The Mt. Zion High School wrestling coach is taking a school-record 10 Eagles to the GHSA Wrestling Traditional State Tournament today in Macon, and it’s a group that has been dedicated and dead-set on delivering a special season on the mat this winter.
And after all the hard work it has put in to get to this point, MZ is primed for a payday.
“This bunch of boys, they started talking about getting to where we are this weekend at the end of last season. They talked about it when we did weight-lifting and running after school in the spring, they talked about it when we did camp over the summer, they talked about it — privately amongst themselves, probably — when we were playing football. Just about how they were going to build off the momentum of the successful football season,” Cleek said. “Then we rolled in here and they worked nonstop to get better. I couldn’t be more prouder of these bunch of boys.”
The Eagles bring a pair of Class A West Sectional champions to the Centreplex in Javier Martinez at 132 pounds — the team’s lone senior — along with junior heavyweight Will Sizemore.
Along with that duo, MZ has four No. 2 seeds in Ashton Robinson (106), Hunter Smith (113), Fernando Valles (145) and Daniel Anderson (182) hitting the mats today at 1 p.m. in the quarterfinal round, while Mitchell Chambers (120), Dillion Lovell (126), Nathan Whaley (195) and Eugene “Buddha” McClure (220) round out the state qualifiers as No. 4 seeds.
Cleek is pretty confident that his top-seeded guys won’t have too much trouble getting through their first match, but he said the key is getting all the No. 2 guys through the quarterfinal round.
“You win the first match and start off on a good roll, we can build on that success, that momentum, to get us through,” Cleek said. “But we have got some very difficult matchups with some of the three seeds from the other side in the Athens Christians, the Holy Innocents’ and the Commerce kids. But I wouldn’t trade my bunch of guys for any in the state.”
Along with high expectations from Sizemore and Martinez, Cleek is looking for a big weekend from Valles.
“He is probably the most serious-minded wrestler we have. He’s very business-like in his approach to wrestling. Very methodical, purpose-driven and he’s on a mission. You can tell when you talk to him in his eyes, the way he moves,” Cleek said.
Cleek also thinks Robinson and Smith in the lightweight divisions have a shot at making some noise, too, though he is confident in all 10 grapplers.
“I really have faith in the entire team, but these are the ones that I think the brackets, the way they worked out, are going to favor more than some of the others,” Cleek said.
The Eagles are looking forward to the opportunity to shine this weekend on the state’s biggest stage, and probably none more than Martinez.
The first-time state qualifier was injured during his sophomore campaign and lost on a controversial decision against Gordon Lee last year in sectionals to just miss out on state. And now that he’s finally here, he intends to make the most of it.
“This week has been special for me. It hit me right after sectionals that this would be my last week, my last tournament. And to go out in Macon, I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Martinez said. “I’ve been waiting for this chance since my freshman year. I had an injury my sophomore year and last year I thought I should have went to state, but one point was the difference. This year, I’ve been working so hard for this moment, and I’m just excited for it.”
Sizemore, who is 37-1 on the year, is a returning state-placer at the Class A level, and his goal is to be standing at the top of the podium come Saturday night. Of course, it’s a tough road to get there, beginning with Ben Rousseau of Holy Innocents’ in the quarterfinals. The other top seed is undefeated Nolan Bullard (25-0) of George Walton Academy, and Sizemore said he’d love the opportunity for that championship showdown.
“Yes, sir. That’s who we’re gunning for. The No. 1 seed from the other side. I’m looking to see him in the finals,” Sizemore said.
Upon entering the final tournament of a season that already includes a fourth-place showing at the state duals, the Eagles are looking to cap it off with another memorable weekend in Macon.
“I keep talking about climbing rungs on the ladder. Well, you know, we’re at the top of the ladder right now. We have gotten the vast majority of our team through to state. We have an opportunity. And with all things in life, all you’re guaranteed is an opportunity. Now it is up to them to reach out and grasp that opportunity and accomplish something that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Cleek said.