Jefferson may not have won a state title this past February, but coach Kyle Baird learned a lot about his squad.
Hit with a litany of injuries, the Dragons took just nine wrestlers to state, but managed a fourth-place finish.
“I had a lot of kids outwrestle expectations,” said Baird, who took over at the longtime wrestling powerhouse last year.
Now reinforcements are on the way.
Jefferson will welcome three freshmen rising stars to strengthen a squad with a six state placers from last year and multiple injured wrestlers set to return to the fold.
It could all spur a return to the top of the state for a program that saw 18-year state title streaks in both traditional and dual competition come to an end over the past two seasons.
“We’re in a good spot right now with our lineup,” Baird said.
•Lineup: Jefferson returns plenty. Highlighting the holdovers from last year are three state runners-up — Tyson Thurmond, Mason Mingus and Chaz McDonald. Thurmond placed second at 120 and Mingus at 126, while McDonald was a finalist at 106. Then, there’s Davis Dollar, who took third at 113; Grant Hamilton, who was fifth at 152; and Avery Nelms, who was sixth at 170. Bryant Cox and Colton Steele also qualified for state, though Steele was a scratch due to an injury. Another one of the program’s young talented wrestlers, Luke Cochran, is back after an injury wiped out his postseason. Baird said he’ll have a lineup that’s “pretty dang reliable” through the 182 class and then at heavyweight. “And then you’ll have some people step up between there and do the job” Baird said. Both Cannon Kinney and Cutter Love should return to add more strength to the lineup. The newcomers, however, could be game changers. Baird said he has three “stud freshmen” with Creed Thomas, Hoke Poe and Davis Dendy. “Those kids are unbelievable talents as freshmen,” Baird said. “I don’t wrestle with them anymore just because I’ll hurt myself, and I’m still a young guy. Those guys, they wrestle non-stop. They expect to win all the time, which is something you like to have on your team.” Jefferson will also be bolstered by Hart County transfer, Ayers Honiotes (Sr.), who reached the Class AAA sectionals last year.
•Schedule: The Dragons will wrestle in a high-profile dual with North Hall early in the season and will be tested in tournaments at Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla. Baird called the Orlando event “a huge tournament.”
•Region/state outlook: Jefferson has moved up to Class AAAA and into Region 8-AAAA. One of the toughest region competitors will be North Oconee. “They’re going to be really tough,” Baird said. “They’re bringing a lot of kids back.” Madison County and Flowery Branch also finished in the top 10 at state last year. At the state level, West Laurens is a perennial high-placer. “They always have a pretty good crew," Baird said.
•Goals: With what his program both returns and has added, the objective for Baird is simple: “My goal is a state championship in both (duals and traditional),” he said. “That’s our goal.” The path to those goals both go through Jefferson, where both region tournaments (duals and traditional) will be held, as well as the first round of state duals and the dual state championships. At the same time, these are nervous moments as COVID-19 could threaten the season at any point. “We’re trying to figure out ways to split up our group so that if one kid gets it, the whole team is not exposed,” Baird said. But the second-year coach is plenty excited, too. “I have a good team, and I’m in a good spot,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”