The wait to get back to the top wasn’t long. But for Jefferson head wrestling coach Kyle Baird, winning the trophy felt more like a relief than anything.
The Dragons went 3-0 in the GHSA Class 4A championship duals Saturday, Jan. 30, in their home gym and defeated Region 8-AAAA foe Flowery Branch 61-15 in the finals to claim their 19th state dual title in 20 years.
It’s the first state championship — duals or traditional — for Baird as the Dragons’ head coach in his second season at the helm, and winning it at home made it that much more special for him — an accomplishment made possible by the GHSA’s decision to move the state dual tournaments to host schools for each classification due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Personally, it’s great to do it in this building,” Baird said. “The coolest thing is I won a state championship as a wrestler in the old gym and now I get my first one as a coach here in this one. And most of all, it’s cool for these guys because we took our lumps last year and finished fourth in both (dual and traditional) tournaments, and they were determined to win another title. They got to wrestle in front of their home crowd. It’s just been a crazy year with COVID and everything. We had to shut down for a week at one point, and here we are today.
“I’m just fired up.”
But perhaps nobody was more fired up on the Jefferson bench than former legendary head coach Doug Thurmond, who guided the Dragons to 18 consecutive traditional state titles from 2001-2018 and 18 straight dual championships from 2002-2019. After Jefferson’s Avery Nelms recorded a pin to clinch the finals match for the Dragons, Thurmond, who has stayed on as an assistant after stepping down from the head job following the 2018-19 season, raced over and gave Baird a fist bump and hand slap.
“That’s pretty cool to be able to celebrate and win this one with him right there by me,” Baird said of Thurmond. “He coached me for a while, and he’s become my coaching mentor. I can bounce some ideas off of him, and he can give me some advice here and there. I don’t have all the answers, so it’s good to be around somebody that’s been around for so many years coaching. He’s such a legend that winning this was almost a relief for me. It’s not necessarily the excitement that you might always see. I’ve got such large shoes to fill, but the coaches and kids are behind me. They’ve told me, ‘It’s time to start your own streak and do your thing,’ and I’m ready to go get another one.”
The heavily-favored Dragons got off to a quick start Saturday morning toward their quest for a title, as they breezed past Central Carroll in the quarterfinals 62-13 on the strength of nine pins in 14 bouts.
But they were pushed in the semifinals by upset-minded North Oconee, the third-place team in Region 8, before holding off the Titans 36-30. North Oconee, which wound up finishing third in the state duals, cut Jefferson’s lead to 36-24 with pins by Gavin Bloom at 195 pounds and Jonah Hunt at 220 and had a chance to force a tiebreaker with pins in the final two bouts. But though they lost their bouts, Jefferson’s Colton Steele (285) and Chaz McDonald (106) were able to avoid pins and the Dragons held on.
While most of the Jefferson wrestlers appeared to have a relaxed demeanor in the morning matches, the intensity was noticeably turned up for the afternoon finals match against Flowery Branch.
The Dragons came out aggressively with Davis Dollar (120) and Tyson Thurmond (126) picking up major decisions over their opponents to start the tilt. Davis Dendy (132) and Mason Mingus (138) added pins to put Jefferson up 20-0. After Seth Larson netted Flowery Branch 3 points with a 4-0 decision at 145, Jefferson’s Hoke Poe-Hogan won by a technical fall at 152, and Creed Thomas (160) and Luke Cochran (170) notched back-to-back pins to extend the Dragons’ lead to 37-3.
The clincher came when Nelms (182) downed Will McDowell 40 seconds into their bout, and the Dragons went on to pick up pins from Cannon McKinney (195), Steele and McDonald.
“A lot of those guys didn’t feel like they wrestled their best in the semis, so they were a little extra fired up (for the finals),” Baird said. "They wanted to come out and make a point to everybody in there and let everybody know who they were. I think they all wrestled well and did what they were supposed to do and what they expected to do. Some kids took some lumps here and there, but other kids made up for it. We’re a team, and that’s what championship teams do.”
And as the crowd began to disperse on the floor, Baird, with his business-as-usual approach, was already looking toward the region traditional tournament, which the Dragons will host Saturday, Feb. 6, before competing in the state tournament Feb. 11-12 in Macon.
“We’re going to be looking for the same thing we had (Saturday),” Baird said. “We’ll be looking to fix a few things to make our matches better. We’ll go compete Saturday, re-evaluate and then get ready for the next Thursday and Friday. For now, we’re going to enjoy this one for about a day, and then it’s time to go back to work.”