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Climbing to the Top

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

They don't breed mat wrestlers at Lovejoy. Coach Kevin Jones sends his wrestlers around the track first, running 400-, 200- and 100-meter dashes. He sends them to the bleachers of Twelve Oaks Stadium to run up and down steps. At Lovejoy, legs are the focus.

"Those mat wrestlers are tough and are good at what they do," Jones said. "But we're good at what we do too."

Indeed, the Wildcats have had few peers among wrestling in Clayton County over the past three seasons. Going into Saturday's Clayton County Varsity Tournament at Jonesboro, Lovejoy is the three-time defending champ and heavily favored to win its fourth-straight county title.

But Lovejoy's aspirations are higher now.

In past seasons, Lovejoy relished its role as the only Clayton County team at the traditional state meet, but managed to have one standout wrestler place with an impressive weekend.

Lovejoy now possesses a collection of wrestlers that have elevated the Wildcats' ambitions. Eleven Lovejoy wrestlers made the Class AAAAA traditional meet last season. Of the seven that return, only one (Gio Ortiz) is a senior.

"This is a strong wrestling team," junior Derek Holmes said. "Our freshman year, we had three good seniors and a whole bunch of freshman. Now we have a whole bunch of juniors who know what they're doing. ... We have 11 weight classes of great wrestlers. I can see 11 people going to state this year."

That group is highlighted by Ortiz, a superb athlete who is ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA at 140 pounds. Ortiz's season already includes a first-place finish at the South Metro tournament, where he was voted most outstanding light-weight wrestler and took home best finals match honors for his 3-1 win over Locust Grove's Zack Brown.

But Lovejoy's talent is spread up and down its lineup. From senior David Washington, who came into the season ranked No. 7 among heavyweights and placed third at South Metro; to Cassius Williams (112) and Michael Whitney (119), a pair of light-weights that Jones said have shown marked improvement from a year ago.

"They've done a great job facing people that are really, really good," Jones said. "They've beaten some real good guys from some top programs."

In between, junior Corey Alexander (145) entered the season ranked No. 5; junior Josh Roye (171) won his first tournament in his first year on varsity at the Carpet Classic at Dalton High School; and Holmes (135) is a returning area champion.

But having a full lineup has been a challenge so far this season. Lovejoy has been battling injuries, and too many wrestlers have had problems making weights. Jones said he expects the Wildcats to get their full lineup back in January.

Even with incomplete lineups -- sometimes as small as seven wrestlers -- Lovejoy placed third at the Carpet Classic and second at the Tara Classic behind Class AAAAA Lowndes.

"I think for us, we have to be healthy and we have to score points and not get pinned in tough matches," Jones said. "I think if we score points, we're going to be pretty tough, if we score and attack.

"We got a shot. We've got a legitimate shot."

Wrestling spotlight: Lovejoy

Last season: The Wildcats again distinguished themselves as the class of wrestling in Clayton County, winning their second-straight area championship and third-straight county championship.

Possible state champions: Corey Alexander (145), Derek Holmes (135), Gio Ortiz (140) and David Washington (285).

Needs to step up: Cassius Williams (112) and Michael Whitney (119) got experience at the state meet last season and appear poised to take the next step toward placing.

Why they can win it: When the Wildcats are making weight and feature a full lineup, they have a collection of talent that could sneak up on teams. Ortiz is ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA.

Clayton County Varsity Tournament

When: Saturday, 9 a.m.

Where: Jonesboro High School

Team to beat: Lovejoy

The Wildcats are the three-time defending champion, and it doesn't appear they'll relinquish their title this season. No team in Clayton County features as deep a collection of wrestlers. Lovejoy has seven returning wrestlers that made the Class AAAAA traditional tournament last season; six of those were sophomores who are now juniors.

Sleeper team: Mundy's Mill

The Tigers aren't as deep in talent as Lovejoy, but they aren't too far behind. Despite the loss of state-placer Courtney Freeman to graduation and Caleb Culbreath to Dutchtown, Mundy's Mill can look to Teyantay Mitchell (135 pounds) and James Thomas (152) for leadership and points Saturday.

Five wrestlers to watch

Corey Alexander, Lovejoy

The junior 145-pounder might be hampered by an injury, but he's worth talking about. The younger brother of former Lovejoy standout Tobias Harris, Alexander was an Area 4-AAAAA champion last season and came into this season ranked No. 5 at 145 in Class AAAA.

Daemon Garvin, Morrow

Garvin was one match away from advancing out of the area traditional meet to sectionals last season, when he lost to Lovejoy's Hondo Carter for the fourth and final spot at 215 pounds. Garvin might be tops in his weight class now that Mundy's Mill's Courtney Freeman, who placed fifth at the state meet last season, graduated.

Teyantay Mitchell, Mundy's Mill

Mitchell had a great rivalry with Lovejoy's Derek Holmes last season, when the Tigers 135-pounder was runner-up to Holmes at the area traditional meet. One of seven Tigers who made the state meet last season, Mitchell can be expected to be Holmes' strongest competitor again.

Gio Ortiz, Lovejoy

Ortiz is a superb athlete with big-match experience and even bigger expectations. After transferring from Jonesboro last season, Ortiz placed fifth at 140 pounds at the Class AAAAA traditional meet and entered this season ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA.

James Thomas, Mundy's Mill

Thomas was close to breaking through last season, when he was Area 4-AAAAA champ at 152 pounds and advanced to the Class AAAAA traditional tournament. Thomas won two matches before falling Jamie Hertica from powerhouse Collins Hill. Thomas should be the favorite at 152 this Saturday.