Just before the South Forsyth wrestling end-of-season banquet in February, assistant coach Mike Beckley told the War Eagles he had decided to retire from coaching after 21 years. His youngest was about to enter high school. It felt like the perfect time to step away.
Beckley was looking forward to enjoying a Thanksgiving and Christmas break uninterrupted by a wrestling tournament.
"Wrestling destroys that kind of stuff," Beckley said.
But there he was this past Saturday with a short-handed South squad at the NG3 Duals at Archer High School. Missing five wrestlers because of injuries or illness, the War Eagles went 1-3.
Beckley was looking on the bright side Wednesday at practice. The wrestlers who did compete did well. Sam Ranta and Harrison Young went 4-0, while Charlie Ranta, Jackson Baraff and Christian Jimeniz went 3-1. Two of the team’s three losses were by a combined five points.
"I was surprised when I looked at the scorebook at how well we did," Beckley said.
South was dealt the ultimate surprise in June when second-year head coach Danny Sinnott left to take the same position at Collins Hill in Gwinnett County. The fit was natural: Sinnott lives less than two miles from the Suwanee school, and he and his wife were expecting their first child at the time. Plus, Collins Hill has become one of the premier wrestling programs in the state, winning seven traditional and five dual state championships since 2002.
But it was crushing news. Sinnott’s impact on South wrestling was evident. Participation in the varsity and youth programs was up. More wrestlers were qualifying for state. A second-place finish at county and third-place finish in Region 6-AAAAAA last season seemed like more proof that Sinnott was building South into a viable contender.
"It was of course difficult, but we all understood the decision that coach Sinnott had to make," Young said. "It was hard to see him leave, but we understood why he had to leave."
By then, Beckley was gone too. The War Eagles program was rudderless.
"The uncertainty was the worst part," Young said.
And yet as South’s administration conducted its coaching search, the War Eagles continued with the summer program Sinnott laid out. Young said that, with the help of assistant coach Scott Tanner, participation at summer practices was strong. Wrestlers entered summer tournaments like the Super 32 and trained at TWA in Lawrenceville or The Compound in Buford.
"I think they really hung together to do the summer workouts without even having a head coach," Beckley said.
Just before the school year started, South thought it had a decision made on a new head coach with someone from out of state. Complications arose, the hire couldn’t be made and South was back to the beginning.
So it called on Beckley, a familiar name. He was South’s head coach from 1999-2004 after head coaching stints at Norcross and North Springs. In his last season, the War Eagles finished fourth in Class AAAA at the State Duals.
He’s helped South continue to build on the momentum Sinnott seemed to be establishing. Beckley brought in first-year assistant coach Chris Wilson from Mill Creek and kept Tanner on staff. The War Eagles are 12-5 in duals this season with impressive individual starts from Sam Ranta (16-1 at 106), Charlie Ranta (15-2 at 113), Jackson Baraff (15-2 at 132), Brennan McCrumm (12-5 at 160) and Young (15-1 at 195).
"A lot of credit goes to coach Sinnott for bringing that championship attitude to the team," Young said, "but I feel like the current coaching staff and the wrestlers, especially, are keeping it strong."
South feels stable again after an offseason dominated by surprise.
Now, it hopes it can pull off a surprise at this Saturday’s Forsyth County Championships at Forsyth Central where defending champion North Forsyth and Lambert are the favorites.
"I think we have a shot at winning county this year," Young said. "We’ve just got to go out and wrestle hard every match and see what happens."