Last season was one of the banner seasons, as the county performed in a big way with eight state champions.
Four of those wrestlers — Pope’s Jake Henson, Walton’s Jacob Murphy, Kennesaw Mountain’s Justan Rivera and Marietta’s Lawton Ward — return, not only with their sights set on a championship repeat, but also to prevent the county from having to endure what it went through in 2010, when Kennesaw Mountain’s Ryan Maus was the county’s lone champion.
“I remember the year we had one state champion,” said Henson, the son of former McEachern wrestler Brian Henson. “My dad was not happy. That’s not what the county is about.”
Henson has already set a high bar. A state runner-up as a freshman and two-time reigning champion as a sophomore and junior seasons, he enters his senior year looking to three-peat and set a standard for others to follow.
“We’re trying to set the bar high for the next group of guys coming up,” Henson said.
Ward, a senior, has already been an inspiration to members of the Marietta wrestling community. Claiming his first state title last year, Ward became Marietta’s first state champion since Ralph Hudgins won in 1968.
“This was for (coach Tommy Carthers). It was for my team, my family and all of Marietta,” Ward told the Journal after winning his title. “I get the medal, but it should go to everyone that’s supported me.”
Murphy, another senior, showed the courage and resiliency it takes to become a state champion.
In winning his first title, he rallied from a 5-0 third-period deficit to post a 6-5 victory. He scored six straight points over the 65 seconds of the match, including four in the last 8 seconds.
“I think about it some days,” Murphy said of what it took to win his championship. “A lot of people like to bring it up. Any time they ask, I just tell them. It just feels good to know what I accomplished. All of the hard work I did paid off.”
It’s the hard work young wrestlers put in that has Murphy believing there will be more successful years to follow for Cobb County wrestling.
“I definitely think we’re establishing ourselves again,” he said. “It’s usually us and (wrestlers from) Gwinnett (County) that are winning in the biggest class. I don’t know what will happen this year, but I definitely think we can have at least eight champions again.”
Rivera was a seventh-grader in the Kennesaw Mountain school district when Maus won his state title. Since joining the Mustangs’ varsity roster, Rivera has been the wrestler to beat after winning state championships his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I’m nervous before every match,” said Rivera, whose older brother, Jonatan, also was a two-time state champ. “You always think that there’s that one guy that’s out there training harder than you and could end up beating you. That’s always in the back of my mind that I could be upset, but I still have to be me and wrestle the best match that I can.”
Wrestling the best that he can is important for Rivera, but not just for himself.
“One of the things I think about before I go into any match is giving the crowd a good show,” he said. “Winning is important, but I also want the crowd to know that I’m giving everything I can.”
Rivera especially wants the young up-and-comers to see how hard he and the likes of Henson, Murphy, and Ward work their craft to become state champions.
“I think a lot of the young wrestlers notice what we’re doing,” Rivera said. “I’ve seen some new kids in the youth programs that are even tough for me to take down.
“It’s fulfilling to know that the four of us are returning state champions and that we are impacting the lives of these younger guys and what they’re doing and trying to accomplish on the mats.”