By Zack Huffman
It is Wednesday afternoon as coach Gene Johnson prepares to start practice for the three remaining Jonesboro High School state wrestling contenders.
With the state tournament just one day away, Johnson watches two of his wrestlers, Giovante Ortiz and Octavian Stephens grapple on the red mats that cover the floors of the science-turned-wrestling room that Johnson hopes will one day host practice for a county-wide wrestling club.
The high school wrestling programs in Clayton have endured a series of difficult problems in the last few years.
Recently the majority of teams in the county have not been able to fill out complete 14-class varsity rosters.
At the Clayton County Tournament, Lovejoy was the only school that was able to put wrestlers on the mat from every single weight class.
Accreditation is an easy explanation for the problems the county faces in filling wrestling rosters, but problems also existed last season while the school board still had its SACS certification intact.
Perhaps the largest obstacle Clayton County faces is remaining competitive while lacking wrestling feeder programs.
The absence of county club wrestling and middle school programs has prevented Clayton from attaining the level of competition enjoyed by neighbors and traditional state contenders Henry and Fayette Counties.
"Our kids come out for the first time as freshmen and sophomores. We have first-year seniors come out some times," said Johnson. "Very rarely do you see a kid on a high school football team and it's his first time on the field."
Keeping coaches in the county has also been a difficulty for Clayton. Forest Park's wrestling program was on the brink of destruction when John Patterson took over the school's wrestling program last year.
This season, three of the county's programs premiered new head coaches, including Bobby Bynam at Mundy's Mill, Johnson at Jonesboro and Peneil Dany at North Clayton.
"Being able to retain coaches so the kids get some consistency," was what Morrow coach Maso Moon listed among the county's current needs. "Kids lose interest and don't usually have the loyalty they would have for a coach that has been there five or six years."
One of the few coaches who has remained loyal to the county is Lovejoy Athletic Director and head football coach Al Hughes.
From the posters in his office to the many miniature helmets along his wall, there is no doubt that Hughes is a football coach. But an eye for detail will catch the red-stoned championship ring Hughes proudly wears on his left hand.
Hughes earned that ring coaching the 1981 Jonesboro Cardinals to a state wrestling championship.
There was a time, according to Hughes, when Clayton County was a hot bed for wrestling dominance.
Wrestlers experienced greater success by participating in wrestling programs outside of high school such as the Atlanta Takedown Club, which was based out of Jonesboro.
In Hughes' 18 years coaching wrestling, eight of his wrestlers were state champs, while 28 were state placers. The Cardinals remained within the top ten of the state for an entire decade and placed first and second overall in the state in 1981 and 1982, respectively.
"We had some success, but wrestling was different back then," he said. "It was a lot more competitive statewide, because nobody had feeder programs."
With the institution of middle school feeder programs in many of the today's most competitive counties, many of the wrestling clubs died out, including the Atlanta Takedown Club.
Although the disappearance of club wrestling hurt the level of competition in some counties, Hughes believes the implementation of middle school programs has the potential to create a greater number of opportunities for aspiring student athletes.
"Not everybody can afford to go to the recreation department and pay the money," said Hughes. "If it were offered in the public school setting where it was funded through matches it would be more widely available. That's the only place it can start."
Many of the coaches in the county are in agreement that feeder programs are vital to Clayton's success on the mat.
"If Clayton County could get a middle school or youth program we could easily become a dominant force in the state," said Patterson. "When you wrestle kids who've had ten years of working on their technique and you've only had one. Those years of advantage can be a killer."
Kevin Jones, who coaches wrestling for Lovejoy High School, firmly believes if more people come to understand the benefits in wrestling, the greater popularity the sport will experience.
"The biggest thing about that is being able to sell to county directors that this would be an efficient, beneficial and character-building sport to those kids and parents," he said.
According to Jones, wrestling is an excellent resource for teaching students about discipline.
"In my numerous years of coaching, I've recruited the kids who got in trouble," said Jones, who currently serves as In School Suspension Coordinator for Lovejoy. "I met them when they came to ISS. I asked them to come wrestle. Some of those kids never got in trouble again."
"Some of those kids I have now," he added with a laugh.
Although Johnson and Hughes are in agreement that feeder programs are necessary, Johnson believes a club program would be a more viable option then middle school programs for Clayton County.
"I think the easiest solution would be to start a club team," said Johnson. "We can start that right here through USA Wrestling by getting a charter and a coach."
Johnson's statement should come as no surprise, considering he is actively working towards creating the club program he described as the easiest avenue to follow.
"We wanted to give them something right here in the county that's accessible and affordable," said Johnson. "Hopefully by June or July we should have everything up and running."
In order to officially establish a wrestling club through USA Wrestling, Johnson will have to create a charter and secure the commitment of a coach who does not already coach high school wrestlers. Once those are taken care of, all Johnson will need is a body of students willing to test themselves on the mat.
"People seem to find a way to do whatever they are going to do if they want it bad enough," said Moon. "If we have an avenue where we could get youth involved no matter at which level, it would be a plus for the sport. It would be a plus for the community. These Kids need something to do. Everybody doesn't play football or basketball."