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Wrestling: South, Stephen showcase new look at Santa Slam
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Top wrestlers to watch

Logan Ashton, Buford, 113 pounds: The sophomore was state runner-up at 106 last season as a freshman in Class 4A.

Kamal Feracho and Gordon Lewis, Lakeside-DeKalb: The seniors both placed fifth in Class 6A at 195 and 285, respectively, last season.

Trent Ferguson, Buford, 152: The senior is a two-time state placer, including a state championship in Class 4A at 138 two years ago. He placed third in the same Class and weight last season.

Aaron Johnson, Kennesaw Mountain, 220: The senior placed fourth in Class 6A last season.

Abraham Perez, Forsyth Central, 113: The Bulldogs sophomore placed fifth at 106 in Class 5A last season. 

When Josh Stephen took over as head wrestling coach at South Forsyth over the summer, he wanted to hear what his new group thought of itself, so he assigned a common preseason assignment. He gave each wrestler a form, on which contained space to write down goals for the 2016-17 season.

Stephen made time to listen to his team recite their goals, and he soon detected a pattern.

“A lot of them were, ‘I want to make it to state and do the best I can,’” Stephen said. ‘When you say, ‘Do the best I can,’ you’re just kind of giving yourself a way out to not do well.”

The veteran coach has set out to give South a mental jolt in hopes of turning the program into a contender the likes of which he created at Harrison and, more recently, stewarded at Collins Hill. A chance to showcase South’s progress under Stephen comes Saturday when the War Eagles host the Santa Slams, a 16-team traditional tournament that begins at 9 a.m.

The most important thing for South this weekend?

“Attack and attack and attack,” Stephen said.

That’s the crux of his re-programming. Stephen is an offensive-minded coach. It’s the “only way I think you can be successful,” he says, “and every good program is like that.”

But he discovered most of South’s wrestlers favored a defensive approach to matches.

Stephen wasted no time. Immediately, he emphasized shooting, going for opponents’ legs, being assertive. Even when they failed, Stephen and his coaches reinforced the method.

“I tell them all the time: trust the training, trust the process,” Stephen said. “We’ll be where we need to be in the end.”

Stephen wants to reinforce that mentality in the quality of South’s schedule by competing in tougher events and travelling more and the daily expectations at practice.

Progress has been gradual, but there have been good signs. South won the Wolverines Thanksgiving Duals at West Forsyth on Nov. 23, during which they defeated county rival Forsyth Central despite missing key starters Arvin Khedmati (170 pounds) and Ian Hunt (195). Jackson Baraff, Luis Gonzales and Jackson Baraff each placed at the Southern Slam Invitational this past Saturday in South Carolina, while several others were a match or two away from placing.

This might be perfect timing for Stephen’s arrival. South has a robust youth program to produce talent, a new gymnasium to host marquee events, success in other sports for motivation and a supportive community.

“It’s got every ingredient,” Stephen said. “I think the thing they need is coaching consistency.”