Before we go any further, blink your eyes once. It should take three- or four-tenths of a second; any longer might be cause for concern.
That’s all the time it took for Habersham Central’s Andrew Burpee to shoot out of a whistle and score the decisive takedown on Lambert’s Matthew Sheetz in the 106-pound Class AAAAAA state traditional wrestling final last February. A split-second between 55-0 and 54-1 and a split-second that made those 54 wins feel empty.
"I don’t even care about my record this year," Sheetz said. "I just want to win state. I had a good record last year, but it didn’t matter all that much in the end."
Few predicted Sheetz would be the Longhorns’ only state placer last year as a sophomore. Precious fewer thought he would be Lambert’s fourth state runner-up in four years. Still, Sheetz couldn’t help Kevin Contardi’s team reach the state duals.
"We need to get that monkey off our backs, for sure," Contardi said. "…We return a lot of good kids and add three quality freshman and a good move-in. We feel like this is the best shot we’ve had."
A little confidence can go a long way in wrestling. Sheetz certainly earned that with his run; Eric Diemert qualified for state at 113 pounds despite wrestling under-weight; Robbie Powell, a state qualifier at 138 for Lowndes last year, transferred in. Those three don’t disagree with Contardi.
"Everything up to 170 or 182 pounds is pretty stacked," Sheetz said. "I think we’ll go to state and win the region."
Contardi expressed uncertainty about the Horns’ upper weights, but Diemert said wrestlers in higher weights are getting better than in previous years.
With lingering injuries from this summer and fall (illnesses, concussions, tweaked muscles), Contardi may not have his lineup set until late in the season, and that’s normal.
"We’ve had some bad luck with injuries the last few weeks, so it can only get better," Contardi said. "A lot of times, coaches don’t have their lineup the way they want until region. When I coached at Apalachee High School, we started the season 2-9 and finished fourth in state duals."
Contardi preached toughness this summer, Diemert said, and not just the physical component.
"When you get deep in to a match and you’re dog-tired, there’s got to be some want-to in you to keep going," Contardi said. "You’ve got to have that want-to in practice, too…it’s about caring."
That’s what made the difference for Sheetz last year. Lots of kids practice for hours on end; lots of kids are blessed with natural athletic ability; lots of kids know every take-down and defensive move in the book. Lots of kids don’t, however, possess the assuredness that they’re always in a match, that they can erase a big deficit.
Sheetz will wrestle at 120 pounds this year, while Diemert—who Contardi said would’ve been on the podium at state as a sophomore had he wrestled there at 106 pounds—will stay at 106, where he’ll have the advantage of wrestling against underclassmen.
Contardi has had bad luck with wrestlers moving out in recent years. He didn’t find out about Robbie Powell’s arrival until the second day of school this year; Contardi was glad to have a state qualifier moving in this time around.
Wyatt Veal (sr.) placed third last year at 152 pounds in the Horns’ tough area, one that has typically been dominated by Chattahoochee and North Forsyth. Senior Jack Raines started for Lambert last season, and Contardi hopes fellow senior Jack Carmichael can break out this year to help the Horns score points in the upper weights.
Will Kohlins (fr.) won kids state at 160 pounds last year; he’ll join Contardi’s team once Lambert’s football season ends. Peyton Mitchell (fr., 106 pounds) has a chance to be successful early because he will wrestle against plenty of freshmen in the lower weight.
South gave Chattahoochee a run for their money at area duals last year. If Lambert can get through the regular season healthy and at the right weights, the Horns might just be able to send that monkey packing.