The return to the wrestling mats has a fire building inside Hixson High School senior Devotis McCurdy.
Doused in sweat at a recent practice, McCurdy already has dropped close to 15 pounds since football season to get to his peak shape in the 285-pound class, where he is a returning state runner-up.
McCurdy won 44 matches for the Wildcats last season. At the TSSAA Class A/AA state tournament he registered two pins in the first 53 seconds and one 14 seconds into the second round.
However, a 1-0 loss to Fairview's Jackson Clevenger in the state final is what motivates McCurdy to be back stronger than ever as the regular season began Monday for an area rich in wrestling tradition.
"Losing in the finals let me see where I am at and how I can get better," McCurdy said. "It also taught me how to become a champion. The most important thing for me to get back is keeping my conditioning up and working hard. Having a strong bond with my coaches is key, too, because they can teach me what I need to do to get better."
While going hard on the mat for six minutes is different than 48 minutes on Friday nights, McCurdy has enjoyed how the sport has pushed him.
The athletic big man, who can do a back flip, says practice time makes a world of a difference along with a "great" coaching staff.
"In wrestling you and your partner have to work together to get each other better," McCurdy said. "At Hixson we have always wanted to win. We have that hustle and ambition to keep driving and working for it. We have some solid wrestlers coming back who are really good and will all help our team get better."
Hixson also returns junior state champion Trevor Lewis (38-9), who showed unrelenting willpower to finish off his 120-pound championship with a 3-2 decision in the state semifinals and a 8-7 win in the finals. Lewis earned "best match" honors as he fought for bonus points in the final 10 seconds of the title bout.
As Garrick Hall enters his 15th year as head coach of the Wildcats, he knows the patience that is needed early in the season. With 10 returning state qualifiers, though, there is definitely a buzz inside the wrestling room that he helped build.
Hixson's last state championship came in 2014 as that group of wrestlers scrapped for every bonus point and ended up beating Pigeon Forge by a point despite not having an individual state champion.
"If you come in and don't believe you are going to be a state championship team, then you are already behind the 8 ball," Hall said. "If you want to be on the wall of fame, you have to put the time in. There is no instant gratification here."
Hixson returns the third most points from the Class A/AA state traditional tournament, while Signal Mountain (116) and Pigeon Forge (106) have the most.
Signal's state-runner-up Eagles return state champion Daniel Uhorchuk along with second-place finishers Caleb Uhorchuk, Kevin Muschel and Preston Worley. Kale Albritton finished fifth. All five have wrestled varsity since eighth grade.
"Everyone wants to win a state title, but we try not to build our entire identity around that," said Signal Mountain coach Joe Jellison, whose program is chasing its first state championship. "We try to build our identity around camaraderie and being there for your teammates. Things take care of themselves if you take care of the small things first."
Private school powerhouses Baylor and McCallie have 12 of the 14 No. 1 ranked wrestlers according to pin-tn.com. The Red Raiders have seven of those and are led by Jackson Bond, Noah Horst, Garrison Dendy, Connor Duffy and David Harper.
Cleveland has swept the Class AAA state championships the past two years and returns a pair of state champions in Trae McDaniel and Jackson Bradford. Bradley Central looks to be right in the thick of the title hunt again, led by Glenn O'Daniel, Ethan Wilson and Tyrone McDonald.
East Hamilton will feature a fierce trio in Tenario Thomas, Cade Meeks and Jason Brumlow. Whitwell and Walker Valley return powerful heavyweights in James Headrick and Jadon Langford, while Red Bank's Caden Cline is a force to be reckoned with as well.
And that's just the Tennessee teams in the area. Northwest Georgia has its share of state contenders as well.
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.