By Brian Paglia
Everything had to go just right for Locust Grove, which almost never happens for a first-year wrestling program. The Wildcats' top wrestlers had to pin their opponents instead of merely win their matches at the Area 4-AAA duals meet Monday. They had to overcome forfeiting three weight classes, for few first-year programs have that luxury.
Everything had to go right. And it did.
Locust Grove defeated Woodland on the Wolfpack's mats, taking second at the area duals meet and qualifying for this weekend's team dual wrestling championships in Macon, which start Friday at noon.
"We wrestled outstanding throughout the day," Locust Grove coach Nick Fordham said. "It was probably the best day of wrestling that we've had by far."
Four other teams from the Southern Crescent -- Union Grove, Lovejoy, Stockbridge and Henry County -- also qualified in their respective classifications.
Ola, who was a heavy favorite in the Class AAAA duals, originally qualified for the state duals meet as Area 4-AAAA champions, but was disqualified for undisclosed reasons. Stockbridge replaced the Mustangs by virtue of the Tigers third place finish at the area duals meet Monday.
"It's a pretty sore subject around here," Ola athletic director Curt Miller said. "We've been working on this for two days and just want to make sure we do the right, just do what we're supposed to do."
But back to Locust Grove, a program comprised of several wrestlers who attended Ola last season. It goes in as the 13th-seeded team facing off against West Laurens, a consistent top-5 program in Class AAA, but one Fordham thinks they stand a chance against.
"We're certainly excited to be in. We manage to match up somewhat decent with them," he said. "Class AAA, behind Class AAAAA, in my opinion is the toughest classification. There's 10 very solid team and we happen to run into one the very first round."
Fordham says this state duals meet will be about the experience his young team accumulates. Without enough depth up and down its lineup, Locust Grove will be forced to forfeit too many matches.
But to experience the state tournament environment should be valuable, especially for the five wrestlers Fordham feels has a chance to place at the state traditional tournament in February.
"The goal is not to go down and win a state championship," Fordham said. "It's to get some quality mat time and prepare us for the state (traditional) tournament in February."
Henry County coach Marty Hutsell is also realistic about his team's chances. Though the Warhawks get a favorable match-up against East Laurens in the first round of the Class AA dual championships, their inexperience may be too much to overcome.
Of Henry County's 14 wrestlers, nine are brand new this season. Hutsell says his team is athletic, but still has more to learn about wrestling. That's led him to temper his expectations heading into Friday.
"Anything we get down there I'll take, but we're not good enough to win it," Hutsell said. "But it would be nice to bring home a top-4 place. I'm a realist. That's our goal is to bring home a top-4, and that might be stretching it a bit."
Lovejoy, unlike Henry County, brings a team steeped in experience. Twelve Wildcats wrestlers return from last year's state tournament team.
That gives Lovejoy coach Kevin Jones great comfort heading into the Wildcats first-round match against Kennesaw Mountain.
"The greatest part about it is we have some young kids that are familiar with what we're walking into," Jones said. "I've got 10 to 12 that know what they're walking into and that's a good feeling. They're not wide-eyed, and I think we're going to be able to compete."
Jones said Kennesaw Mountain offers a test against a team with similar strengths to the Wildcats. Both teams are strong in the middle weights, making those matches the most critical.
But Jones feels there's another advantage: Lovejoy is overlooked by opponents due merely to the fact they are from Clayton County.
"I think we're still in the mode of wanting to show that although we don't have a big feeder program like the other schools we're competing against, top to bottom I think we show we're not afraid to compete," Jones said. "As a matter of fact, we relist the fact that, year, we're the underdog and alot of people overlook and don't pay attention to us. We kind of like that."
Union Grove will face off against Centennial in the Class AAAAA bracket. Stockbridge faces Loganville in Class AAAA.