By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
Nervousness, excitement and anticipation followed South Effingham’s wrestling team to Gainesville High School.
The Mustangs held a four-point lead entering the final match of the Class 6A state championship Saturday afternoon. Sophomore wrestler Emilio Santana scored an early takedown and SEHS coach Christopher Bringer had a good feeling.
Then a reversal and Santana was struggling to get off his back. Bringer’s heart skipped a beat.
But the Mustang wrestler recovered and late in the third period had his opponent locked in a cradle and a 21-8 major decision and four final teams points followed.
“I think the whole gym went up in flames,” said Bringer, recreating joy over the happiest of phone calls.
South’s band of fighters had won the school’s first team state championship by knocking off North Forsyth, 36-28.
“You can print this, ‘Effingham County is a wrestling county now,’ ” Bringer said. “We can create champions.”
It was a satisfying moment for a team that compiled a 35-2 record during the dual (team) season. North Forsyth defeated the Mustangs’ nemesis Brunswick in the state prelims and was seeded No. 1 in the tournament. SEHS was seeded No. 2, but primed for the reversal.
“We went to tournaments in Atlanta, Florida and South Carolina and won,” Bringer said. “I think people understand now, South Georgia kids are pretty tough.”
The journey to the title started a week earlier with wins over Paulding County and Jackson County, sending the Mustangs to the Elite Eight.
On Saturday, SEHS beat Lassiter 58-16, then held off No. 3 Creekview 44-18.
“In the first match, our middleweights came through and in the second match the heavyweights came through and in the final match, the lightweights came through,” Bringer said. “It was truly a team (championship). Every kid had to pull their weight.”
Against North Forsyth, Brandon “Moose” Bringer (at 132), Eli Wood (138), Ashton Tootle (157), Enrique Santana (165), DaMyon McFarlin (175), Ashton Anderson (285) and Stephen Tootle (113) scored wins.
McFarlin’s victory came in overtime.
Stephen Tootle’s win – a 10-0 major decision over Xavier Martinez – provided four points and broke a 28-28 deadlock, putting the outcome in the hands of Emilio Santana, who had missed six weeks this season after suffering an elbow injury.
Emilio returned for the area tournament and helped the Mustangs defeat Brunswick – a team that had won two straight area titles.
“It was just amazing, surreal,” coach Bringer said. “We went out to have a team dinner and we were getting phone calls from everywhere in the country.”
Bringer said winning a state title was the team’s goal from the start of the season. A prodding message kept the wrestlers focused.
“We told them work hard and it will happen for you,” Bringer said. “We had spring workouts, we went to summer camp at Newberry (College), we got together some Sundays in the fall. We just outwrestled people.”
Bringer, 49, and assistant coach Chris Hobbs, 59, created a culture of school pride.
And now South Effingham has the alpha wrestling program in Class 6A.
“We’re just two oldtimers trying to do great things,” Bringer said. “We should be favored next year too.”