When North Forsyth senior Paul Watkins outlasted North Gwinnett’s Rex McDaniel for a 1-0 win in the GHSA state traditional finals in Macon on Feb. 16, he let out a celebratory yell.
It was a certainly a moment of gratification for him, but it was also one of relief. It was Watkins’ last chance to earn a state title, having advanced far in the state tournament multiple times before. Those losses came with lessons, though, and he took them into his final year of high school competition.
“It was awesome to finally get that title,” Watkins said. “I think I kind of took it for granted during my sophomore year, being in the finals and everything. I kind of underestimated everybody and it showed -- that's why I took second (that year) and third the next year.”
Watkins may have ended his season on top, but doing so didn’t come without some difficulties. He began the year at 145, but he battled weight issues throughout the year. After repeatedly struggling to gain enough weight, Watkins dropped to 138. That worked for a while, but as the matches became more important towards the end of the season, he began to have the opposite problem: He couldn’t lose the pounds.
“At area duals, I had to lose four pounds on the morning of weigh-ins,” Watkins said. “My weight just wasn't dropping -- I didn't know what it was. On senior night, I missed weight because of the same thing. I couldn't lose four pounds that morning.”
That night, North wrestling coach Travis Jarrard texted Watkins’ father: They needed to have a serious conversation about moving back up to 145. Watkins didn’t hesitate to make that change, but knew it would come with challenges. A lot of moves he’d become accustomed to doing wouldn’t be as effective while competing at a higher weight class.
“I had to kind of change up my style,” Watkins said. “Throughout the year at 138, I could kind of throw people around more and muscle kids around. But coming up to 145, I had to really stick to outside shots, snapdowns, not getting in muscle battles with kids. It was also a mental thing, because I knew 145 was going to be harder than 138. I had to focus and remind myself that no match was going to be easy.”
And that move certainly paid off, with Watkins earning a first-place finish at sectionals before his state championship win. His next chapter will take place far from home, at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. That wrestling program has been a very successful one, and has churned out plenty of All-Americans in the sport.
“I can't wait to get up to Lehigh,” Watkins said. “I went up there on my official (visit) for one weekend and I didn't want to come home. It was so much fun up there. Their coaches, wrestlers, the facilities and the school are just awesome. It's a great academic program and everything, so I can’t wait to be up there.”