his weight class.
“It was more of a grinder tournament than it’s been in a long time,” Indians head coach Josh Herring said. “I can’t say enough about a wrestler like Gabriel to go from ninth place at sectionals to finish among the top eight in state. I think he proved he belonged.”
The 120-pound senior won two straight matches in the wrestlebacks after opening with a loss to West Forsyth’s Denver Stonecheck, headed to North Carolina. The Indian earned an 8-4 decision over Marietta’s Jenani Miller to close Friday, then shut out Hillgrove’s James Roberto, who entered the tournament with a 42-13 record.
Gabriel finished his final varsity season at 41-17 after a loss to third-place finisher Bryce Crew of Camden County. Stonecheck placed fifth.
“I have no complaints,” Herring said of his five qualifiers. “Man, they competed.”
Durham, who battled back at sectionals to put together a string of victories en route to a third-place finish, fought off elimination on Saturday to defeat Woodstock’s Tristan Watson with a 5-2 decision.
“He really grinded that one out,” Herring said of Durham. “To see a wrestler who never hit the mat before ninth grader somehow be among the top eight in the state in his final year, that’s pretty good.”
Durham’s two losses came against fourth-place finisher Aslan Kilic of Wheeler and fifth-place finisher Gio Fernandez of Archer, falling 15-7 to Kilic and then 6-4 to Fernandez in the wrestlebacks.
“That match was tight the whole way. He was chasing [Fernandez] down the last minute,” Herring said. “He had tied up our wrist. He had some tough breaks, but Matt took it like a man.”
Of East Coweta’s five state qualifiers, three expect to be back for next season at key spots in the lineup. Sophomore Dusty Nelson (106) went 1-1 and had his quest stopped by a 3-2 decision to Woodstock’s Alex Gomez.
Junior Kevin Lashley (160) and heavyweight Dawson Ellis were unable to break through with victories. Lashley dropped a pair of decisions after finishing third at the West Regionals while Ellis battled into the third round against Woodstock’s Daniel Benitez after a first-round matchup against eventual state finalist MJ Couzan of Archer.
“Those guys are coming back with lessons from the mat you just can’t teach,” Herring said. “Now that we have state qualifiers in the [wrestling] room, we can build off it.”
Northgate will look to build off its two state qualifiers from Class AAAAA this year in head coach John Waters’ debut as head coach.
Vikings Ryan McNeal (120) and Michael Martin (220) both had uphill battles in the AAAAA tournament at Loganville High, but fought through two days in respective weight classes.
McNeal was dealt a 11-3 decision to eventual state finalist JR Salemi of Cambridge, last year’s 113-pound state champion, but battled back to defeat Heath Suich of Harris County 10-4.
From there, the Northgate 120-pounder ran into eventual sixth-place finisher Muadh As-Siddig of Southwest DeKalb in a loss that ended his season.
At 220-pounds, Martin also dropped his opening match to an eventual state-finalist, Apalachee’s Matthew Moore. In the wrestlebacks, he battled deep into the third period before being pinned by Thomas County Central’s Neil Williams in 5:20.