ALBANY -- Home has a whole new meaning for the wrestlers at Westover High.
It always does when you don't have one.
Home means crowding into an F-150 truck and bouncing (talk about a team being close) along for the round-trip shuttle rides after school three or four days a week.
It means starting late and finishing practice even later.
It means always wrestling your opponent on his home mat -- every opponent in every dual match.
It means watching kids drop out of the program because of the sheer wear and tear.
It means rolling up those mats that are the size of Wisconsin twice a week, stacking them against the wall and rolling them back out.
"It means that this season meant a little bit more because of what we went through, and because of what we had to do to get here,'' said senior Colby Faircloth, who won the Area 1-AAA title at 135 pounds.
Faircloth and 11 other Westover wrestlers somehow qualified for the state meet that begins today at the Gwinnett Arena in Atlanta. They originally qualified for the sectionals, but that tournament was canceled last weekend because of inclimate weather, and an extra round was added to the state meet.
Nothing was easy for Patriots, who spent the season wrestling all their dual meets on the road and practicing at a nearby church.
The road to state has not only been bumpy, but it's been blessed, because the homeless Westover wrestlers found hope and a practice site about six miles from the school when The Gillionville Baptist Church gave them permission to practice in the church's recreational facility.
The wrestlers lost their home at school because Westover needed to turn the wrestling practice room into an in-school suspension center.
"We had to scramble to find somewhere to practice,'' coach Kevin Fretwell said. "We were calling middle schools, churches, whatever. We didn't know what we were going to do until a week before the season started.''
Gillionville Baptist said come on over. So every day Fretwell and assistant coach Greg Armona would load the wrestlers into Fretwell's F-150 and pack them into Armona's Expedition and shuttle back and forth from the school to the church, hauling up to 30 kids. Of course, they couldn't use the facility on Wednesdays, and there were days when the church held a special activity that canceled practice, but Westover made the most of a tough situation.
"All I can say to (Gillionville Baptist) is thank you, thank you, thank you,'' said Dylan Snapp, who won the area title at 130 pounds. "It was kind of discouraging that they would take away our room like that. We're all very thankful for (the church). Without this we wouldn't have had any practices at all.''
Faircloth went a step further.
"It pretty much saved our season,'' he said.
It's a season Westover will savor.
"Sometimes it takes sacrifice to show character.'' Fretwell said. "It gave the team a chance to come together. It unified us as a team, knowing we were behind the eight-ball. They knew they had to work harder at every practice, because of the lack of practices. I'm especially proud of these kids.''
Westover did get to host the Area 1-AAA meet, but couldn't hold it at the school, so Fretwell arranged to hold the meet at Robert Cross Middle School. His kids loaded up the six wrestling mats onto a long bed trailer that belonged to 215-pounder Harry Stadnik's father, who drove the mats to Robert Cross, and then hauled them back to the church the following Monday.
"Those mats weigh a few thousand pounds. There are six of them and they weigh about 600 pounds each,'' Fretwell said. "That was the problem with home meets. We would have had to move the mats back and forth from the church to the school. We would have had to move them back on Monday and we would have lost another day of practice.
"We didn't practice nearly as much as we usually do. Some weeks we would practice two or three days, and there were a couple of weeks when we practiced only once a week. I was skeptical at the beginning of the year, because I didn't know if we would have the conditioning we would need. But the kids adjusted real well.''
They adjusted well enough to win the Area 1-AAA team title, Westover's fourth in a row.
"This was the toughest year we've had as far as pulling it off, because of everything we've been through,'' Fretwell said.
One of the most demanding prices a wrestler pays is having to lose weight in order to be competitive, and the sporadic practice schedule combined with the large workout facility made it next to impossible for Fretwell's kids to make weight.
"That was the hardest part,'' said Reginald Sherman, who won the area title at 125 pounds. "We didn't practice every day, so a lot of times I would go home, put on a couple of layers of sweats and run as much as I could to get the weight down, eat nothing but a salad and then steam in the shower.
"It definitely meant more to win the (title). It makes you feel like you earned it more. It seemed like everything was trying to keep us down, but we still did it. We're still here. It's a lot sweeter.''
Fretwell said during the entire season only one wrestler failed to make weight for a meet. Fretwell's teams have improved each of his first three years at Westover. The Patriots finished 35th at state three years ago, 18th two years ago, and 15th last year.
There's an outside chance Westover could crack the top 10 this season -- despite all the problems. The Patriots are sending 12 wrestlers in the 14 weight classes to state, and five are area champs: LeMarquis Tillman (112), Javoz Williams (160), Faircloth, Snapp and Sanders.
Darian Kiem (103), Channing Shingles (119), Lance Drummer (140), Travis James (152), Brandon Chattmon (171), Derrick Akins (189) and Stadnik also qualified for the state meet.
"It's been a season we won't forget,'' Fretwell said. "I'm really proud of these kids.''