LEESBURG -- There's no denying the job Lee County wrestling coach Phil Maxfield has done with the Trojans' program.
Off to a 5-1 start already this season, with the only loss coming to traditional powerhouse Lowndes, Maxfield knows this year's team is young, impressionable -- and willing to learn.
"We've only got one real returning wrestler from a year ago and one senior, but even (my senior) didn't wrestle last year, so we've got some work to do," said Maxfield, referring to Conner Cloud (junior, 171 pounds) as the returner and elder statesman Danny McCray, (senior, 160) who was a standout his freshman and sophomore years for Maxfield, but didn't come out as a junior. "Right now, both Danny and Conner are 6-0 and we look for them to lead the way."
Lee County's wins in the early going came against Crisp County (twice), Bainbridge and Westover. The Trojans also competed in the 16-team Cook Invitational this weekend, which was an event that Maxfield hoped to use to determine how good this year's team can be.
"The Cook tournament is another animal altogether," he said. "Sure, we have some guys who are undefeated, but they've only wrestled once or twice at (these dual matches). It'll be interesting to see how these kids do when they have five matches each day. It's a lot different."
Maxfield added that while he is relying on the kids who have been here and done that, so to speak, he's not discounting the impact that some of his youngsters and newcomers could possibly make by season's end.
That includes Devon Yelverton, who is already 6-0 with six pins this season wrestling at 130 pounds. Then there's Calvin Johnson, Lee County's heavyweight who has never wrestled before this season.
But looking at his heavyweight's size and athletic ability -- Johnson, like McCray, was also a stud football player for the Trojans this past season -- Maxfield is eager to see what he can do.
"He is every bit of 285 pounds -- and maybe then some," he said of Johnson, who is 5-1 so far this season with his only loss coming against Lowndes. "And he's not just big; he's not a tub of lard like some of these heavyweights we face. He is a big, strong kid who moves well and is a quick study."
Another early season surprise is 215-pounder Brett Pressley, who Maxfield said is a "good stout kid who rolls well" and has been tossing opponents around in the early going.
Maxfield also likes the promise that guys like Alex Davis (freshman, 130), Britt Beshear (sophomore, 119) and Rashad Anthony (112) have shown so far.
Of course, Maxfield laments the loss of Zach Thompson, who was off 1-0 to a start the season, but has been sidelined by a rib injury. Thompson led the team in pins a year ago and is a wrestler the coach calls "a strong, kid who is hell on wheels."
Maxfield, however, will be without the services of Denzel Eckles, brother of graduated star Dennis Eckles. Denzel hurt his shoulder playing football -- his No. 1 sport -- and is sitting out the wrestling season this year to get healthy enough to pursue a college scholarship down the road on the gridiron.
"It's tough to lose a good guy like that," Maxfield began, "but I think we've got plenty of good guys to fill his spot."
MONROE HAS HIGH HOPES:
The Tornadoes, led by coach Isaac Wooten, lost a few wrestlers from last year's team, but will likely only have two weight classes that could stay vacant this season: 103 and 112.
Wooten had hopes he could pluck a few kids from the football team, but that didn't happen.
"I thought they would come out since they were done with football," he said. "But it's the same story: They'll play football, but they're afraid of wrestling."
Gone, meanwhile, is one of the wrestling program's most unique athletes in the history of Monroe: Sadrianna Cribbs, a female wrestler who is believed to be one of the only girl grapplers in Georgia. Cribbs even reached state her junior and senior seasons.
"She was a good wrestler for us," Wooten said. "After she graduated, we hoped someone was going to offer her a scholarship, but that didn't happen."
As for who will step up this year, the Tornadoes face a dilemma, said Wooten, on how to handle one of the traditionally scarcest divisions: heavyweight.
Senior David Coe is the defending Region 1-AAA champ, but is being challenged in the early going by Early Mumphrey, also a senior, and youngster Josh Carter, a sophomore.
"We're going to try and get them into matches at tournaments and see who (emerges as the best for that weight class)," Wooten said.
So far, Monroe's only loss as a team on the season has been to Westover, and the Tornadoes have picked up wins against Albany, Randolph-Clay and Dougherty.
In those meets, Wooten said he saw a lot of "promising things" out of this year's group, including the performances by Antonio Baker (junior, 145 pounds) and Vernadrick Randle (senior, 140). Both are 5-0 so far on the season.
Another Tornado to watch is Derrick Bernard, the brother of a former Monroe standout, Cedric. Derrick, a sophomore, wrestles at 125 and is 4-1 so far this season.
Wooten said he understands that Westover is the team to beat in the area right now, but hopes that by season's end, his group of guys will be mentioned in the same breath.
"Before January, I want to see improvement each week," he said. "And by mid-January, we hope to be right there in the mix. Beating Westover is just one of our goals."
WESTOVER TRIES TO MOVE ON WITHOUT SCOTT:
Westover wrestling coach Kevin Fretwell, who lost seven seniors off last year's dominating team, knows one thing to be true about this wrestling season: There's no replacing his biggest star from a year ago, Brandon Scott.
"He's by far the best wrestler I've ever coached," said Fretwell of his former 160-pound dynamo, who was named The Herald's Player of the Year for wrestling in 2008-09, going 40-1 before losing in the Class AAA state championship. "He was just such a unique guy."
Scott currently is wrestling at Baker University in Kansas, although his results thus far aren't anything like his Albany days.
"Brandon is experiencing what it's like to be a first-year wrestler in college: He's losing a lot," said Fretwell, whose team took part in the Cook Invitational this weekend and is unbeaten so far this season in dual meets. "But by the time Brandon is a junior, he should be as awesome there as he was here."
While Fretwell admits he doesn't have any Brandon Scotts walking through his wrestling room door this year, returning for Westover, however, is a slew of guys who have made a big impact on the program.
"I've got three seniors who should all do pretty well this year: Davis Metz, my 125-pounder; Colby Faircloth at 135 in his third season and Dylan Snapp at 119," he said. "I expect them to fill the void left by Brandon."
Others Fretwell points to as possible stars before the year ends include Derrick Akins (sophomore, 189) and Javaz Williams (junior, 160 or 171).
"Right now, we're just working on conditioning and technique," Fretwell said. "It's all about getting this new group some experience."
SOUTHLAND ENJOYS RARE WRESTLING DEPTH:
Look around the state -- to public and private schools alike -- and you won't often find a high school that can field a full team with wrestlers in all 13 weight classes.
Southland, however, is one of the exceptions.
Led by eighth-year coach Mike Smith, the Raiders' strength is quite literally in the numbers.
"We've got 24 kids who came out this year, which means we'll have enough for all 13 spots," said Smith, who -- despite the depth -- only has two seniors on a squad that returns nine wrestlers: Bo Minor (heavyweight) and Ethan Smith, the coach's son who will wrestle at 171. "But while we can fill all those weight classes, I'm not going to say we're great at all of them. We're inexperienced and we hope we can build our way up to being great in the first 9 or 10 dual meets we have."
That began Thursday when Southland opened the season at the six-team meet at DWS, where Smith hoped to see exactly what his team would be made of this year.
What he does know for certain, however, is that whatever success the Raiders have, begins and ends with Minor and his son -- two football players who Smith says "started their wrestling season the day we got knocked out of the playoffs."
"Bo is my heavyweight who made it all the way to the (GISA Class AAA) state finals last year before he lost. But now that the kid who beat him has graduated, I would think he comes into the season as the No. 1 contender in the state," said Smith, whose program last won the Class AAA state championship in his first season in 2001, while finishing runner-up four other times, most recently in 2006. "And Ethan, well, he has placed at state all four years since he was an eighth grader, but got knocked out in the third round last year when he suffered a concussion. And I pulled him at that point. I wasn't about to take a chance with him getting seriously hurt (just to keep his streak alive)."
Minor, a defensive lineman on the football team, has a career record of 82-29 with 44 pins to his credit and a 21-7 record in 2008. But just finding Minor an opponent at most meets is Smith's biggest challenge.
"It does put him at a disadvantage because he doesn't have a lot of competition out there," Smith said. "Most tournaments we go to, he's lucky to get 2 or 3 matches, whereas some of the other guys could wrestle four, five or maybe six times in one meet."
Ethan, meanwhile, played linebacker on the football team, and has an even more impressive resume, going 34-2 last year. He also has a 112-15 career record with 77 of those wins by pin since the eighth grade.
"The goal of this team is to be in better shape, first and foremost, than the rest of the teams -- and no one does that better than Ethan and Bo," said Smith, adding that only one of his wrestlers out of the 24 who came out didn't play football, meaning most are already in tip-top shape. "(Ethan and Bo) been best friends since they were 10 or 11 years old. They wrestle each other all the time and they motivate themselves -- and the rest of the team -- like the leaders I expect them to be. They will be our nucleus this year"
DEERFIELD DOUBLES TURNOUT, EYES STATE RUN:
When second-year Deerfield-Windsor wrestling coach Scott Horton lost Class AAA state runner-up in the 215-pound weight class, Bradwell Lanier, to graduation, he wasn't sure who would step up to replace him.
As it turns out, there were plenty of options.
The Knights, who only fielded a team of five varsity wrestlers a year ago, boasts double that this season.
"I'll tell you what," Horton began, "we've got a good, bigger group of kids this year and it has a lot to do with the success we had last year. And we don't even have one senior. Sure, Bradwell was a big loss, but I've got more than a few guys who I expect to step up and make an impact right away."
Horton, who expects his team to be able to fill 10 of the 13 eligible weight classes, is looking to another Lanier -- Mac Lanier, Bradwell's younger brother -- to be one of the wrestlers that immediately fills the void.
Wrestling at 135 pounds, Mac "will be our team captain, our leader, all of that," said Horton. "We expect big things from him."
Horton also wants to see big things from another wrestler, but partially for selfish reasons.
Freshman Noah Horton, the coach's son, will fill out the 152-pound class one year after taking second in region at 160 as an 8th grader.
The only issue with Noah, however, is that he's currently banged up from football season and likely won't be able to make an impact until sometime after Christmas.
"We're trying to get his shoulders better," the coach said.
At 119, Deerfield also has Chandler Lane, a freshman who wrestled at 112 last season.
"We've got a lot of potential just in that group right there that's returning, but we've also got a newcomer that I'm very excited about," he said.
The "newcomer" Horton speaks of is another freshman, J.D. Cook, although this youngster was wrestling far, far away from Albany a year ago.
"J.D. comes to us from Alaska," Horton said. "And believe it or not, he was the middle school state champ there."
Cook's father moved to Southwest Georgia for a job and Horton said he couldn't believe his luck when he found out his new wrestler's pedigree.
"First, he tells you he's a state champ, then you find out he's just a freshman -- and not a junior or senior," he said. "So we're really looking forward to seeing what he can add to this team. We think a lot."
Rounding out the lineup of wrestlers Horton expects big things out of this year is Trip Pressley (8th grade, 103 pounds) and Matthew Trammell (junior, 189). Trammell has more
experience than most of the team, but he didn't wrestle last season.
There's also Andrew Powell (sophomore, 140), Gaugf Ivey (sophomore, 152) and Raphael Gaines, who Horton says is another newcomer that he plans to put at either 135 or 140.
And with that kind of participation, compared to half of that last season, Horton can't wait to see what this group does.
"The kids who have had success in the past have paved the way for this new group because they see what they've accomplished and want to be part of it," he said. "That's how you build a program."
OTHER AREA PROGRAMS:
Not every Southwest Georgia school has a wrestling program, but others that are fielding teams this year include Bainbridge, Randolph-Clay, Dougherty, Albany and Pelham in GHSA, and Sherwood Christian and Westwood in GISA.