As with nearly every sport during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Georgia High School Association wrestling postseason will have a decidedly different look this winter.
In an effort to limit the amount of people at competitions, the GHSA will hold all its tournaments at school sites. The postseason begins this week with area duals (for the bottom three classifications) and region duals (for the top four classifications) and will continue next week with the newly added state preliminaries round. Those four-team qualifying tournaments - seeded based on area finish - will be held Jan. 22-23 at each area or region champion's school.
One team will advance from the qualifying round, and each of the eight qualifiers in each classification will compete for state championships at predetermined host sites.
The GHSA, in an effort to even out the number of teams in each area, has created new areas in the lower three classifications. For instance, Region 6-AAA, which has nine schools, has its wrestling teams scattered across three areas.
Coahulla Creek, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and Sonoraville will wrestle at LaFayette in the Area 6 tournament, while Murray County and North Murray will be at the Area 5 event at Region 7 member Gilmer and Rockmart is hosting the Area 4 tournament, where the competition will include fellow Region 6 member Adairsville.
With the exception of the event at LaFayette, which will take place Friday, all of the area/region tournaments involving local schools are this Saturday.
The thinning of the tournaments has taken some of the intrigue out of the opening round for postseason duals. For example, only one team will be eliminated at LaFayette, though winning the tournament will have its advantages.
"The winner of the area will host the quad tournament next week, so that's big," said Sonoraville coach Randy Steward, whose team is seeking its first state duals championship after winning three consecutive state traditional tournament titles in Class AAA.
"We've got experienced guys back," Stewart added, "and those guys have to get bonus points at every weight possible for us to win this."
Leading the charge for the Phoenix are Eli Knight (132 pounds), David O'Neal (145), Colt Weaver (160), Gavin Harper (182), Jebb Knight (195), Joseph Bryan (220) and Jaxx Knight (285).
Heritage is hosting the 7-AAAA tournament, and the Generals figure to be in a three-way fight for the title with Northwest Whitfield and Central-Carrollton. The Generals will field a young squad that has underclassmen filling eight of the 14 weight classes, though sophomore Tate Thomas (106) is a returning state qualifier.
"I think we have a shot at winning the area if everything goes our way," said Heritage coach Mike Craft, who also has returning state qualifiers in Mike Stokes (152) and Zach Brown (220).
Craft also said COVID-19 could cause teams to have to alter their lineups - or worse.
"There may already be a team that may have to drop out due to COVID," he said. "We don't know anything for sure yet."
One of most competitive tournaments this week is expected to the Area 7-AA event at Model High School in Rome, where the host is the favorite. Dade County had a strong postseason a year ago, though, and coach Jeff Poston believes his Wolverines will likely battle Pepperell for second place.
"I think Model has the most complete team in our area this year, and Pepperell has three or four really good kids," said Poston, whose team is led by state traditional medalists Cayden Cooper, Jake Gatlin and Cody Williams. "We have a chance, but we don't have a full lineup right now, so I don't have any moves to make and matchups will be key."
One 7-AA team likely not in contention is Chattooga, which swept the dual and traditional state titles in 2020. Coach Brian Beasley said the Indians, on top of "big losses due to graduation," are without several returning wrestlers for reasons ranging from personal matters to COVID-19.
"It's been a rough year," Beasley said.
Trion is hosting the Area 7-A tournament and will be a strong favorite after winning a state duals title a year ago. The Bulldogs are 10-0 this season and have won championships at the Carrollton Duals, John Smith Invitational, Rockmart Invitational and the Dick Clem Invitational.
Calhoun is competing in the 7-AAAAA tournament at Cartersville, while Dalton is part of the 5-AAAAAA event at Carrollton.