If there’s an operative word for the Jefferson wrestling program this season, it’s “change.”

After 19 seasons and an unprecedented 36 state championships (18 traditional and 18 dual) under the direction of hall-of-fame coach Doug Thurmond, a new era begins as Kyle Baird takes over the state’s most storied wrestling program.

There’s also been some change atop Class AAA wrestling. This is the first time since 2001 the Dragons won’t enter the season as a defending traditional state champion. The historic — and astounding — streak ended last year at 18 straight with a third-place finish in Class AAA. Jefferson did, however, maintain its dual championship streak with an 18th-straight title in 2019.

But beyond those sizable shifts, the Dragons’ lineup will experience quite the overhaul for 2019-20, too. Graduation took seven senior starters from the roster. That group included five state placers, two state champions and two runners-up.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Baird, who was promoted to the Dragons’ head-coaching role after apprenticing as an assistant under Thurmond. “But all the guys already know that, and we’ve already kind of talked about that and where we stand in relation to everyone else in triple-A.”

Baird added that the Dragons have “a firm grasp on what we need to do to get where we need to be.”

With that in mind, Jefferson will look to two of its returning standouts for big seasons this year. Mason Mingus won the 106-pound state title last year and Tyson Thurmond was a runner-up at 113. They’ll be joined by a crop of promising young wrestlers.

“With Mason and Tyson, I expect a lot out of them,” Baird said. “We do have some freshmen that are in the lineup that are going to be really tough, and I expect them to do really good things in terms of, come state time, they should be at the top of the field as well.”

Among those up-and-coming wrestlers Baird mentioned are Chaz McDonald and Davis Dollar in the lower weights and Luke Cochran in the middle weights.

The team will also welcome back senior Christian Parten from an ACL injury. Baird calls that “a big help there.” Parten qualified for state at 126 pounds last year. Avery Nelms, Riley Dugan, Cutter Love and Cannon McKinney also return.

Nelms and Dugan could wrestle anywhere between 160-182 pounds. Love competed at 220 pounds last year. McKinney, who will wrestle in the heavier weight classes, was in an automobile accident at the end of last season, which took him out of the lineup.

“So, he’s back, and he’s slimmed up and lost some weight, and he looks good,” Baird said.

The coach added that his squad will have some wrestlers “that may surprise some people.”

As for how Jefferson will compete against the area, Baird expects crosstown rival Jackson County to be very tough.

“They’ve got a lot of guys coming back that are state-caliber placers,” Baird said.

As for the rest of Class AAA, Sonoraville and North Hall — both of which finished ahead of Jefferson at traditional state last year — should be loaded again.

“I pretty much know what North Hall and Sonoraville have,” Baird said. “Most of their guys are coming back … I expect them to be tough, and expect them, when it’s time to wrestle, they’re going to come after us, and I think they expect the same from us.”

He also pointed to Lumpkin County as a team that might get overlooked but one he expects to be good.

Baird doesn’t see any reason why the Dragons won’t be there with everyone else in Class AAA come postseason time.

“I don’t see why we can’t do that,” he said. “We’ve got guys that are pushing themselves and want to be there. I think that’s what it comes down to is we’re hungry, we’ve been hungry before and we’re hungry now, and guys want to get back to where we were two years ago.”

Jefferson’s schedule will differ a bit as it won’t travel to Tennessee or Louisiana for late-December holiday tournaments as it has done the past few years. Baird did enter his team into a large, December traditional tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina, which will feature around 90 teams and have 64-man brackets for each weight class.

“It’s going to be good to get ourselves ready to grind through an individual tournament, kind of like state will be,” Baird said.

Baird also pointed to a big dual date on the calendar in January at Eastside (S.C.), a dual state champion last year.

“That will be a good little test just before dual-state comes up,” he said.

As for Baird — a Dragon alum who won four individual state titles as a high schooler and returned to his alma mater to coach — his debut as Jefferson’s wrestling head coach draws nearer. The Dragons open the season Dec. 6-7 at the Panther Invitational at Jackson County.

“I’m fired up,” Baird said. “I’m ready to go. I love wrestling season. This is what I came back to do. This is why I started wrestling. I feel like I’m 15 years old again and in high school and ready to get my first match under my belt.”

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