Chattanooga area eighth-grade wrestlers making their marks as high school competitors [photos]

Chattanooga area eighth-grade wrestlers making their marks as high school competitors [photos]

January 20th, 2017 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Preps

Preston Worley, right, wrestles at 132 pounds on the Signal Mountain varsity squad.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Eighth-grade wrestlers making their marks as high school competitors

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Last weekend, East Hamilton beat Walker Valley in a down-to-the-wire wrestling match, and an eighth-grader secured the win.

There are a handful of eighth-graders competing in high school varsity meets this season, including Elijah Vance, who put East Hamilton over the top last week.

"He's actually a backup 106-pounder, but our 113-pounder has been injured and he's been starting there," Hurricanes coach Ryan Cooper said. "He's 12-3 as an eighth-grader who has been wrestling as a backup."

There are four eighth-graders wrestling for Signal Mountain — Daniel Uhorchuk, Kale Albritton, Kevin Muschel and Preston Worley — but for Eagles coach Joe Jellison the reasoning was based on being able to field a full team.

"We're a program with middle school and high school programs," Jellison said. "Our decision was like a two-edged sword — benefiting the high school team but perhaps hurting the middle school team. But we still have 20 middle school wrestlers."

Another eighth-grader, McCallie's Alex Whitworth, is a year-round wrestler and has had the biggest impact on his team. Whitworth was the 106-pound runner-up at the McCallie Invitational, and that finals loss is the only setback he has suffered in 21 matches.

"Alex spends a lot of time at it in the offseason. It's something he's passionate about and something his parents have supported," coach Mike Newman said. "Having talent is one thing and having opportunity is another, but it can be special when those are combined with that wrestler's passion."

Whitworth is one of few McCallie wrestlers to spend all of his eighth-grade season on the varsity, the others being five-time state champion T.J. Duncan and four-time titlist Ryan Scott.

The positives are self-explanatory, but there can be minuses.

"You worry about how they'll adapt when the competition is stepped up, especially a kid at a middle or upper weight, and we're always mindful of their confidence," Newman said. "You have to see if they have the maturity, strength and experience week in and week out over the course of a full season."

The public school season in Hamilton County is limited — eight to nine weeks — which curtails extended training, and Signal Mountain and East Hamilton are the only wrestling-program high schools with middle schools under the same roof, which allows them to legally use eighth-graders under TSSAA rules.

"You might as well move them up if you can," Cooper said. "It will give the kids more quality mat time. The (Hamilton County Athletic Conference middle school) season is so short that they can't get the wrestling they will with the high school program."

When Jellison approached some of his youngsters about wrestling with the high school team at Signal, he said they jumped at the opportunity.

"When we told them we were thinking about moving them up, they were for it," he said. "They weren't going to get a lot of good competition in middle school, and Kevin and Kale just dominated middle school competition last season. Them staying with the middle school might've helped that team, but they weren't getting a whole lot of competition.

"Uhorchuk had not wrestled with the middle school but had spent his time in AAU programs, and he actually came to us about wrestling with the high school varsity."

Still, Jellison and the others have considerations beyond the program.

"It's good that these guys are getting an early taste of what it's like, but they're still young teenagers and in some cases they're going against grown guys," Jellison said. "Strength is my biggest concern because they are sometimes wrestling stronger, more physical kids."

Cooper doesn't particularly worry about injuries against older, more mature wrestlers.

"It's not boxing or the MMA," he said. "A lot of times when we bring people up they're in the lighter weights, where there's less chance of big strength or age differences."

Cooper brought up a couple of eighth-graders last year also, and one of those, Cade Meeks, finished third in the region and qualified for the state. The other, Conner Thornburg, was 17-4 before fracturing his wrist in the practice room a couple of weeks prior to the region tournament.

"So many of the eighth-graders are wrestling in the offseason and have gotten used to being in big matches. Those opportunities weren't around 15-20 years ago like they are now," Newman said. "If you look at Georgia or even Tennessee, kids are getting better quicker than they have in the past."

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfree or 423-886-4765. Follow him on Twitter @wardgossett.