DULUTH — Chris Hardin wanted his Effingham County wrestlers to stick around for the state finals and not just because of the trio getting medals at the conclusion.
The first-year coach wanted his young team to see what the finals were all about, with the wrestlers walking down the aisles, bathed in spotlight in an otherwise darkened Gwinnett Arena and getting introduced one-by-one.
“They wanted to leave before the finals,” Hardin said. “But the finals is what high-quality, high-intensity wrestling is all about.”
It was worth their while to wait, as two Rebels — Josh Barnhill and Kevin Ulmer — finished third in their respective weight classes and another — Zach Gilliam — placed sixth in the Class AAAA tournament.
“They showed tremendous intestinal fortitude coming back from tough losses,” Hardin said of his three medal winners. “That says a lot about these kids’ character.”
The three state placers were the most in the program’s history, Hardin said.
He also wanted to show his wrestlers that the challenge of the state’s best is more than a physical battle.
“This tournament is really mental,” Hardin said.
He also wanted to re-emphasize how important focus and aggression were over the three days on the mat.
“They knew that going into it,” Hardin said. “Each one of them had one bad match.”
Barnhill won his first two matches in the 103-pound class by pin before losing 9-4 to eventual runner-up Tony Pullen of Clarke Central. He beat Cody Durden of state champion Eastside in his first consolation bracket match, pinned Andy Khair of Woodward, used a strong third period in a 10-1 victory over Jacob Morris of Rockdale and beat Brandon Minnex-Sloan of Pebblebrook 11-6 in the consolation finals.
Ulmer (125) dominated in his first three matches, pinning James Culberson of Griffin, winning by technical fall 20-5 over D.J. Bennett of Northwest Whitfield and pinning Jeremiah Woodward of Upson Lee. But he lost 4-2 to Luis Ponce of Rockdale in the semifinals. He rebounded with a 17-2 defeat of Lovejoy’s Quinten McKee and edged Woodland’s Eric Bell 4-2 in the consolation finals.
Gilliam (130) likewise steamrolled through his first three matches. He pinned Julius Dunkin of Miller Grove in the first round, beat Brandon Cole of Eastside 15-3 and beat Richard Hughes of McIntosh 10-0. But he lost to Zane Sary of Woodland 9-0 in the semifinals and got hurt in that match. He lost 7-4 to Dennis Eckles of Lee County in the consolation semis.
“Zach wrestled tremendous,” Hardin said. “He really couldn’t go. He tried to give it his best.”
Wade Hall (119) won his first two matches, beating Josh Anderson of Northside-Warner Robins 12-7 and then pinning Deontra Tyler of Riverdale. Joel Stafford of Eastside knocked Hall into the consolation bracket with a first-period pin.
Hall pinned Derrick Smalls of Clarke Central but fell one victory short of the podium as Stephen Plante of Starrs Mill beat him 9-2.
Casey Herrington (160) lost his opening round match to Kyle Barber of Pebblebrook by pinfall and won his consolation opener by forfeit over Austin Griffin of Bainbridge. His tournament ended with an 11-4 loss to Jonathan Manous of Cherokee in the next round.
Desmond Washington (189) beat William Trevino of Westside-Macon 12-1 in the first round but lost 9-5 to Courtney Ingram of Baldwin. He beat Andrew Boley of Dutchtown 8-3 in his first consolation round and then beat Westin Sand of Dacula 8-6 before losing to Hendr DeBeer of Whitewater.
Nick Cannon (140), Brandon Macklunis (152) and Michael King (285) each lost their only two matches.
Effingham tied with longtime power Cherokee for 13th place with 76 points, one point behind Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
“We had a shot at the top 10,” Hardin said. “But 13th’s not bad at all.”