Long Cane wrestling celebrates state title, looks forward to nationals

Published 10:00 am Saturday, February 4, 2023

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A long time coming.

It had been over 20 years since Long Cane claimed its first and until this past weekend, only state championship in wrestling. The Cougars had come close in recent seasons but could never get the job done. 

Sunday Jan. 29 saw the Cougars usher in a new age of Long Cane wrestling.

The team is led by Ernest Ward who took the team to the mountaintop in his first season as head coach. He is quick to credit all the coaches who have been involved in the program much longer than he has. Ward is happy to be a small piece of the larger tapestry of the wrestling pipeline that has been started from the Troup youth wrestling to Long Cane and then to Troup High.

“It’s awesome to be surrounded by such great coaches,” Ward said. “No one person is as smart as all of us together. Just because I have the keys to the building doesn’t mean I’m the smartest person in the building. Being a leader is about being situational and knowing when to delegate responsibilities to others.”

Ward’s delegation reaped great reward for the Cougars this year. He was surrounded by coaches that have a wealth of experience coaching the sport.

“I’ve been running the youth wrestling team for seven years with Drew (Garner),” Brandon Smith said. “We started it back in 2016, and we’ve seen it grow every year. We wanted to build a state championship caliber program at every level, and Long Cane winning is a step toward that goal.”

Troup has a large collection of coaches that help out from the youth level up to the high school level. The level of knowledge they collectively possess is a treasure trove for young wrestlers looking to improve.

For the wrestlers, seeing the culmination of a season full of hard work pay off in a state title was a feeling like no other.

“It was awesome to do it with this team,” eighth grade wrestler Cruz Hazel said. “To see all of our hard work pay off was extremely satisfying.”

“It felt earned with all the hard work we put in this year,” wrestler Noah King said. 

“It was an amazing experience to have,” eighth grader Jonderious Williams said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

The Cougars not knowing what to expect heading into Sunday’s finals in Atlanta was a common theme and coming away with the state title was a bit of a shock. After dominating Cambridge in the first round 63-16 and North Hall in the semifinals 69-21, the Cougars got to matchup with perennial powerhouse Jefferson who had won 22 of the last 23 state titles. The Cougars were able to narrowly come out on top 44-42.

“It was a goal that we wanted to achieve, but it still came as a surprise,” wrestler Noah Arrington said. 

“It was really surprising to see us beat Jefferson, who has barely lost in the last 22 years,” wrestler Zane Taliaferro said. 

The coaches noticed that hard work was being put in all season and were proud to see the team come out on the other side with a state title.

“When I say they work for it, I mean they really worked for it,” assistant coach Cardarius Williams said. “They come here and work everyday as hard as they can. It’s iron sharpening iron.”

The next stop? Nationals. 

Everybody involved got a taste of success on Sunday, and it has only made them hungry to reach even higher goals this season.

Drew Garner, the coach of the Troup High wrestling program and the spearhead of the Troup wrestling renaissance knows how much this year’s middle school success will impact his program down the line.

“It was a big weekend for them, and this is going to prepare them well for the high school level,” Garner said. “This will build their confidence and show everybody in the program from top down that we have what it takes to win a state title.”

“We see those kids putting the work in, and we are going to get that 10th state title banner (at Troup High),” assistant coach Bobby Woodard said.

It is not a straight line for wrestlers from unproven raw talent to a state title. Even this year’s state title winning team from Long Cane had hurdles to jump over.

“We started slow and steady,” assistant coach Johnny Arrington said. “Our biggest battle was just showing up every day. Every day we were looking to get 1% better, and I feel like we accomplished that this season.”

One of the reasons the wrestling renaissance at Troup has been so successful is the family environment the coaches have established. Jonathan Scott used to wrestle at Troup before returning as an assistant coach and notices how the program is more about the collective “we” than when he was wrestling.

“The difference is the culture,” Scott said. “When I was here, it was about individual guys, and we didn’t have the team spirit that we have now. Now, we are building a culture that I would have loved to be a part of when I was here.”