The Eagles will travel to Darlington on Saturday for the Area 3-A Dual Meet to determine the teams that will compete for the state title in Macon next weekend. And, in Class A, only the top two teams will advance from area to state, adding on the pressure.
"This is what it all comes down to — trying to get back to the state tournament again," MZ coach Michael Cleek said. "It's incredible pressure. You can't afford to lose any. If you come out Saturday and you lose your first dual, you're behind the 8-ball and have to fight your way back through. Then hope that the team you lost to gets first place."
The importance of the placing is because if the Eagles were to finish third, they could challenge the second-place team — if they haven't faced them already — for a trip to state.
Since the dual meet format started in 2002, the state title has been won by Jefferson or Bremen 10 of the 11 years. Both of those schools are now in Class AA, meaning there is a little more hope for everyone else. But that doesn't mean it's a slam dunk — or an easy pin, in this case. Co-state champion Holy Innocents' is still in Class A, and Gordon Lee is in MZ's area.
"Tough competition. Got to go up against Trion, Gordon Lee and Darlington, who, I guess are going to be three of the favorites in our area. We've got to try to pull out a couple wins against them. That way we can see if we can get back to Macon and maybe make a little noise down there, hopefully place," Cleek said.
Competing in Class A, when it comes to wrestling, has its disadvantages. Along with only having the top two teams advance to state, there is no split between the public and private schools on the mat.
"There's a load of competition, and this isn't like other single-A sports — football, softball, basketball — public and private is still one unified thing. We have to go up against the private schools. We're going to have to wrestle Holy Innocents', we're going to have to wrestle Darlington, First Presbyterian. There are a lot of very good private schools that put a lot of time and money into their wrestling team, and we're going to have to go up against that," Cleek said.
With that competition on the horizon, it will take every Eagle contributing. Mt. Zion has relied on heavyweight Will Sizemore, Javier Martinez (132) and Fernando Valles (145) throughout their careers, but the success will come if the younger grapplers can continue their early-season success.
"We're expecting great things out of some of our younger kids. We've got Ashton Robinson at 106, he's only lost one match all year. I think he's like 26-1. We've got Hunter Smith at 120 doing a great job for us," Cleek said. "Then, really, the big surprise for us is how well our freshmen have stepped up. Efron Valles at 138 has placed at almost every tournament. Ben Sizemore (170), since he cracked the starting lineup, has placed at every tournament we've been at. We've got some great kids that are working hard. I'm pleased with everyone we've got top to bottom."
A trip to Macon for the duals would mean a third straight trip for MZ and a sign that the maturation process is in full swing for a young team that has grown up a lot. It has shown in the results so far this season and as the Eagles prepare for Saturday.
"I think what we've seen with this group of kids, we talked earlier this year about them being young for the last two years, now we're finally starting to see a degree of maturity. We've been to Macon. Some of them have been to Gwinnett and they realize when we're in the practice room, we can't be little kids. We've had to grow up, we've had to step up and it shows in the practice room," Cleek said. "We practiced two and a half hours [Wednesday], and there wasn't any hiccups. Nobody got off task."