When it was over – the match, the season, the career – North Forsyth senior Austin Thornton retreated to a corner of the Chattahoochee High School gymnasium with no exit. The cacophony of fans punctured his sanctuary. He leaned his left arm against a folded basketball goal. His back was turned from the center mat.
Coaches came up to Thornton one by one. They hugged him or wrapped an arm around his shoulder, their words drowned out by the crowd. He welcomed them all, always leaning against the basketball goal. Finally, he stood and put on a solid black T-shirt with a large white skull on the front.
The match as it played out – a fall in 2:35 to Archer’s Elliot Lee in the finals of the Class AAAAAA Traditional Wrestling Tournament at 195 pounds Saturday – was irrelevant by then. Those moments had more to do with what Thornton had already accomplished.
He finished the season with 58 victories, tied a school-record with 46 pins and broke an eight-year drought of a North wrestler appearing in a state finals match.
“We’re proud of him,” North coach Travis Jarrard said. “He didn’t back down. He wrestled hard. It just wasn’t in the cards.”
Last season, little suggested Thornton could reach the finals. He qualified for the state tournament but didn’t place. Since last June, Thornton wrestled with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered at a summer camp.
Thornton put off surgery knowing it would erase his senior season. Once during the season he complained about the pain. Jarrard told him then and there that if it was too much he might as well have surgery. Thornton never mentioned the injury again.
Instead, surgery was scheduled for the Wednesday after the state tournament and Thornton pushed on.
“What needs to be said about somebody who does that?” Jarrard said. “Outside of that he’s a little bit crazy, a little bit nuts. But to go through a whole season on a torn ACL and go 58-6 with 46 pins and get second in the state is amazing. I don’t even know how to put that into words.”
Thornton made the finals his goal two weeks after last season was over. He often walked inside a North assistant coach’s room and looked at the wall with the “Best of the Best” – a tribute of photos to Raiders wrestlers who had placed at state.
“So I was like, I want to be the best of that best,” Thornton said.
Gradually, Thornton’s confidence grew. When he won an area championship, Thornton said he started to since this season could be different. When he excelled at sectionals, despite losing to Lee for the second time to that point in the season, he knew it would be.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I am a finalist,’” Thornton said.
He set out to prove it this weekend.
Thornton pinned Harrison’s Tyler Buehler in 0:51, edged Meadowcreek’s Ryan Moore in a 3-2 decision and pinned Alcovy’s Kamari Williams in 5:36 to set up a third rematch with Lee in the finals.
By that point, Thornton and North knew everything there was to know about Lee’s tendencies and strengths, especially that he was most effective on top. They also knew Thornton’s injury handicapped his ability to lower his level, penetrate and take offensive shots for potential takedowns. Defensive takedowns were paramount.
Not 30 seconds into the second period, Lee caught Thornton’s head, leveraged his upper body and held Thornton to the mat.
The match was over.
“He came out a little ahead of me with a little faster pace, and I kept trying to match that pace,” Thornton said. “But in the second period I guess he had better hips, speed, agility and strength. He took control.”
“When you’ve got that much weight sitting on top of you it’s real hard to do much,” Jarrard said.
Thornton may wrestle again. He said he has interest from colleges. Or he may not. Thornton said he’s been wrestling for the past 10 years. A break might be nice.
Whichever it is, this season was almost everything Thornton had hoped.
“Being my first time in the finals, I didn’t know what to feel,” Thornton said. “I felt butterflies. I felt like I’d worked my heart. So I came down to if I win or lose, I want to wrestle my heart out. That’s what I wanted to do.”