The Albany Herald's 2010-11 Players of the Year for swimming and wrestling, from left, are Taylor Withers of Deerfield (boys swimming), Caroline Hawkins of Deerfield (girls swimming) and Zach Thompson of Lee County (wrestling).
LEESBURG -- The blood, sweat and tears that Zach Thompson gave to the Lee County wrestling program this past season started over the summer with three-hour workouts.
And it didn't stop until Thompson stood all alone on top of the podium at state as the GHSA Class AAAA 119-pound champ.
"Summer practice is where championships are won," said Thompson, The Herald's 2010-11 Player of the Year who capped his stunning senior season by becoming just the second state wrestling champion in school history. "Working hard in the summer -- when you're on your own and you just have yourself to motivate you -- is where it's at. It's where you (fine-tune) your technique, where you get in shape, where you get prepared. (Winter time may technically) be the wrestling season, but summer is when the season starts."
Thompson, who finished the season an amazing 50-3 overall and was ranked in the Top 10 all year in Class AAAA, remembers the summers well. He would spend his mornings and early afternoons working at Winn Dixie, then knock off and meet up with the one teammate he says he has looked up to his entire career.
"Connor (Cloud) was the guy I always wanted to be like, the guy I strived to catch up to because I knew from almost the first time we met that he was probably going to be one of the best wrestlers the school had ever had," Thompson said of Cloud, Lee County's two-time 171-pound region champ who finished sixth at state this past season and whose 94 career pins and 162 career victories is the most in school history. "He and I pushed each other all summer and -- really -- every offseason. He has the heart of a winner and he taught me how to be the same way."
Cloud, also a starter on the football team who was also constantly in training for his second sport, and Thompson would meet up in the afternoons when Thompson would get off work. They'd start out with a run, followed by an hour of drills and "then we'd just go live the rest of the day," Cloud said.
"I had football stuff I was doing and Zach, as long as I've know him, has always had a job and worked hard at that," Cloud said. "But we knew that our senior year was our last rodeo and we wanted to end it with a season we wouldn't forget, so we put in the work."
The results soon followed.
Thompson went undefeated in Region 1-AAAA during the regular season and won by pin in 30 of his 50 victories -- a Lee County High School single-season record that first-year head coach Tom Matheny doesn't think will be broken any time soon.
"I'm sure I've never coached -- or will ever coach (in the future) -- someone with his type of work ethic," Matheny said of Thompson. "I was always amazed that here was this kid who -- even during the middle of the school year and wrestling season-- would get good grades, work 10-to-15 hours a week and still find time to do all the little things you have to do to be dedicated to his sport. Heck, he even cut grass for some of the teachers at school (during the little free time he had) for extra money.
"That guy's not scared of hard work."
Unfortunately for the rest of the state's 119-pound weight class, they never got the memo.
Thompson came into the state meet as one of the favorites, but certainly was not THE favorite to win it all. That honor belonged to Sammy Rosario of Cass High School, who handed Thompson one of his only losses during the season.
And Thompson remembers it well.
"I had won the region and then I met him at sectionals, and he beat me, even though it was close," Thompson recalled. "I was bummed and I knew there was a good chance I would see him at state and would get a chance at a rematch. But I was also a little worried (because I'd already lost to him once)."
As it turns out, the rematch never happened -- Rosario was beaten in the semifinals, and then Thompson dominated his opponent from Glynn Academy in the finals.
And he did it all after twisting his left ankle in the semis, then twisting his right ankle in the finals.
"Getting higher on the podium my senior year than my junior year, when I finished fifth at 112 pounds, was my goal to start the season -- and I would've been satisfied with third," said Thompson, who started wrestling in the eighth grade, but lost almost an entire season his sophomore year when he broke his arm in practice. "But once I got that close, I didn't let up and I wasn't going to let (a couple of bum ankles) stop me. I was really proud of myself after I won.
"(Winning state) was definitely one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- achievements of my entire life."
Thompson said he also credits countless valuable practice matches with teammate Rashaud Anthony, as well as Matheny's coaching style for his progression as a senior, and says he couldn't have done it without either.
"Coach Matheny really worked more one-on-one with some of the smaller weight class guys like myself and some of the techniques he taught me made a huge difference," he said. "And he used to always preach the same thing over and over, and I understand why now. He would say, 'Get a take down and an escape in the first period, then you'll be up 3-0 right off the bat. If you do that, you can win any match you're in -- even state.' "
Since graduation, Thompson has started a new job working at Publix in Albany and he's already enrolled in Darton, although he doubts he'll pursue wrestling in college, despite the fact the Cavs have one of the top programs in the state.
"I've really thought about it a lot, but I'm going to be in the nursing program and it's really intense, so I just don't think I'll have time," said Thompson, who would like to pursue a career in either sports medicine of anesthesiology. "I'm just not sure I can do both because starting my (professional career) is what's important at this point."
Thompson then paused before adding: "But I'll be around, and I plan to help out with the (Lee County) wrestling program in my free time. It was good to me for four years, like a family, and I would like to be able to give something back."