Photo by Heather Middleton
By Brian Paglia
Don Williams witnessed the beginning.
Lovejoy's co-head coach was at Stockbridge in 2008 when one of his wrestlers, Shane McGraw, ranked third in the state, went up against a freshman from Jonesboro named Giovonte Ortiz.
McGraw won, but when he came back from the match, he looked at Williams and said, "Coach, I don't want to wrestle that kid anymore."
"(Ortiz) was an animal," Williams said. "He was so good then just because of his natural talent."
Little did Williams know how good Ortiz would become.
Now a senior at Lovejoy, Ortiz has transformed from a reluctant freshman wrestler into the heavy favorite to win a state title going into the Class AAAA Traditional Wrestling Tournament tomorrow at the Arena of Gwinnett Center. He is 53-0 at 140 pounds this season and determined to finish his high school career on top.
"I just feel unbeatable this year," Ortiz said. "I've worked so hard my senior year. I don't plan on letting anybody take it away from me."
In those words, Ortiz expresses a passion for wrestling he didn't have when he took up the sport for the first time as a freshman. Then, it was more about augmenting his skills in judo. He wanted to learn how to fight on the ground, so wrestling seemed like a natural fit.
"I didn't like (wrestling) at first," Ortiz said. "It grew on me."
It turned out all Ortiz needed was a jolt.
When he didn't cut his weight in time for the state tournament, Ortiz couldn't participate. Away from the sport, prevented from competing by his own shortcoming, Ortiz woke up to see what wrestling had to come to mean for him.
"I realized how important this sport really was to me. It hurt a lot," he said. "After that I just started working harder and harder. It just became something I love."
So Ortiz went to work, and it began to pay off. As a sophomore at Jonesboro, he made the state tournament and placed fourth at 130 pounds. Last season, after transferring to Lovejoy, Ortiz placed fifth at 140 pounds.
Under the tutelage of Williams and fellow co-head coach Kevin Jones, Ortiz feels he's received coaching from the best of both worlds. Ortiz calls Williams the "Drill Sergeant" for his emphasis on technique, while he credits Jones with developing his mental toughness.
But Ortiz brought his own unique skills to wrestling from the judo world, skills that have made him a dangerously well-rounded wrestler.
"Judo's a grappling sport," Ortiz said. "It's all throws, arm-bars, chokes and pins. So it involves a lot of foot work.
"When you're standing up, you want to get thrown to the ground. It's hard to get points on me because of the way I move when I'm standing up."
Williams added: "He's got throws that none of us taught him."
Ortiz would be the first state champion in school history, and just the third from Clayton County since 2000. The last was Terrance Smith from North Clayton, who won the state title at 189 pounds in 2007.
Williams has coached nine state champions in his prep coaching career, and he calls Ortiz one of the most skilled and humble wrestlers he's ever had.
"He's a coach's dream," Williams said. "He's a great kid. He's a great young man. He really is."