By Brian Paglia
In a forgotten corner classroom of Locust Grove High School, a group of 35 middle school wrestlers were silent. All eyes were on the middle circle of a wrestling mat where their future coach, Nick Fordham, demonstrated a technique.
If there is one thing Fordham learned after serving as an assistant coach under Joey DiNino at Union Grove for the past nine years, it's that a wrestling program's longevity is secured at the lower rungs.
"That's the key to a good program," Fordham said. "Preparing these middle school kids, recruiting those athletes that are walking the hallways while they're young. Once they get to high school priorities change."
So Fordham has taken an assistant coach position on the middle school football team, just as DiNino does at Union Grove, to better recruit athletes. Parents have already proposed a junior Wildcats wrestling program for elementary students for next season.
While coaches at established high school programs often leave their mddle school team to its own coaching staff, Fordham is taking a hands-on approach as he builds Locust Grove in its inaugural season.
Indeed, things are moving fast for Fordham and the Wildcats. Coaches voted for Locust Grove to host the prestigious South Metro Tournament this weekend. The GHSA gave the new school the chance to be a host site for the State Sectionals.
"It's exciting," Fordham said. "Obviously, we want nothing less than a state championship in the next couple of years. We're not down here just playing around."
Fordham, whose frame still resembles that of a wrestler, competed at Eagle's Landing under Don Williams, who built state champion programs at Eagle's Landing and Stockbridge. Fordham holds the same aspirations for Locust Grove, and so do his athletes.
"Usually first-year schools you don't hear much from unless they have a state-placer or a state champion," Locust Grove junior Bryan Sorrows said, "and so that's what we're looking for this year.
"We want to get our name out there and let everyone know that we're not just a bunch of kids that they can get out there and whoop up on. We want them to know that we're out here to play."
"We want to make standards high," Wildcats junior Zach Brown said.
Brown and Sorrows, along with his twin brother Blake, give Locust Grove a respectable core lineup right away. At the Panther Invitational this past weekend, Bryan finished third in his 145-pound weight class. Brown is a two-time state placer during his two years at Ola.
In fact, the bulk of Locust Grove's roster is filled with wrestlers pulled from Ola's school district. Most have known each other since middle school or before.
"That helps a lot," Sorrows said, "because we have a good team chemistry.
We know what we each need to work on. We all know how to motivate each other."
Brown and Sorrows said they felt no trepidation moving from Ola, for they knew of Fordham's reputation.
"He added to a good program at Union Grove and I knew he was a good coach," Brown said. "So I was looking forward to it."
And after passing up head coaching offers from numerous other schools in Cobb and Henry counties, Fordham says he's found a perfect fit.
"It's got good parent support down here," Fordham said, "and these kids are hard-nosed. They like to grit things out. These kids on the south end of the county, they're a different group of kids."