Jeff Hurndon Photography
Union Grove junior Griffin Higginbotham, defending Class AAAA 103 champion, is 35-3 with 18 pins this season, going into the Area 3-AAAA duals tournament this weekend at McIntosh.
Wrestling season gets serious now. Area duals tournaments involving Southern Crescent teams will go on this weekend — at Forest Park, at Eagle’s Landing, at McIntosh — a precursor to the state tournament the following weekend in Macon.
The bull’s-eyes are certain to be on Lovejoy, Locust Grove and Ola.
Lovejoy goes to the 4-AAAA tournament at Forest Park at much closer to full strength than it was weeks ago in the county tournament. The Wildcats were missing several wrestlers who were still playing in the football playoffs, including Nathaniel Norwood, a state qualifier from last season.
The Wildcats put on a strong performance at the Fayette Christmas Tournament, finishing fifth out of 32 teams.
“We’ve got our mojo back,” Lovejoy coach Kevin Jones said. “We won’t go down without a fight. Forest Park, Morrow and Jonesboro are starting to creep up on us, those guys are doing great jobs out there. Hopefully, our advantage is that we’ve been there and that we’re fresher than everybody else.”
The rivals that cheered for Lovejoy during its football postseason run have reverted to cheering against the Wildcats.
“They’re saying now it’s back to the status quo: ‘You’re the enemy,’ ” Jones said. “You wouldn’t have Batman and Robin without the Joker.”
Exactly which role Lovejoy fills in that analogy left Jones laughing. “We’re the good guys,” he said.
With Norwood (195), Corey Alexander (152), Cassius Williams (113), Michael Whitney (120), Xavier Hutchison (126), Derek Holmes (145) and Shavar Guyton (220) leading the way, the Wildcats will have an edge in experience. Most of these guys have been wrestling together since ninth grade, when they were known as the “Munchkins” and helped Lovejoy to its first state duals appearance.
Host Forest Park acknowledges Lovejoy as the favorite, but hopes to put up a fight with Leon Butts (182), Cal Nelson (152), Tyrik Ball (160) and Devontae Carter (138) leading the way.
“They’re going to be hard to beat,” said Forest Park coach Don Williams, who co-coached Lovejoy with Jones last season.
Locust Grove will be the favorite at the 4-AAA tournament at Eagle’s Landing. Led by undefeated Jarred Benefield at 138 (he’s 37-0), Chaz Brown (152) and Dillon Palmer (132), the Wildcats are likely to find themselves standing at the end alongside Eastside. Locust Grove just returned from the Deep South Bayou duals, a strong tournament in Baton Rouge, La., where it went 5-3.
“It was pretty much a warmup for the next two weeks,” Locust Grove coach Nick Fordham said. “We’re going to have to wrestle smart.”
Ola and Union Grove should be among the 3-AAAA contenders at McIntosh, which will begin today at 6 p.m. and conclude Saturday. Union Grove will arrive with a younger cast than last year, when it boasted seven seniors. Coach Kevin McGonigle has put his Wolverines on a crash course, already having had 34 dual meets this season.
“I wanted to have a season’s worth of experience before the area duals,” said McGonigle, whose team also participated in the Baton Rouge tournament, finishing 22nd out of 48 teams.
The Wolverines will be led by state champion Griffin Higginbotham (120) and state runner-up Hunter Gamble (160). Higginbotham is 35-3 while Gamble is 25-1, most of his matches coming at the higher 171 class.
“I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance,” McGonigle said.
The Wolverines aren’t seeded like No. 1 Whitewater and No. 2 Ola. The Mustangs have been led by a consistent five — Jimmy Carman (195), Peyton Durflinger (126), Dylan Parker (170 and 182), Hunter Hogan (120) and Omar McFarlane (106 and 113), but like Union Grove are inexperienced around the edges.
“We’ve got eight kids in our starting lineup who are first-year starers — that’s over half our team,” Ola coach Joey DiNino said. “That concerns me a little bit because a lot of time we’re losing and it’s not because the other guy is better than us, but he’s more experienced.”