The Carrollton High School wrestling team will be in full force this week when it arrives on the state's biggest stage.
After qualifying eight grapplers out of the Class AAAAA West Sectional this past Saturday in Buford, the Trojans aim to make some noise at the GHSA Traditional Wrestling State Championships at the Macon Centreplex when they bust open the Class AAAAA bracket on Thursday afternoon.
"I'm really excited. I can't say enough about having this number of kids in this position. It speaks volumes to their work ethic, the amount of work that (assistant) coach (Jeff) Sharp has put in with them. It's been a great year for the Trojans," Carrollton head coach Michael Cleek said.
Carrollton's state qualifiers feature a nice balance of four seniors and four younger talents, as Luke Frost (106 lbs.), Jacob Walsingham (152), Hunter Cantoral (160) and Grant McKinley (170) serve as the veteran leaders, while Brent Parivechio (120), Kaleb Thomaston (145), Brock Bibbee (182) and Chase Sippola (195) represent the future bell cows for the Black and Gold.
Cleek said getting those younger guys acclimated to the state championship environment twice this year after qualifying for the state duals last month will serve as a huge boost for the program moving forward.
"It's really awesome that they're going to have an experience to go to the big dance. They're going to know what it's like, they know what kind of work they had to put in to get there and they know the quality of wrestlers that are going to be at state," Cleek said.
Of course, this marks a bittersweet going-out party for the Trojan seniors, who have literally been working for years to reach this point. And now that it's all down to the final few days, reality is beginning to sink in that the end is near.
"It's kind of surreal, but it's also something you want to take advantage of. We're going to go out guns blazing," McKinley said.
The Trojan seniors couldn't have scripted a better finish than going back to Macon following a top-eight finish in the state duals in January. Now they're seeking the storybook ending with a podium push of bringing home some hardware.
"It's a great opportunity to be able to go to state twice, especially being my senior year. I get to go out there and give it all I've got and make it worthwhile since it will be my last tournament," Cantoral said. "I'm not going to wrestle in college, so it's literally leave it all on the mat.
"Since this is pretty much who I've wrestled with my whole career, it is pretty emotional that this will be the last time we do something together like this."
Walsingham added that while remaining true to the process and staying on the grind during the course of a long season can be difficult, it's all worth it in the end.
"It's all starting to sink in a lot, actually. You always miss it more when you're gone. You talk to all the seniors from last year and every one of them say they miss it," Walsingham said.
Knowing that this is their final week together, Frost said there's been a different vibe in the practice room — where all eyes are on the prize.
"You can just see that everybody is giving it their all and pushing to the finish line," Frost said. "We want to leave it all out on the mat. We want to come off the mat with no regrets since this is our last year and our last tournament."
Cleek credited the determination of his seniors for never wavering in the face of adversity this season. And now they're being rewarded with one final hurrah.
"The seniors just said, 'No, we're not going to have a bad year. We're going to do what we're going to do,'" Cleek said. "This has been the best year of wrestling since I've been at Carrollton. These seniors have done such a phenomenal job. We made it to the (state) duals and placed in the top eight. Now it's kind of their mantra that they're going to finish the job. They're going to complete the drill."