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Southern Crescent wrestlers fix gaze on titles


Jeff Hurndon Photography
Union Grove’s Griffin Higginbotham (left) won the Class AAA championship at 103 pounds last year, and has moved up to 120 this season, where he hopes to prove himself just as formidable this weekend in the championships at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Jeff Hurndon Photography Union Grove’s Griffin Higginbotham (left) won the Class AAA championship at 103 pounds last year, and has moved up to 120 this season, where he hopes to prove himself just as formidable this weekend in the championships at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

The high school wrestling world — or at least Georgia’s small corner of it — converges today upon The Arena at Gwinnett Center, where the traditional state championships begin.

It is where Henry County’s Dalvin Tomlinson begins the last leg of his quest for three consecutive heavyweight state championships, where Union Grove’s Griffin Higginbotham tries to prove he’s every bit as good at 120 pounds as he was last year at a state championship-winning 103 and where Locust Grove plays the numbers game and hopes to come out on top as a team.

Tomlinson is listed as 25-0 this season — there were some matches he missed while on football recruiting business — and takes on Woodward Academy’s Richard Wang in the first round.

Higginbotham will first meet Northside-Columbus’ Jarrett Marshall.

Higginbotham’s teammate, Hunter Gamble, is one of four Southern Crescent wrestlers who finished second last year and have designs on becoming king of the mountain in their weight classes.

There’s Jarred Benefield from Locust Grove at 138, Shakeno Jenkins from Stockbridge at 145 and Peyton Durflinger from Ola at 120, all of whom were runners-up last year.

Benefield, who lost to White County’s two-time champion Caleb Morris last year in the 130 final, opens against Heritage-Catoosa’s Mike Shepard. Neither Benefield nor anybody else has to worry about facing Morris, who had moved up to 145 before being dismissed from the team, according to a White County official.

Jenkins lost to Locust Grove’s Zack Brown last year at 140, but Brown has graduated.

Durflinger lost to Pope’s Cameron Munsey last year in the 112 final, but this year Durfinger is at 120 and Munsey at 113. Durflinger has a Southern Crescent opponent in Lovejoy’s Michael Whitney in the first round.

Gamble’s coach, Kevin McGonigle, calls the 160-pound wrestler “the hands-down favorite to win that class.” Gamble’s chances improved when Pope’s defending state champion, Brooks Climmons — the guy who beat Gamble in the 160 final last year — missed his area tournament for what his coach termed “personal reasons,” thereby eliminating him from any chance of repeating.

McGonigle would’ve loved to see Gamble get a rematch, praising his wrestler thusly: “Nobody’s done more work since 365 days ago, when he decided he wasn’t going to be a runner-up again.”

Gamble, Higginbotham, Tomlinson and Jenkins are four of the 10 Southern Crescent wrestlers who enter the state tournament as No. 1 seeds. The others are Peter Baus (126), Chaz Brown (152) and Tyler Rapes (195), all of Locust Grove, Jimmy Carman of Ola (182), Thomas Daniels of Stockbridge (170) and Scott Coleman of Jonesboro (126).

Locust Grove is sending 10 wrestlers — and possibly two alternates — and hopes to improve on its third-place finish from last year. An impressive showing in the sectionals at West Laurens gave coach Nick Fordham a shot of optimism, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of winning a state championship.

The second round through the semifinals will take place Friday and the championships will be Saturday. The Georgia High School Association web site says WSB-TV will televise Saturday’s finals from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.