The South Effingham wrestling team will carry with them the expectations of state titles and the memory of a friend and teammate.
Thomas Medlin, 17, died Saturday night after a two-car accident on Highway 30, not long after he had finished second in the Area 3-AAA traditionals in the 152-pound weight class. That finish was good enough to earn him a spot in the Class AAA state tournament, which begins Wednesday night at the Gwinnett Center.
The Mustangs will be taking part in the tournament and the meet will begin with a moment of silence Wednesday night.
“So many thoughts go through your head,” Mustangs coach Tom Onorato said. “You want to make sure you’re doing the right thing. Through all the tragedy that has happened in the last few hours, the strength and character of the Medlin family has left a great presence on our program It’s a testimony to them and their character.”
The Mustangs wrestled with whether to go to the state tournament, but the Medlins gave them the answer.
“Him giving his blessing to those boys that they need to go, that Tom wants them to go there and wrestle hard, that meant a lot,” Onorato said of Medlin’s father. “It relieved a lot of pressure from the kids from feeling guilty for continuing on.”
The Mustangs wrestlers are drawing inspiration from the way Medlin wrestled Saturday. He was down 10-0 in his first match but came back to beat Brandon Millage of Cross Creek 11-10. He scored on a last-second escape to send his match with top seed Jacob Fox of Richmond Hill into overtime and then won that match. He lost 14-9 in the finals to Burke County’s Damany Coleman.
“He didn’t give up,” said Zac Nelson, Medlin’s frequent practice partner. “I’m going to push hard (at state) for him.”
Nelson recalled how Medlin was always eager to go eat after practice. “He was always underweight,” he said.
Said Brandon Huggins: “He was always having fun.”
The Mustangs wrestling team, along with friends and Medlin’s family, gathered Sunday afternoon near the spot where the accident happened to remember their teammate.
“The only way I got through it was these guys,” Nelson said, motioning to the rest of the team.
The team is leaving early Wednesday for the state meet, and Onorato knows that in the downtime and quiet moments his team will have in the next few days, their thoughts and his will turn to Medlin.
“We’ve got a lot of good memories,” he said. “We’re going to laugh about him. We’re going to cry about him. We’re going to be angry that he’s gone. We’re going to go through some highs and lows. But we have to be patient and stick together. We’ll tell them they have to be patient with others around you.
“He always had a smile on his face. There was a playful manner about him. But there was a lot of determination and a lot of inner strength. There were a lot of great characteristics. We know he’s with us — just in a different presence.”