SPORTS RECAP: Dragon-slayers... West Laurens wrestlers knock off perennial champ Jefferson to win first state duals title since 2006
The Courier Herald – January 25, 2022
It was once said, by the great Ric Flair no less, that to be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man.
And for the West Laurens wrestling team, ending a 16-year state championship drought took conquering one of theirs, and the state’s, most indomitable adversaries.
By the slimmest of margins, the Raiders took down defending champion Jefferson to win the GHSA AAAA state duals title Saturday at LaGrange High School.
It's the program's first state crown since its jump to the AAAA level, and marks a return to gold after a 16-year wait, since back-to-back titles in 2005 and '06, years in which West Laurens won state in both duals and traditional divisions.
But in doing so, the Raiders also conquered Georgia wrestling's most feared giant in Jefferson, which has won 21 state crowns since the Georgia High School Association introduced the team-based duals category as a state competition. The Dragons, owner of 12 out of the last 13 state titles between AAA and AAAA classifications, were the ones waiting on West Laurens at the end of its championship road, which included sweeps at region 4-AAAA championships and the previous week's GHSA state prelims
"Being one of two teams to ever beat Jefferson in the state duals means a lot," said Raider head coach Mitch Lawhorn. "They have won state every year that Georgia has had a state duals tournament except two. Us and, I believe, North Hall are the only teams to do it. This couldn’t have happened to a better group of young men. There is something about having a group of kids that are determined, and refuse to be told they can’t do something."
The Raiders stormed their way out of the toughest half of the tournament bracket, past respective third- and fourth-place finishers Columbus and Marist, to set up their date with destiny – in the form of Jefferson – in Saturday's finals.
West Laurens defeated Columbus by the final of 45-35, behind pins from junior Aiden Ingram, freshman Cam Boston, sophomore Matthew Gibbs, senior Christian Boston, senior Caden Snell, senior Evan Guyton and senior Chase Horne.
Freshman J.T. Bowers and senior Jake Shepard joined Snell, Guyton, Ingram and Horne with pins in the semifinal match with Marist, while junior Drake Wood won by a major decision, to advance the Raiders to the finals.
Jefferson worked its way through Bainbridge and Heritage (of Ringgold) to reach the championship match.
West Laurens had good reason to like its chances in the matchup, but the path to an upset of the Dragons, and the state title, was a narrow one with little margin for error.
"We had to have a lot go our way, even the coin toss to start the match," said head coach Mitch Lawhorn.
That, the Raiders were able to win, forcing Jefferson to send its first wrestler to the table. The dual started at the 132 lb. weight class, and Lawhorn made the key decision to "bump up" the lineup, sending each of his wrestlers up one weight class. And the move wound up paying off.
West jumped out to an early lead on the pin of Ingram, vs. Carson Goodwin at 132 lbs. Cam Boston then defeated Dominic Haines by 5-3 decision at 138 to put the Raiders up 9-0.
Jefferson battled back, as Davis Dendy defeated Bowers at 145 and Creed Thomas pinned Aiden Roberson at 152. But West Laurens only gave up 11 points in the pair of matches, and got two more pins at 160, from Drake Wood over Cap Benson, and at 170, from Jake Shepard vs. Bryant Cox. The Raiders were back on top 21-11.
"Our team is well-conditioned," said assistant coach Jeff Shepard. "They believe in the process and will battle. We just needed to not give up pins against Jefferson's ranked wrestlers."
Jefferson, from there, changed its lineup to create matchup problems for its nationally-ranked wrestlers. But the Dragons only picked up seven points with the efforts of Snell and Guyton, who fell by only 10-2 and 5-2 decisions in their matches at 182 and 220.
The Raiders got points by forfeit at 195 pounds, where Tryston Sterling was unopposed, before the undefeated Chase Horne picked up six with a 26-second pin of Tyler Belin at 285 to increase the lead to 33-18.
"All we needed was a win from one of our next four wrestlers, and the best Jefferson could do was tie," Lawhorn said.
Freshman Alec Brantley got the key win by decision at 106 lbs., defeating Jefferson's Turtle Kazienko 7-6. And the Raiders, with five in the tiebreaking category of max-point wins (pins, forfeits and disqualifications) up to that point, already had the ace in the hole.
Jefferson pinned the rest of the side, as Tucker Kazienko won by DQ at 113, and Chaz McDonald (over Chase Walker) at 120 and Davis Dollar (over Dawson Lumley) at 126 both took Ws by fall.
The final score was tied 36-36, and the 5-4 differential in six-point wins favored the Raiders.
"I told our boys three things had to happen for us to beat them: 1. Either Alec Brantley or Bryson Tapley had to win their matches at 106 or 113. 2. We had to get more than four pins, and with Ingram, Wood, Shepard and Horne pulling that off, we just needed one more, and Jefferson helped us out with dropping their state champ to 182, so Sterling picked up our fifth pin through a forfeit at 195. Finally, we had to have one more win, and it came out of a freshman Cam Boston. They did everything we asked of them, and we pulled it out."
Jefferson is to duals wrestling in Georgia what Buford is to GHSA football championships, Alabama to college football and the New England Patriots to Super Bowls. They've always been the team to beat, and they don't often go down.
"When you beat a 'Jefferson,' a team that has only lost twice since the GHSA started doing dual championships, it's a great win," Shepard said. "I'm super proud of our team's effort – they believed. It's great that these seniors get to go out as champions."
Saturday's outcome hinged almost entirely on the calculation of Raider coaches to bump their lineup, which was a consensus reached months ahead of time while sketching out scenarios in a potential West Laurens-Jefferson matchup at state.
"That was the only way we could win," Lawhorn said. "I had drawn it up every possible way. I didn’t want to plan ahead, but back in December I heard some people saying that there was no way we could beat Jefferson in a dual, so I sat down one Sunday and wanted to look and see if there was any way it could happen, and at about 3:00, I had drawn up a plan and was so excited I couldn't sleep. We even cut practice short to show the boys that it could happen."
In the end, it came down to device, determination, and a little bit of destiny. And the state title run, in some unexpected ways, brought things full circle for the program.
"We had to have a lot of stuff happen to get there, and the boys bought in," Lawhorn said. "They were on a mission, watching film, extra practices with Gerald (Carr) at the Storm Center, extra workouts at Clark's and Fairview Park. Our boys refused to say they hadn’t done everything they could to win.
"I know a lot of people don’t think it’s that important, but even the coin toss and what weight class we started at was super important. Had we lost the coin toss or started at any other weight, the outcome would have been completely different. It’s like the stars aligned just right. And if you notice we were wearing black. The seniors picked that out because the last year West Laurens won state, they were wearing black."
The Raider wrestling team includes Alec Brantley, John Mabry, Bryson Tapley, Dawson Lumley, Jason Murphy, Aiden Ingram, Chase Walker, Cam Boston, J.T. Bowers, Daniel Lisbey, Aiden Roberson, Ryan Sawyer, Drake Wood, Alex Baxter, Christian Boston, Luke Duskin, Matthew Gibbs, Jake Shepard, Caden Snell, Evan Guyton, Triston Sterling, Chase Horne and Jathan Willis. Mat girls are Alyssa Jones, Emma Riner, Camryn Stokes, Anna Rogers, Audrey Lord and Sydnee Sapp.
Lawhorn called the state finals victory "an overall win for the entire team."
"Even our guys that lost their matches played a huge role because they had to wrestle up weight classes and wrestle either a state champ or a state runner-up, and they did everything I asked them to," he said. "Without all of them, it would have never happened."
The Raiders now move on to traditional state competitions, which begin with the 4-AAAA region tournament on Friday in Perry.