This year's Mt. Zion High School wrestling team will know exactly what to expect as it makes its third straight trip to state this weekend at the Macon Centreplex. The Eagles earned their spot with a second-place finish at last weekend's Area 3-A Duals at Darlington.
The MZ wrestling program has grown up, along with its wrestlers. Mt. Zion coach Michael Cleek noted Efren Valles' 138-pound match at area. Valles, a freshman, pinned a defending state champion from Gordon Lee and helped show the team it could beat the defending state champions.
"It shows that we're making progress. It shows that a group of kids has bought into what we're trying to sell. They've committed themselves to improving, and it's showing up on the mat. We had a ninth-grader go against a state champion and pin him this past Saturday. What we're doing is working. We need to keep getting after it. Every week I tell them we've done something, but we have to do more. Keep working, keep chopping wood, keep getting better. And I think we are," Cleek said.
It has been a labor of love for the Eagles, who have been working for a long time to get to where they are now. Not only is the current team working for success this season, but it is setting up the future of the program for years to come.
"The younger kids in our town, they see what these guys are doing and the USA program is growing a little bit, the middle school program is coming through. They won the Bowdon Duals this year. It's showing up at every level of our kids, and it's really something to be proud of. It's these guys, they remember the group from about six years ago that came ahead of them. That's when they bought in. It's just like everything. You have peaks and valleys, but what we're trying to do is reduce the depths of the valleys and make the peaks even higher," Cleek said.
The wrestling team was ahead of the curve at Mt. Zion, where the athletic department has seen a surge with the girls' basketball team making state for the first time two years ago, the football program having a six-win season and the softball team placing third in state this year.
"It's happening in every aspect of Mt. Zion this year — football, basketball, softball — there's a real positive attitude. All the kids want to participate and they're working hard. Wrestling is just another one of the sports where we're really showing up on the map," Cleek said.
As the team has built itself into a consistent state qualifier, it has strengthened the program from the inside out. Not only are the top wrestlers competing, but the program is building itself to be sustainable.
In a sport where injuries are possible in any match and at any weight class, depth is key. Unfortunately, the Eagles have run into some injuries, but because of the growth of the program, there are guys capable of stepping in.
"They started together in sixth grade and they've been together and they've stayed together. That's the key — it's continuity, it's sustaining numbers. It's a violent sport. We've lost four or five guys to injury this year that aren't even in the lineup," Cleek said. "It's not just one or two kids. I've lost four starters this year. The team that wrestled so well against Gordon Lee, if I had that other team against Gordon Lee, I'm not saying we would have won, but they would have something more to chew on."
And while some people have come in from the outside, the MZ coach calling the team a family isn't too far from the truth.
Current wrestlers Fernando and Efron Valles, Will and Ben Sizemore, along with Tryston and Trenton Cash, are all brothers. There are also those who have had family members be a part of the program in the past.
"There's the Valles brothers, the Sizemore brothers, the Cash brothers. Then there's legacy kids. Hunter Smith's brother was Parker Moore, Gage Reeves is brothers with Dwayne and John Reeves, Dylan Maxwell's daddy wrestled for Mt. Zion, Joe Denton's brother wrestled for us. It's not any one family, it's just that we're part of something and it's taken root. It's fun to be a part of," Cleek said.
Cleek is the first to admit the program isn't just about him or even the wrestlers competing at the varsity level. There have been a lot of people involved with the rise of the Eagles.
"It's fun to watch. It's been a joy to be a part of. It's not me, it's not any one of us. Wayne Jiles was their USA coach, Gary Harper, was their middle school coach. There's been a whole slew of coaches that have bought in and helped develop these guys. Barry Rollins is the assistant coach. As a group, we've all worked together, we've all sweat together, we've all bled together at one point or another. I couldn't be prouder of a bunch of kids," Cleek said.