Two months ago, Josh Kalue had never wrestled before, but there he was on the mat Saturday in the final match of the Hiram New Year’s Duals with the championship on the line.
All Central needed Kalue to do was not get pinned by Dacula’s more seasoned wrestler at 182 pounds. If he was pinned, the teams would be tied, and a winner would be decided by a tiebreaker.
Instead, Kalue twice fought off his back to stay alive and outlast his opponent, clinching Central’s 33-30 victory and capping an unlikely run to the duals championship.
"The mantra we went out there saying is, ‘You represent more than yourself out there on the mat,’" Central head coach Jeremiah Walker said. "It all came to fruition on the mat. He knew this was more than himself. If I go out here and fight for everything I’ve got, I can help our team win the championship."
Kalue shouldn’t have even wrestled with Central’s varsity Saturday, but injuries struck the Bulldogs’ lineup. Central was without starters Knight Bankston and Carson Pillow to start the tournament, so Walker called up Kalue, a freshman, and sophomore Hunter Stephens from junior varsity. Still, the Bulldogs started with a 51-12 victory against Sandy Creek.
Injuries struck again in Central’s next dual, against host Hiram, when 160-pound starter Caleb Troutt got hurt in the first match. In came freshman Chandler Kane to fill Troutt’s spot. Even so, Central won 54-30.
With Kalue, Kane and Stephens in, Central had underclassmen in nine of its 14 weight classes. And yet the Bulldogs cruised past East Paulding (72-7) and edged Lanier (40-33) to meet Dacula in the duals finals.
Normally, Central would have had plenty of confidence facing Dacula. The Bulldogs had defeated the Falcons, 36-33, on Dec. 3, 2014. It was a solid win, a notch against a Gwinnett County program.
But the slim margin of victory that day gave Central pause Saturday. The Bulldogs had been at full strength on Dec. 3 with Bankston, Pillow and Troutt in the lineup. Now, they were on the bench as spectators.
For psychological approach, Walker went with defiance.
"We just got them all fired up," Walker said. "Why can’t we win this, you know?"
The regulars performed as expected. Hunter Kurowski (120), Nathan Kistler (126) and Miles Bankston (132) won their matches. Brice Whitlow (138) and Hunter Lamm (285) got pins.
But fittingly, the dual came down to Kalue, Kane and Stephens in the final three matches – first Kane at 160, then Stephens at 170 and finally Kalue, twice fighting off his back, to give Central its first duals tournament championship during Walker’s tenure.
"There was this awesome energy," Walker said. "With such young guys stepping up big, they’re understanding duals meet scores, they’re understanding the fundamentals, that the basics and doing them well can win dual meets."