The state title defense officially gets underway for the Bremen High School wrestling team today.
As the reigning Class AAA champions, the Blue Devils begin their pursuit of a repeat at the GHSA State Dual Wrestling Championships against Crisp County at 5:30 p.m. in the quarterfinal round of the eight-team bracket at the Macon Centreplex.
Bremen has a similar draw to what it faced last year en route to the crown, beginning with the same opponent in the opening round and a potential semifinal rematch against Jackson County, which took the Blue Devils to the wire in a decision that was determined by criteria last winter.
But the focus entering the weekend is one match at a time, one dual at a time, and it all begins with the Cougars in the quarterfinals.
"We're excited. It's the fourth year for me and the rest of the seniors. We come up short two years and to win it last year, I think we have a good chance to do it again this year. We've got some strong guys and some guys that are really excited to wrestle," Blue Devil senior heavyweight Paul Robinson said.
Even though Bremen lost some firepower from last season and has a hole at 106 pounds, it is confident it has enough to come out on top once again.
"I feel like we have a strong team. Not near as strong as last year, but I think we can definitely pull through and get us a title this weekend, for sure," senior 170-pounder Noah Liles said. "We've just got to be smart about it."
Bremen head coach Tony Armas said while it's not ideal to enter a dual tournament minus one weight class, he thinks his guys have done what they've needed to do to make up for it thus far and he's looking for another strong weekend to finish it off before turning the focus to the traditional side of things.
"We've handled it pretty well. We had kids who were going to fill in for us and then they just decided to do other things. It's been a struggle, but hopefully we'll be able to overcome it," Armas said.
The Blue Devils had little trouble with Crisp County in the opening round last year, but experienced a semifinal scare against Jackson County, which is potentially looming again for a rematch in the semifinals tonight.
"Last year we had a slip-up in the semis and almost gave it away. It ended up going down to a lot of criteria, but this year we've been there before and we know what to do," Robinson said.
Armas said it's simply a matter of learning how to finish matches, and he's hopeful the guys learned from what unfolded last year.
"Jackson came after us, they didn't give up. They got three pins at the end of the dual to tie the dual meet up. We've got to learn how to close those matches out," Armas said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the last three weights in the semis are 182, 195 and 220 just like last year. We started at 285. It's like I told the kids, if we can get to the finals, if we can get to a dual meet where we can keep it within reach, we've got some pretty good kids at the back end of our lineup. It doesn't mean we'll definitely win, but you've got to like our chances if we can keep it down to a few points and get to the end. If you have Paul as your last guy, you've got to like your chances."
While the strength of the Blue Devil lineup is at the back end, they'll need several other grapplers to step up in order to capture the crown once again. Brandon Oaks proved to be that guy in the Area 3-AAA Duals with a big win at 113 pounds in the finals against Sonoraville, which could potentially face Bremen again in the state finals on Saturday.
"Sometimes you've got to make your own luck. You can't apologize for winning. Every dual meet is its only little deal and little matchups. Hopefully, we'll be able to get some things going," Armas said.
Wrestling at 195 pounds, senior Jacob Miles also poses to be a major force in the upper weights and he's looking forward to picking up three individual wins over the next two days to do his part for the bigger picture.
"We've worked hard and I feel like we deserve what's coming to us," Miles said. "Even though we're missing our 106, I think we can still pull out the title this weekend."
As the defending state champs, everyone will be gunning for the Blue Devils, and that's just fine with them.
"I think we'd rather have the target on our back. We won it last year, so that's how we want it," senior 145-pounder Joseph Lyons said. "We've just got to deal with it."
The Blue Devils are also confident in their draw and the three steps it's going to take to remain on top. Because for the Bremen seniors, there's no other way they envision going out.
"There's only a couple of us, but this is really big to us because we've always been together," senior 152-pounder Luke Chandler said. "This is my 14th year, so we're like a family."