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SEHS’ Eli Wood captures state title at 138
Eli Wood
South Effingham's Eli Wood celebrates with Coach Christopher Bringer after winning the Class 6A state championship in the 138-pound weight class at the Macon Centreplex on Saturday night. (Submitted photo.)

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

Four years ago, Eli Wood walked into the South Effingham wrestling room and asked Coach Christopher Bringer if he could go out for the team.

“I wasn’t doing anything. I was a little chubby. Wrestling was something I wanted to try,” Wood said. “Once I did it, I loved it.”

Four years later, Wood had his hand raised at the Macon Centreplex, the culmination of a wonderful journey, as the Class 6A state champion of the 138-pound weight class.

“It was surreal,” Wood said. “I couldn’t even comprehend I won.”

Later Saturday night, Mustang teammate Ashton Anderson added a second individual title at 285.

Wood (57-7) stunned the 2023 state runner-up Jefferson Cuttino from Glynn Academy 2-1 in the finals.

He lost three matches to top-ranked Cuttino earlier in the season, including 7-0 at the team duals state finals. At the traditional region tournament, he showed he narrowed the gap during a close 3-1 loss when time expired in the middle of a takedown attempt.

“I knew I was getting closer and closer because I was just a few seconds from scoring (the tying takedown),” Wood said. “It gave me some confidence I could win.”

Just a week later, his confidence was validated. At Sectionals, Wood registered two takedowns in the first period and beat Cuttino, 5-3.

Saturday night, Wood was awarded the decisive point with nine seconds remaining in the third period of his 2-1 win when Cuttino was whistled a second time for stalling.

“We had wrestled each other so many times, we knew what the other one wanted to do,” Wood said. “You have to be mentally tough in that moment.”

“Eli is one of the hardest working and most dedicated kids we have,” Bringer said. “No one deserved (a championship) more.”

Wood didn’t have to win a championship to earn Bringer’s adulation. Last season, Bringer named Wood a “Black Shirt” captain – symbolic of leadership qualities, joining Gannon White, Moose Bringer and DaMyon McFarlin.

Heading into Saturday’s championship action, South had six wrestlers in the finals. Teammates Adam Hardeman and Emilio Santana lost before Wood took the mat.

Wood received a few motivating words from Effingham County coach Isiah Royal, who had coached Wood in summer camps.

Royal was a three-time state champion at ECHS and won a Division II national championship title at Newberry College before returning to coach at his alma mater this year.

“(Royal) said he believed in me and I should believe in my training, trust my coaches, believe in God and leave it all on the mat,” Wood said. “I was nervous but he gave me a clear mind.”

Wood won’t pursue wrestling in college and plans to attend Georgia Southern. But wrestling’s life lessons will follow.

“Wrestling taught me discipline, leadership, tenacity, to give everything in life 100 percent,” Wood said. “I learned to be my best. When I came to Coach Bringer and asked him if I could try out, I didn’t even know a state championship was a thing.”