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Walls overcomes injury to realize state championship dream
Blaske Class AAAAA runner-up
Flank by the other top Class AAAAAA finishers at 220 pounds, Effingham County's Zekeil Walls owns the championship spot on the awards stand Saturday in Macon.
That was my goal, I set it and I achieved it.
Zekeil Walls, Class AAAAAA's 220-pound champion

This year has been like no other for Zekeil Walls.

Sidelined for weeks at the beginning of the wrestling season, he could do little except support his younger teammates. But when it was his finally turn to take the mat again, he made every match count. 

On Saturday at the Macon Centreplex, Walls was crowned the Class AAAAAA champion in the 220-pound weight class. He finished the season with a 19-1 record. 

After his final match, the senior struggled to describe what he accomplished.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It just felt good because four years paid off.”

Walls’ path through the tournament was smooth. He notched three pins and a fall. It took just 52 seconds to secure a pin in the final. 

Despite nursing a shoulder injury for much of the season, Walls never stopped believing he would win the state title.

“My mindset when I was hurt was to win state when I get back,” he said. “Not being able to wrestle while I was hurt, I still had to keep my body in shape. I never lost that mindset that I was going to win state.

“That was my goal, I set it and I achieved it.”

Walls joined a small class of wrestlers to win an individual title. Winning by pin in the final is an even more exclusive Rebel club.

 It all started with a casual conversation Walls had with head coach Nico Guggino. Upon learning no other wrestler had achieved such an incredible feat, Walls knew he wanted to have an epic finish.

“I asked my coach in November if he ever had anybody pin somebody in the state finals,” Walls said. “He said no and that I could be the first.”

“It’s always hard to pin in the finals because kids are there for a reason,” Guggino said. “He went out and totally dominated the kid. He went out and took him lways like those matches because you don’t have to sit in your chair and worry about what might happen.”

The semifinal match was especially emotional for Walls. Knowing he was ousted from the tournament in that round a year ago, it was imperative for him use his cat-like instincts to move rapidly and with a punishing drive to put his opponent away quickly.

“Nothing was going to stop me from winning state,” Walls said. “I walked in with confidence and I left with confidence.”

This makes five individual state titles under Guggino’s guidance. The veteran coach works tirelessly to ensure each athlete that comes through his program understands that winning is part of the culture and they, too, can have success. 

Guggino credited Walls for his impeccable comeback, saying it should light a fire under everyone who watched him condition and train while nursing his injury.

“When you have younger guys see the success he had in winning a state title, that’s an impression that he’s going to leave on them,” Guggino said. “It’s a testament to him. He worked hard and we kind of pushed him.

“The thing is you have to be in wrestling shape. It’s a lot different than other sports. He did something a lot of kids can’t do. He came out and busted his butt for a good month or five weeks and really walked through the tournament this weekend.”

When the final whistle blew, a feeling of jubilation swept through Guggino.

“I was happy for him,” Guggino said. “Last year, his season kind of ended on a sour note. He wrestled in the semis and he didn’t wrestle real well. It’s been in the back of his mind the whole year. He was hoping he’d get a chance to erase that memory from his mind.

“It’s something that’s going to be special for him. He’ll be proud of himself for years to come because of what he did. That’s what I get excited about. He created a moment for himself that he can be proud of for the rest of his life.”

South Effingham heavyweight Austin Blaske made an impressive run through the tourney but fell in the final to Ryan Smith of New Hampstead. Blaske contemplated focusing solely on football. Now the highly sought offensive line recruit is happy he made the decision to step on the mat one more time.

“I went from not knowing I was going to wrestle this year to wrestling for a state title,” Blaske said. “I was also very thankful that all the hard work our team has put in paid off for the placers.”

Blaske enjoyed competing in front of so many fans of the sport.

“I was like, ‘Wow! This is the stage (and) the energy was unreal (from) all the people in the arena,” Blaske said. “I’ve never seen that many people for a high school event. It did motivate me and I wanted to show people what I’m capable of as a wrestler.”