The year 2016 has become a notorious one. Don't tell that to North Forsyth head wrestling coach Travis Jarrard.
He says the past 12 months have been the best of his life. In fact, he stops a conversation mid-track—eyes widening, hands gesturing—and bewilders himself talking about it.
“This year has been unreal for me,” Jarrard says. “I got to work for ESPN for wrestling. I bought a new house which I absolutely love. The Cubs just won the World Series.”
Yes, the Iowa native is still processing the fact that the Chicago Cubs are finally champions of baseball. But there's something else that makes Jarrard gleam even more than that—his wrestling program at North.
“The team this past year took a big step up,” Jarrard said. “This is really the first time we're heading into the season with expectations. People are talking about us. You see it on message boards—North Forsyth and Camden County are the favorites to take state. It's there. You don't want to focus too much on it, but it's there.”
Yep, the Raiders are on the map, thanks to a dominant junior class. Last season, with the core of the team composed of the “super sophomores,” the Raiders finished second at the area duals and traditional state championships, while Jackson Bardall—now a scholarship football player at Eastern Kentucky—notched North's first state champion in 13 years. The moment brought Jarrard to his knees, Bardall to the floor and the program to new heights.
Bardall (285 weight class), Connor Carroll (152), Hunter Loyd (195) and Paul Watkins (113) earned FCN first team all-county honors, while Connor Cross, Spencer Dooley, Brantley Little, Cole Tenety and Bradley Thomas all made the second team.
Loyd and Bardall moved on, but the team returns the core of its lineup that includes three state placers from last season—Watkins, Bradley Thomas and Carroll. Underclassmen who were in the state lineup last year at the traditional meet include Walid Abdullahi, Watkins, Tenety, Dooley, Riley Wheeler, Nathan Grimes, Andrew Leggett, Little and Cross. The total of 13 state qualifiers were the most in the program's history. The team won the Area 6-6A duals and traditional meets, boasted four area champions and totaled a 31-6 dual meet record.
Eight of those wrestlers are part of the team's giant core of juniors. They're finally upperclassmen. They're finally expected to do great things—not just by their coaches (who have always known the group was talented), but by peers.
“The coach at Camden County is one of my buddies and we've talked. He'll put in the word for us and we'll joke around, but yeah—usually when we've been good, there still weren't many outside our program who talked us up,” Jarrard said. “Nobody really knew who we were.”
The Raiders will enter this season looking for their sixth consecutive area championship and sixth-straight top-10 finish at state.
Jarrard says a unique makeup of his team keeps the expectations out of the conversation. The Raiders are focused, hardworking and almost conveniently naive when it comes to the sport itself. Jarrard explains.
“What's crazy is, I don't even think many of these kids are big fans of the sport,” he said. “They're great at it. They do it, but these kids are all huge football fans and stuff like that. They don't sit around and watch wrestling. We'll do team trivia as an exercise and ask if they even know who the last national champion in the NCAA is and they don't know. There's noise, but I don't think they hear it. These are just hard working kids; they've been through the process and stayed together, and that just breeds success.”
A great example is last year's state championship, where Jarrard was on record exclaiming that Jackson Bardall “didn't even like wrestling.” It was tongue-in-cheek, but Bardall played along and offered up what hopefully becomes a legendary response.
“I sure do like winning though,” he said, fists raised.
The attitude of Bardall bleeds through. Bradley Thomas, one of the team's seniors, admits he sticks to the grind of wrestling because of the camaraderie and the work ethic—not the sport itself. Thomas, a state placer last season, hopes to sniff a state title as an individual—though he realistically will stop and say anywhere “between three and four” is good with him. He's more concerned with a team victory.
A turning point for the Raiders last season might have been when they fell just 37-30 in the state duals in Macon against Archer—a team that defeated them 60-17 in a previous matchup. In the moment, Jarrard was blown away with the fight from his team. Now, he thinks back to that match with some different analysis.
“We didn't win. We didn't win,” he states, sternly. Still, it was a moment of growth for a team that Jarrard says has never taken a step in the wrong direction.
“Our coaches talk about it all the time, and it's funny—we keep waiting for this team to have a misstep, or have a bad week. But this team just keeps going and grinding,” Jarrard said. “They never have a bad week. I think our performance in the state duals and then at state really showed that.”