MACON, Ga. — This doesn’t get old for Randy Prater.
The Social Circle wrestling coach said as much, less than 24 hours after watching his Redskins capture their fifth straight Class AA traditionals state wrestling championship at the Macon Centreplex, holding off Elbert County, one of its own area rivals, to do so.
With three wrestlers — Tyler Snowden (113 pounds), Mitchell Thompson (160 pounds) and Josh Engstrom (170 pounds) making the finals in their respective weight classes, and two others fighting key matchups in the consolation semifinals, Prater said the ‘Skins clinched things when heavyweight Rod Nunnally pinned pinned his opponent to take third in his division.
From there, Snowden finished as state runner up, while Thompson defeated Dade County’s Cody Williams for his second straight individual state crown and Engstrom secured an individual three-peat by besting Rockmart’s Zoryan Hendricks. Social Circle finished with 150.5 points with Elbert County coming in second with 122.5 points.
“Of those five kids, all won except the one who got fourth,” Prater said. “When Rod pinned that heavyweight, it gave us enough points. It put us 19 points ahead of Elbert County, and at that point, there was no way, even if they’d won all their matches with a pin and we lost all ours, there was no way they could catch us. So we were able to wrestle out the rest of the tournament with no added pressure. Just wrestling and winning for yourself.”
As for Prater, although he’ll acknowledge that there was a different level of pressure felt as Social Circle tried to add a fifth straight traditionals title to go along with a fifth straight duals crown, the long time ‘Skins coach said it was more than worth it to be able to celebrate this kind of finish.
“This one, I’ll tell you man, it’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s awesome,” he said. “But they all are. But I’ll tell you, I was more tired this year than I’ve ever been. The pressure seems to compound as the years go. It definitely doesn’t get easier. The bullseye gets bigger because you’re getting everybody’s best match every time out, all season long. The pressure is unreal.”
It doesn’t get easier either. After Social Circle’s fifth straight championship triumph, it holds the distinction with Commerce of Class A and Camden County of Class AAAAAAA as the only schools in Georgia holding on to a streak of five or more straight state titles.
That’s because Jefferson, which came into this year’s traditionals meet, failed to win a state title for the first time in 19 seasons, finishing third in Class AAA behind defending state champion Sonoraville and runner up North Hall.
Jefferson used to be the kings of Class AA before Social Circle, winning state championships from 2009 through 2014 before moving on to Class AAAA and back down to AAA. Prater saluted Jefferson for its unprecedented run, even as he begins to know more of what it takes to stay at that level with each trophy added to the mantle.
“Getting on top is so hard, but what people don’t understand if they haven’t done it is staying there is even harder,” he said. “And the pressure is on our kids because, and they’ll say it every year, nobody wants to be the team that breaks the streak or that doesn’t win it. When you look at Jefferson winning 18 years in a row in four different classifications, it’s amazing to think about what they’ve done. They ended up third this year, and third in state is actually a big deal.
“And you always keep it in the back of your mind, but if that ever does happen and the streak is broken, you can’t fold up the the tent. That just means it’s time to get back to work.”
Actually, it’s that work ethic that’s kept Prater and company on top. And it’s caused a bit of a legacy to develop. Prater talked about how guys like Thompson and Engstrom feel the push to get better and to keep things going, not just for the team, but also their personal families.
“You look at Josh and Mitchell, they both have older brothers who’ve wrestled in the program,” Prater said. “They both have different stories, but they’re great stories. Josh is probably a takedown away from being a four timer. He made the finals as a freshman, but it didn’t work out (to win state). I think that loss bothered him, and he corrected it and never let it happen again.”
Prater called Engstrom a “tough, hard-nosed, mean, toughest kind in the room” type of grappler. While he lauds Thompson for working his way up from a lightly regarded middle school wrestler who almost quit the sport before high school into a college-bound performer.
But despite the differences in their journeys, Prater said one common thread holds them and all his wrestlers together.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “It’s the ability to be mentally tough. It’s doing the extra things, wrestling in the offseason, hitting the weights. These kids want it and you can see it in how they work.”
Some of the push to continue the reign at the top of the state’s wrestling world may come from the constant reminders of the program’s greatness that come to the wrestlers just by them living in and around the Social Circle community.
“Every day when I drive into work, you see those signs posted in the community,” Prater said. “They see it every day, no matter which way you come into the town. From every direction, whether you come in from Covington or Monroe, you see those signs that remind you of the kids in those programs that are graduated and were part of those state championships. Even the middle school program. Our community loves it. The school and everyone, they crave that success. It’s a constant reminder, and a great way to remember what we’ve had and what we want to continue to have.”
Prater knows any future success won’t be given to them, though.
The five seniors Social Circle will lose is the largest number of non-returners of anyone in its area, including a solid Oglethorpe squad that loses just one, Banks County who graduates only two and Elbert County, a squad that gave the Redskins a solid run this year, which will only lose three.
But as much as Prater hates to see those seniors go, he says the bonds and relationships he’s built with them will continue, just as it has with many others who have come through the program. He’s also excited about the close to 15 freshman who will come out of the middle school program, headed by former Alcovy head coach William Wells.
“It’s like he’s sending me a whole team,” he said. “And there are some really solid eighth graders coming up who will have an opportunity to crack the roster with us. Lance Thacker’s a rising freshman who’s been going to Disney with us. He’ll probably be our 106 pounder next year. He could be probably be the guy.”
He credits his entire coaching staff as well, including assistant Roger Strom whom he calls his “right hand man” for helping develop the young wrestlers when they come to the varsity level.
“I’ve got a truly elite coaching staff,” he said. “Roger brings a lot of balance to things, and he keeps me on the tracks. He’s kind of the ying to the yang, so to speak. But it helps create balance in our coaching staff. Guys like him are good for me, helping me stay focused and not getting distracted with all the other stuff so we can keep focusing on getting our guys better.”
Regardless of who suits up for Social Circle wrestling in the 2019-20 season, Prater said he’ll require the same things for them that has been mandated for those who’ve come before them.
“It’s going to get harder,” he said. “And I’m not asking for anybody to feel sorry for us. It’s a great thing to be in this position. It’s not always fun with the pressure sometimes, but we’re glad to be in this seat. And I think that as long as we continue to work hard, train hard, do the extras and stay hungry, I think we can keep this thing going a while. I don’t have any plans to stop.”