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Wrestling: South readies to take next step in Stephen's second year
South Forsyth seniors Ian Hunt, from left, Davis Duncan, Charlie Ranta and Conner Dozier have a new belief in the wrestling program’s potential making big strides in head coach Josh Stephen's first season. - photo by Brian Paglia

It wasn't difficult for Josh Stephen to get the South Forsyth wrestling team to believe him.

If you win a team state title and have seven wrestlers win individual state championships, like Stephens did during his three-year tenure at Collins Hill, people figure that your advice is worth following.

"You trust it," Stephen said.

When Stephen took the helm of the War Eagles' program last season, he saw a program that was "very hungry" for success, and there was little delay in South getting that. The War Eagles tied North Forsyth in last year's traditional area championships, a significant shock to the county's balance of power in the sport, and South qualified for the state team duals for the first time in 13 years.

And as the War Eagles see it, there's no reason to think the program's progress won't continue this season.

"It was drastic," senior Ian Hunt said of the jump South made last season. "I feel like every year we're just getting massively better."

Hunt and fellow senior Charlie Ranta agree that the new coaching staff was a crucial part of the team's improvement. Stephen brought in a number of impactful coaching hires, including Eric Cluck, who wrestled at the Veterans World Championships, and Tony Vanhorn, who won six state titles coaching at McEachern.

The wrestlers could tell an immediate difference in the quality and intensity of workouts. They'd drill moves repeatedly until they got them right, and they would practice in the mornings and on days off of school.

That required adjustments from some wrestlers, but the team's performance and the increased enthusiasm around the program were worth it.

"(There was) definitely a lot more cheering, a lot more enthusiasm towards this team," Ranta said. "In years past, when we had people go (watch us), no one would cheer them on. Everybody would just sit on their phones. This year at state, we had everybody cheering on, a lot of enthusiasm there."

For Stephen and the rest of the coaches, getting the program where it is was a philosophical task as much as anything. He focused on using adversity to improve the wrestlers and was straightforward with his advice, because the evidence was there.

"It's really (about) believing in our coaches and success," Stephen said. "...You're telling them because this is what happened before, and it's being honest. The honesty part, I think, is one of the most important things in coaching. (Be) straightforward, be honest about it, and they're buying in. They can take it and get better, or they can't. These guys took it and got better from it."

South has a few specific goals in mind this year: be in contention to win the area tournament, get a team trophy at the state tournament.

It's not just bluster.

"It's the real goal," Stephen said. "It's not we say it because we're supposed to. I really believe that we can be successful like that."