(article courtesy of Brian Paglia at the Forsyth News)
Together in the North Forsyth High School wrestling room, it is easy for most of the Raiders’ senior group from this past season to be nudged into declaring yearbook-style superlatives.
Most talkative? Cole Tenety.
Smartest? Andy Leggett.
Strongest? Brantley Little.
Best laugh? Will Chavarria.
Closest resemblance to Matthew McConaughey? Conner Carroll.
They banter on and on, their closeness obvious from years of shared adversity and success and all those grueling practices together, from elementary school until their final time wearing the Raiders singlet at the GHSA Traditional Wrestling State Championships on February 10.
The group’s time is over, but the members of it – including Walid Abdullahi, Riley Wheeler, Cedric Touchstone, Nathan Grimes and Connor Cross – leave as arguably the most accomplished class of wrestlers in Forsyth County history.
Individually, they won seven area titles, placed at the state traditional tournament 10 times, and won 1,012 combined matches. Six eclipsed the 100-win mark for their career (Carroll, Cross, Grimes, Leggett, Little and Tenety). One (Carroll) won a state title.
As a team, they went 123-36 in duals matches, including 15-0 against county teams and 18-0 against area teams. They won eight area championships. Three times they finished top-3 at the state duals tournament, including a runner-up finish in 2016, and twice they finished runner-up at the state traditional tournament.
The formation of the group began with Carroll and Cross. Both had multiple older brothers wrestle for North, and in breaks of action at their tournaments the two second-graders would take over the matts and go head-to-head.
Carroll remembers those matches as being one-sided.
“Back then it was me (winning), always,” Carroll said.
By fifth grade, Cedric Touchstone and Riley Wheeler had joined Carroll and Cross in the Raiders’ feeder program. Then came Brantley Little and Nathan Grimes in sixth grade, Cole Tenety in seventh and Walid Abdullahi in eighth. Andy Leggett came up through the West Forsyth feeder program but joined North as a freshman.
Most were contributing as freshmen, and by the following season all were varsity starters during what they agree is their fondest memory as a North wrestler – reaching the GHSA State Wrestling Dual Championship finals.
The Raiders defeated Brookwood (33-30) and Rockdale County (44-19) to reach the semifinals against Mountain View. That match went back and forth until North clinched a 26-23 win to reach the finals against Archer, the three-time defending state champions. The teams had met earlier in the year, with Archer winning convincingly.
But, early on in the rematch, North led 9-0 and later on 15-12. Archer made a run, but Cross pinned his opponent at 195 to pull the Raiders within 33-24 with two matches remaining, including a sure forfeit from Archer at 285.
“I don’t think we thought it was going to be that close of a match,” Abdullahi said.
Archer pulled out a 37-30 win. North finished second. Still, it was a turning point for the program and the group. The result was the best finish ever for the Raiders at the state duals, and it burnished the program’s reputation in the state. And the nine sophomores in the lineup that day officially became the team’s linchpin.
“It’s kind of when this group took over the team,” North head coach Travis Jarrard said.
After their state finals experience, the group settled for nothing less than a state championship, and they accepted any requirements Jarrard and the North coaching staff put in place to achieve it.
That sophomore year, a new assistant coach, Bud Sines, implemented more regular and rigorous workouts outside of practice.
Jarrard had offered extra strength and conditioning training to previous teams but to no avail.
“This group bought into it,” Jarrard said.
Jarrard also altered the way he utilized his coaching staff. Assistants Josh Montesinos, Rusty Transue and Jeff Maher were assigned to different weight classes, allowing them to become more familiar with each wrestlers’ skills and personalities.
“I think this coaching staff each kind of identified and grew into the roles that we had with each kid,” Jarrard said.
Yes, a state championship eluded the group for the remainder of their North careers. But they all appreciate the totality of their legacy.
They took in new teammates, like football players Cade Jensen and Chavarria.
“I really appreciate Coach Jarrard and all of them embracing us,” Chavarria said, “and showing us that we’re actually family.”
They started new traditions, like carrying random items to the podium, such as a box of Cheez-Its, at the area traditional tournament.
“I think four years of everybody being together, I think we turned into a pretty deadly team,” Little said.
And by the end, they got back life lessons to take with them.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about the value of teammates, friends and how you can build bonds with people through hardship and through hard work and struggle,” Carroll said.