Published Thursday, February 14, 2013
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
For the three underclassmen from Coweta County headed to this week’s Class AAAAAA Wrestling Championships, a chance to compete among the top 16 athletes in their respective weight classes for the first time is all about the opportunity.
“It’s proves a point,” said East Coweta junior Matthew Durham, who finished sixth at 113 pounds at last weekend’s West Sectionals by winning four matches, the final three in the wrestlebacks to advance. “There are some people who don’t think you can do it.”
Outside of their respective coaches, Durham, Indians 106-pound teammate Dusty Nelson and Newnan 220-pound sophomore Christian Shellabarger were all relative unknowns headed into last week and managed to survive the gauntlet of the West Sectionals, which pitted the Area 3 qualifiers against the best opponents from Cobb, north Fulton, Cherokee and parts of Gwinnett.
“When you get to this point, everybody’s great,” said East Coweta head coach Josh Herring, who despite taking just two of his athletes to state, still had a half-dozen athletes in the wrestling room on the final day of practice for the 2012-13 season on Wednesday. “But here, you only have to be great for one day. That’s it, so you never know. They’ve earned the right to be here. They’ve put in the effort. Now it’s time to have fun.”
Getting through the sectionals was as much a proving ground for the trio. Just a freshman, Nelson entered as an area champion and lost a tough 4-2 decision in the second round to eventual fourth-place finisher Aaron Powell. He bounced back in the wrestlebacks for a 12-6 win over Malik Saunders of Meadowcreek to qualify for state.
“I’m excited about it,” said Nelson, whose older brother Eric was also an area champion with the Indians program as an underclassman before injury cut short his senior year in 2011-12.
Watching, and competing against his older sibling, may have only increased the younger Nelson’s wrestling knowledge having been around the East Coweta practice facility.
“His goal this year was to make the state tournament and he did that,” Herring said. “He’s still a young fifteen (year-old). He’s not really that mature physically yet. He’s only going to get better in the years to come. We weigh him in his clothes and he comes in at 106.1. He’s come in and done a great job for us.”
Nelson, who has compiled a 41-7 record, opens today’s first round against Rockdale’s Alonzo Allen (38-4).
Both Indian wrestlers were among a group of 11 underclassmen in the starting lineup this season, one that has been as much a 180-degree turn in momentum for the program. It’s reinvigorated Herring, who a year after dealing with some disciplinary issues as well as struggling with his own health, still found himself with 29 athletes heading into the final JV tournament of the 2012-13 season.
After losing to Roswell 70-0 in the state duals, the Indians won all three matches against Hornets opponents last weekend. It came after the team wrestled both at the South Metro and Slam Sham tournaments, the latter of which featured a lineup that included three state champions in a field of 20 schools.
“That’s a big sign of how hard those kids have worked since then,” Herring said. “Of those 29, I lose three [to graduation].”
Durham will be another of those returners while gaining vital experience at the highest level this weekend. After finishing second at area, the junior went 3-2 in the sectionals including back-to-back matches facing elimination. Durham scored a first-round in over Benard Robinson of Campbell before a 6-2 win over Roswell’s Robert Woolley in a doze of revenge from the loss in the Class AAAAAA State Duals.
At 42-7 overall, the Indian junior opens the 113-pound tournament against Camden’s Chris Bartek (34-8), who he’s seen before.
“He’s familiar with a couple of those guys,” said Herring of a bracket that pits the winner between Bartek and Durham against Area 3 foe Keywan Gaines of Douglas County or Brookwood’s Drew McCorkle. “I could see him potentially getting to the semifinals.”
That’s where Newnan’s Shellabarger found himself after Friday’s opening-two rounds of the West Sectionals in the 220-pound division in his first year as a varsity wrestler. He was the only Cougar to survive out of 14 area placers, as much a sign of the level of competition.
The sophomore, who primarily competed on JV as a freshman, got a huge boost of confidence from a pair of sub-minute pins to open the West Sectionals that put him in the semifinals. He then took North Gwinnett’s Jalen Brooks the full six-minutes in a 4-1 loss, with Brooks going on to win the sectional.
“I think it showed that I could do it more than anything. They said [Brooks] was ranked fourth in the state,” Shellabarger said. “The coaches have really helped me this year. Probably more mentally with preparing [for matches]. I’m just hoping to go there and represent my school to the best of my ability.”
GHSA Traditional State Wrestling Tournament
Where: Macon Centreplex
Admission: $7 today
Friday/Saturday: $10 day
Total tournament pass: $24
Class AAAAA: Northgate is represented by senior Tyler Askey (170, 39-0) and junior Michael Geres (106, 37-10)
Class AAAAAA: Newnan is represented by sophomore Christian Shellabarger (220); East Coweta is represented by freshman Dusty Nelson (41-9) and 113-pound junior Matthew Durham (42-7).
Class A: Landmark Christian is represented by freshman Payton Hayes (120).