Just a few short years ago, the Effingham County School System was ready to pull the mat out from under high school wrestling.
Now, the county has a state championship team and three wrestlers have state championships of their own.
Under second-year coach Chris Hardin, the Effingham County Rebels can now boast the top wrestling program in Class AAAA. Class AAAA includes some of the largest high schools in the state and some of its most notable and tradition-rich wrestling programs.
South Effingham has now posted consecutive fourth-place finishes in the state traditional tournament — in Class AAA in 2008 and in Class AAAA this year. The Georgia High School Association only gives out trophies to teams that finish in the top-four, so the Mustangs wrestling team has something for the trophy case for each of the last two seasons.
And to think — both schools almost had their programs taken away as recently as five years ago.
“I was telling some people that, and they couldn’t believe it,” Hardin said, before he and his team clutched their first state championship trophy. “It’s a good group of people who stayed together and fought for it.”
Count among those the grandmother of Kevin Ulmer, who was one of the Effingham wrestlers to win an individual state championship.
“My grandma went to the board of education,” said Ulmer, the state Class AAAA champion at 119 pounds, “and she’s probably one of the main ones why they kept wrestling.”
South Effingham coach Tom Onorato was there when the discussion was made to cut out the programs at both schools. To see where the sport is in the county now from just a few years ago, “it kind of leaves me speechless,” he said. “It’s such a great sport. It has so much to offer to kids of all sizes. The right decision was made and with that, you’re starting to see the fruits of it.”
Many of the wrestlers at both schools have gotten their introduction to the sport from Larry Insalaco and his Coastal Georgia Wrestling Club. Yet many of Hardin’s colleagues around the state are stunned to learn there’s no middle school wrestling in the county, especially given the success the high school teams have had recently.
“If we had middle school wrestling,” Hardin said, “the sky’s the limit.”
As it stands, the county and the area as a whole can be proud of what’s been accomplished and what is likely to happen in the years to come.
To the Rebels and the Mustangs, we offer our hearty congratulations for jobs well done. And to the school board, a thanks for sparing the wrestling programs from the ax. The board members couldn’t have known that leaving the programs in place would result in state championships.
But given the chance, given the opportunity, to compete, that’s what has been delivered.