After a dominating season on the mats, the Bulloch Academy wrestling team now finds itself just one step short of the mountaintop.
With a perfect 13-0 record in dual meets and a Region 4-AAA title — the first in program history — already tucked safely into the trophy case, the Gators will take to the mats at Tattnall Square Academy in Macon for the Georgia Independent School Association state meet. The first round of competition begins today at 10 a.m., followed by quarterfinal matchups and consolation rounds. The top four wrestlers in each weight class advance to Saturday afternoon’s semifinals and championship matches.
Last season, Bulloch had three individual state title winners and finished tied for second in team competition. This time around, with state champs Mitchell Ball, Daniel Hendrix and Codi Johnson all returning, the Gators are looking to bring the ultimate prize back to Statesboro.
"I think that we’re a very talented and very prepared team," BA coach Andy Tomlin said. "We had a good squad last year, but we weren’t quite as deep. A couple of guys were pretty new to wrestling and they had never been put under that kind of pressure. This year is different."
In addition to their trio of reigning champions, six other Gators return for another run at the championship.
Tomlin still seems amazed by the fact that his team is on the brink of clinching a state title. Just seven years ago, Tomlin got the Bulloch wrestling program started, working with middle schoolers to grasp the fundamentals before they transitioned into high school competition.
Despite the quick rise to prominence, the Gators are far from a Cinderella story. Almost immediately after last season’s brush with a championship, Bulloch began to prepare for the matches they’ll face today and Saturday. Grueling workouts and the emergence of some talented new faces had the Gators in the driver’s seat from the beginning of the season.
Perennially powerful squads like Westfield, Robert Toombs and Trinity Christian — the 2011 Class-AAA champs — looked on as Bulloch mowed through each event it entered. Gunning for their first region title last week, the Gators clinched it in impressive fashion.
"We had seven guys win their weight class and five more finish second," Tomlin said of the Gators’ 73-point margin of victory. "I was really proud of our guys. I don’t think we could have expected much more of our effort."
The region honors are nice, but last week’s success further serves to set up Bulloch for favorable matchups in the state meet. Individual wrestlers can win a state title simply by winning each match. But for schools like Bulloch, it is the points gained by each individual that contribute to the overall team score and will help to push toward the overall title.
With Gator wrestlers qualifying in all 14 weight classes — and 12 earning a top-2 seed — Bulloch is primed to light up the scoreboard.
"That was absolutely a goal of ours," Tomlin said. "To win a team title, you need all of your guys to be at their best. They’re by themselves out on the mat, but it takes a team effort to get where we want to go."
Bulloch’s impressive resume will make it a favorite to win this weekend, but Tomlin isn’t concerned that any of his wrestlers will shrink under pressure or expectations. A fiery leader, Tomlin admitted that the team’s success over the past two seasons has allowed him to ease off the intensity — allowing his wrestlers to be themselves while still pushing themselves to be the best.
"When I can stay loose, the rest of the guys can too," Tomlin said. "That’s what I expect I’ll see on the trip up to Macon and staying overnight. We’ve got some guys that like to be jokesters. That’s what keeps this team on an even keel.
"Of course, I also expect we’ll get down to business when the time comes. (Wednesday), we had one of our best practices of the season in preparation for this weekend. Those guys are going to go out on the mat wrestling for themselves and their school. They’ve envisioned what they want to accomplish. Now it’s time to go do it."
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.