Thursday, February 19, 2009

Collins Hill, Jefferson look to continue dominance on the mat

Over the past decade, two teams have achieved unparalleled success in Georgia High School Association wrestling. The Dragons of Jefferson have dominated in Class A and now do so in Class AA, while the Collins Hill program has built a dynasty in Area 7-AAAAA and Class AAAAA.

How do the two programs do it? Everything starts with Jefferson head coach Doug Thurmond and Collins Hill head coach Cliff Ramos. For Jefferson, several already decorated wrestlers helped the team recently capture its eighth straight duals title in January (its first in Class AA). The Dragons won the 2009 duals championship, after moving up from Class A, to go along with the program’s 12 traditional titles. Thurmond’s two sons, Cason (103-pound champion, 2008) and Cam (119-pound champion, 2007 and 2008) helped lead the team to victory. The squad also boasts threetime champion Jay Fowler (152-pound, 2006, ’07 and ’08), and Zac Crosby (160-pound) is a reigning champion as well. The team has a great love for the sport, according to Thurmond.

“We don’t treat wrestling as a secondary sport,” he says. “We feel the sport teaches for life.”

Thurmond’s talented bunch also features several 2008 runners-up that will be seeking the elusive individual championship. Daniel Barber (112), Cutler Finch (130), Cole Hightower (285) and Patrick Allen (215) all came close last year and will now look to hit the mat and capture their respective titles. With a team championship already in the bank, look for Thurmond’s bunch to make another huge splash with multiple individual championships.

Meanwhile, Collins Hill features just as many all-stars in Class AAAAA. Senior Taylor Knapp, who is ranked No. 10 in the country according to Amateur Wrestling News National, leads by example. Ramos said that Knapp is just one of the many seniors that “does a good job, especially in practice.” John Allgood is another senior that Ramos was quick to cite as being strong for this team. “There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that make this program successful,” Ramos said, crediting the “six outstanding assistant coaches, supportive parents and a fantastic youth program” in helping the program win two straight team state championships and three since 2005.

Thirteen Collins Hill wrestlers qualified for state sectionals and two of Ramos’s juniors were his picks to go on to win state individual titles. T.J. Mitchell and Joel Smith are favored to win state, while Gary Tiller, a previous state runner-up (152-pound), will try to overcome injuries to win what he missed out on last year. Nine other individual area champions will join those three in seeking state championships. Look out for Bazell Partridge (103), Nick Holbert (171), C.J. Collins (215) and Allen Willard (130). These wrestlers have been pushed all season by the team’s nine seniors, which at times can be pretty tough, according to Ramos: “We’ve wrestled all over the country and sometimes you come back to the in-state meets and motivation is tough.”

Knapp, named most outstanding middleweight in the recent Sham Slam, and Caleb Sawchuck were huge in clinching the duals title when the team knocked off Pope, 47-9, to win the team crown. Ramos is proud of the fact that his program has done something no other Class AAAAA team in any sport has done: finish in the top three every season since 2000.

Wrestling fans will have plenty of storylines to follow in the individual championships. Carl Rider of North Gwinnett became the first Bulldog freshman to win an area title when he took home the 152-pound crown in 2008. Peachtree Ridge will send Michael Chapman (145) and Sam Kuntz (189) to try and win individual glory. Mill Creek has five hopes for a state title, led by Josh Harrison (130). Union Grove will be represented by Joey Lazor (135), who recently notched his 200th career victory. Lazor, who is committed to Northern Iowa, will be joined by his teammate, former champion Justin Crozier. Toombs County’s Bryan Benton is a beast it the 140-pound division and already owns three state rings. Pope finished second in the Class AAAAA Duals and was led by Dexter Bushart (130). If pins are your thing, keep an eye out for Central Gwinnett’s sophomore Jacob Aiken-Phillips (285), who recently won the area title and tied the Gwinnett County season record in pins.

With so much talent hitting the mats, fans are sure to see some great action this weekend in Gwinnett.

Proctor can be reached at