By Mike Blackerby
The marathon on the mats is well underway.
Coming on the heels of last week’s regional dual meets, postseason high school wrestling really heats up Friday and Saturday with the state dual championships in Franklin.
Locally, traditional power Pigeon Forge figures to be one of the schools to beat in the eight-team TSSAA Class A/AA State Dual Wrestling Championship field at the Williamson County Ag Expo Center.
Coach Greg Foreman’s Tigers will be going for their fourth state dual title since 2014.
Pigeon Forge squares off against Greenbrier at 3 p.m. on Friday in their quarterfinal match.
The Tigers should have no shortage of momentum after edging defending state duals champion Gibbs 37-34 in the Region 2 championship elimination match to qualify.
“Gibbs is probably a definite top-four team in the state, so it was like a do-or-die situation,” said Foreman, in his 16th year as Tigers coach.
If Pigeon Forge wins its first-round match, the Tigers will advance to Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinals against the victor of the Hixson-Fairview match.
In the opposite bracket, Alcoa meets Signal Mountain and Greeneville tackles Nolensville in other first-round matchups.
The A/AA state dual meet looks to be wide open with Pigeon Forge, Greeneville, Hixson and Fairview all appearing to be capable of emerging through the bracket.
But going in, Foreman said the focus for his team is entirely on Greenbrier.
“They’re a good program, but I feel like we can compete with them and possibly pull off the win and move to the next round,” he said.
“Only a couple of matches separate the top teams. It just depends on the matchups and who is feeling well that day.”
Foreman said the 2018-19 Tigers have featured a good blend of newcomers and veterans.
He said it all starts with seniors Colton Poole, C.J. Dyer, Jacob McCarter and Andrew Baiamonte.
“Our four seniors have done a phenomenal job leading the team and giving some of their wisdom and experiences to the younger guys,” he said.
“They’ve been on teams that have kind of been on all ends of the spectrum.”
The veterans have embraced a talented group of freshmen, including Hunter Gentry, Garrett Foreman, Josh Parton and Colby Dalon.
Foreman said wrestling has become so popular at Pigeon Forge in the last few years that the Tigers simply reload rather than rebuild.
“Most of our freshmen were in our youth and middle school programs. They have a lot of big-tournament experience coming in as freshmen and are able to come in and perform at their best. You get to the point where you’re not building the culture, you’re sustaining it.”
In the Class AAA State Dual Wrestling Championship, four local teams – Halls, Sevier County, Heritage and Maryville – will be on the mats at 5 p.m. Friday in Franklin for their first-round matches.
Halls drew perennial state power Bradley Central while Sevier County faces defending state champion Cleveland. Also, Heritage meets Beech and Maryville is opposite Arlington in the 32-team field.
Halls routed Karns (69-0) and Sevier County (66-12) in the Region 2 meet to advance to state duals for the seventh year in a row.
Red Devils coach Shannon Sayne said his team has exceeded expectations this season after graduating 10 wrestlers from a year ago.
“It has been a different kind of year,” said Sayne.
“It was supposed to be a down year, but it has been a growing year and a fun year to coach these guys.”
Senior Ian Morgan, who wrestles in the 132-pound division, has lost just twice this season.
“He has beaten several state finalists and medalists this year,” said Sayne.
“Ian has had a phenomenal year and he has started peaking at the right time.”
Sophomore Cainon Elkins (152) is another standout to watch for Halls.
“He’s strong and athletic,” offered Sayne, in his 12th season as Red Devils coach.
Sayne said everybody is still chasing Cleveland and Bradley Central, and this weekend’s state duals will be no different.
“If you’re gonna win it, you’ve got to beat Cleveland or Bradley,” he said.
“But sometimes you’ve got things like injuries and sickness going around, so you never know what’s going to happen.”
There’s more wrestling on tap in coming days as regional individual qualifiers and then the state traditional championship will be held Feb. 14-16, also in Franklin.