By Brian Paglia
They came to him over the summer with no experience on a mat, just a shy inclination that wrestling might suit them. So Lovejoy wrestling coach Kevin Jones taught them just the basic moves. Though these freshmen would be mixed with talented and experienced upper-weight wrestlers, Jones resigned this season to be part of the building process that would some day, he hoped, give Lovejoy its first appearance as a team in a state tournament.
But things happened ahead of schedule, thanks in part to that group of freshmen. Their development is a crucial reason the Wildcats face Newton County in the first round of the GHSA Duals State Tournament at 8:30 a.m., Lovejoy's first-ever appearance in the team-oriented tournament.
"This is something that Lovejoy has never done," Jones said. "I put a lot of stock in this tournament."
Jones didn't put too much stock in this season before it began. The Wildcats were bereft of experience in the lower weights, coping with the graduation of several wrestlers.
In came Cassius Williams, Michael Whitney, Xavier Hutchinson and Derek Holmes, freshmen whose primary focus had been playing jayvee football. They came with a ravenous competitive spirit and enough naivety (Jones calls them his "fearless munchkins") that meets against Collins Hill, Parkview, Peachtree Ridge and Grayson - all state tournament qualifiers - didn't seem so daunting.
"They're very tough-minded kids," Jones said. "They don't have an appetite for losing, and they're very scrappy. They just go out and wrestle. They honestly don't care if the kid is a national champion. They just want to wrestle."
Together the group helped solidify the lower-weight classes on the team, what Jones anticipated would be the team's greatest weakness. Along with senior and two-time state qualifier Tony Grisby (125) emerged freshman Corey Alexander (140), who went 28-9 and was Clayton County champion. Along the way, Lovejoy won its second consecutive Clayton County championship and captured its first-ever Area 4-AAAAA duals championship.
The young group will be tested by Newton County, a team perennially respected for the strength of its lower-weight wrestlers.
"We're certainly not going to overlook those guys," Jones said. "They're very scrappy. Pretty good on the mat; they're pretty good mat wrestlers. We have to be good on our feet, and we have to score quickly."
If the Wildcats win, they'll likely face a Collins Hill team ranked nationally and No. 1 in the state. But Lovejoy's presence in the tournament has forced Jones to amend his expectations. Participating will not be enough.
"There's so much we can learn from being one of the top 16 teams in the state," Jones said. "My goal was to be one of the top 16 teams, but now we want to beat somebody at the state tournament.
"So this tournament, to me, with my program right now, this means a lot."