DULUTH - After a disappointing finish at the Class AAAA State Duel Tournament last month in Macon and finishing as state tradition runners-up the year before, Eastside finally captured Newton County's first-ever traditional state wrestling title.
This is the third state title in Eastside's 12-year history and the school's first state title in nine years. The Eastside girls fast-pitch softball team won the first two state titles in the AA classification back-to-back in 1998 and 1999.
Yet the moment of winning the greatest prize seemed surreal for first-year head coach Brandon Blakeman.
"I couldn't have been happier, particularly for my seniors," said Blakeman. "To see three of my seniors placing (at state) is just phenomenal. Winning this title was a great sigh of relief; we finally got the monkey off our back."
Meanwhile, Alcovy - with only six wrestlers qualifying for the state tournament - finished among the top 25 in Class AAAA by placing 16th overall in team scoring.
For the Eagles, they won the title by team points heading into the state tournament and finished Saturday night with a score of 159.
Defending AAAA state champion Stockbridge finished second with 139.50 points. Rounding out the top five were Jackson County (139.50), Northwest Whitfield (125.50) and Whitewater (114).
Eastside fought hard for much of the tournament with its 10 that qualified.
Cody Durden (103 pounds) defeated Tyler Deloach (Stockbridge) in the first round and was defeated in the second round by eventual state champion Pawlloes Belete (Tucker).
Senior Jamarkus Griggs (112) was 4-0 heading into the finals after defeating Jarrod Chamblee (McIntosh) in the semi-finals. Griggs (34-6 overall) had to settle for state runner-up after being defeated by Frankie Miller (Dacula) by a 12-2 decision.
"For Frankie (Miller) to go against Mr. Griggs, who is an incredible young man and wrestler, three times (at the Area-8 Duels and Individual Tournaments) already is something else," said Dacula head coach Jason Holcombe. "They have gone to war with each other and were both outstanding."
But the biggest upset in the Class AAAA finals occurred in the 119-pound class between Eastside's Joel Stafford and Dacula's Noel Hunt.
Stafford (51-5) was undefeated at 4-0 entering the finals. Previously, he defeated Dequan Warner (Southwest Dekalb) in the semi-finals to advance. But after a hard fought match, Stafford lost his title to Hunt by an 11-3 decision.
"Joel (Stafford) is an amazing athlete," praised Holcombe. "We were fortunate to get him in the big one that mattered. We were pumped and we were ready to go."
Michael Green (125) was defeated in the first round by Mike Seagle of Lithia Springs.
Senior Brandon Cole (130) made an impact in the first round by defeating Taylor Wade (Upson-Lee) by pin. However, he was defeated by Zach Gilliam (Effingham County) by a 15-3 decision in the second round. Cole entered the consolation match and was then defeated by Immanuel-Kerr Brown (Rome) by pin.
Trevor Bailey (135) made his appearance in the finals after defeating Kevin Olson (East Paulding) by a 7-3 decision in the semi-finals. Bailey (51-6) gave his best effort, yet was defeated by Zach Hopkins (Ringgold), 7-3.
Senior David Bender (152) won his match in the first round against Gustavo Zanette (Northside-Warner Robins), yet was defeated by Sam Law (Fayette County) in the quarterfinals. Bender settled for fourth in state after falling to Connor Young (Rome) in the consolation match.
Senior Jon Palmer (171) won his match, 7-0, in the first round by defeating Garrick Bratton (Ringgold), but was defeated in the third round by Jacob Williamson (Whitewater). Palmer finished his career by placing sixth in the consolation match after losing to Steven Walkey (Northwest Whitfield), 6-0.
Senior Ardest "A-Train" Carter (189) began the tournament strong by defeating Andrew Gude (North Springs) in the first round and Ralton Flower (Cherokee) in the second, both by pin. He downed Courtney Ingram (Baldwin) in the third round by a 20-6 decision.
Carter was defeated in the semi-finals by Patrick Blankenbaker (Fayette County), 6-5. He did well in the consolation match yet was pinned by Fred Byars (Southwest Dekalb),
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ultimately settling for fourth place.
Karl Williams (215) dominated from the get-go in the first round by pinning Ryan Nolan (Whitewater), Michael Roberson (Ridgeland) and Garrett Lester (Hillgrove). But lack of focus caused Williams to fall in the semi-finals to Matt Carroll (McIntosh) by pin.
Williams re-grouped and went into the consolation match by defeating Ben Hatchett (Cherokee), yet came up short when Jose Paz (Stockbridge) pinned him in the battle for third place. Williams also settled for fourth place.
Although no Eagles won any individual titles this year, Blakeman was thoroughly pleased and quite proud of the performance his team displayed during the four-day competition.
"This is the best tournament that we have ever had," said Blakeman. "Seven of the 10 guys (who) placed worked their butts off. They wanted it bad enough, and even though they didn't place where they wanted, they got to the ultimate goal."
Blakeman also credited the championship season to former head coach Michael Smith-Foot, one of the key architects who helped create the new dynasty Eastside wrestling was built upon.
"I contribute all this to him," acknowledged Blakeman. "Eastside wrestling would not be here without the huge contribution that Coach Foot has made to this program."
Eastside proudly exited as Class AAAA state champions. But rest assured, Blakeman and the Eagles are gearing up for next year already, as they will attempt to conquer their new division - Class AAA - with most of their starting lineup returning.
"We are enjoying this now, but we are already looking (at) next year," said Blakeman.
For the Tigers, they held their own in just their second year of existence.
Alcovy's Jon Seymore (103) won his first round against Demitri Miller (Riverdale), 17-13. Seymore lost to Andy Khair (Woodward) in the second round by pin, and was defeated in the second by Christian Washington (Dalton) during the consolation match.
Adam Pollard wrestled well in the tournament, making it all the way to the semi-finals but was topped by eventual state champion Nathan Allen (Stockbridge), 8-2. Pollard redeemed himself by defeating Dennis Eckles (Lee County) to take third place.
Travis Knight (135), Corey Reid (140) and T.C. Jackson (189) all bowed out between the first and second round of competition.
Junior Malachi Outlaw became the first Alcovy wrestler in school history to compete in the state finals. The 160-pounder took control of every match, winning his first round match against Leandre Ingram (Forest Park) by pin and then downing Colton Lemon (Woodland) to advance to the finals.
In the finals, Outlaw had his hands full when matched up against Chase Penland (Whitewater). Penland was already up in points in the match, controlling Outlaw's chance of a comeback. He put up a gallant effort before ultimately falling, 7-4.
"Malachi has had an outstanding season," said Alcovy head coach Mike Mostek. "He just came up a little short in the finals. He fought hard and gave us everything that he had."
Next year Alcovy, which will be the only Newton County School in Class AAAA, should have the opportunity to also compete for a state and/or traditional title.
The Tigers will graduate only two seniors from this year's squad.
"We are looking forward toward next year," said Mostek. "We are going to hit the weights hard and do a lot of off-season wrestling, come back and have a great season next year."