DULUTH — The South Effingham wrestling team raised its fourth-place trophy gladly Saturday night, a week of anguish relieved in part with the program’s best finish at the Class AAA state wrestling tournament.
The Mustangs, who carried reminders of teammate Thomas Medlin throughout the week, paid their final respects to him at his funeral Sunday afternoon.
“It means everything in the world,” said senior Jason Screen, who finished third in the 135-pound class. “To come here after … it brought us closer together.”
Medlin was one of 12 Mustangs who qualified for the state tournament. But moments after he finished second in the Area 3-AAA tournament, he apparently crossed the center line on Highway 30 and his vehicle struck another vehicle. The driver of the second vehicle, Julian Finch of Guyton, died in the collision. Medlin died later that night at Memorial Health University Medical Center.
“Coming here has been therapeutic for all of us,” South Effingham coach Tom Onorato said of the state tournament.
“It was good for all of us to get together one last time, especially for our seniors, and to be thankful for the things we have in life and not take them for granted.”
Onorato and his staff were particularly delighted by the team’s finish in the tournament since the three teams ahead of them had at least three wrestlers in the state finals. Benedictine, which finished sixth, had three wrestlers in the final, and fifth-place Hardaway had two finalists. There were no Mustangs in the ultimate matches in their weight classes.
“What means the most is that every kid gave everything they had,” Onorato said. “It was a total, honest commitment to doing their best, the way they handled themselves.”
Some wrestlers scrawled tributes to Medlin on their headgear or other pieces of equipment. The coaches wore tie clasps bearing “T-Med” and had buttons with Medlin’s picture and ribbons with his initials.
“Tom was an inspiration to us this week,” Onorato said. “The things he taught us, these kids took it to heart.”
The wrestlers, joined by faculty, school board members and fellow students, held a memorial for Medlin before getting on the bus Wednesday morning to go to the Gwinnett Center. Wednesday night, Onorato reminded his charges that Medlin would want them to do their best for themselves.
“Coming into the tournament, I felt I was wrestling for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t focused,” Screen said.
Screen praised his teammates and sang Onorato’s praises for keeping the team cohesive and locked in on the tournament.
“Without a doubt, it was the most challenging and trying week,” Onorato said, “and not just for me, but for the wrestlers, the coaches, the parents, the school. We wanted to honor him by coming out here and wrestling our butts off.”