Pell City High School’s wrestling team boasts a group of seven individuals who will compete in the 2017 Alabama High School Athletic Association state tournament at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville on Thursday through Saturday.
Panthers head coach Dale Hufford said his team has experienced success despite having plenty of youth in the lineup -- including seven freshmen and an eighth-grader.
“We keep saying it’s going to be a building year for us, but these kids are kind of overcoming their youth a little bit and achieving greatly while doing that,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud, to be honest, because our future is so, so bright.
“We only have one senior (and junior) going to the state tournament. All the others are 10th- and ninth-graders, so we’ve got a lot of youth. We’ve only got two seniors and one junior on the team.”
Senior Seth Kent (31-16) will wrestle in the Class 6A 285 weight class, while junior Sloan Harmon (23-19) will grapple foes at 126.
“Seth was a state qualifier from a year ago, and he put himself in a good position as well by qualifying this year,” Hufford said. “Sloan does a great job for us, and he’s developing as a leader.”
Pell City sophomores Blayne Gunnels (23-23) and Jackson Stocks (21-13) will challenge opponents at 160 and 132, respectively.
“Blayne has been around wrestling a while,” Hufford said. “He started off a little slow but became (stronger) and got himself qualified. Jackson is another one of our guys we look to. He’s a big-time offseason wrestler. It’s a big part of what he does. He’s got a great opportunity in the state tournament to do something fantastic.”
The Panthers’ trio of freshmen -- Tillman Patterson (25-21), Lake Minor (20-26) and Mason Shell (30-13) -- round out the field of competitors for Pell City. Patterson will face opponents at 138, Minor will lock up with foes at 120 and Shell will attempt to excel at 113.
“Tillman has come on very strong at the end of the season and wrestled a good tournament at sectionals to get himself qualified,” Hufford said. “Lake is a very technical wrestler that has done a good job all year.
“Mason’s had a pretty good season. He really surprised us at the sectional tournament, placing first and defeating a foe from Oxford that actually had beaten him earlier in the season. Mason ended up coming from behind, tying it and winning by decision.”
Hufford said his team is physically prepared to endure the tournament.
“We’re a third-period wrestling team,” he said. “I like to get every match into the third period because that’s where we excel because we are in such great shape. That’s kind of our mindset going in is to outwork people.
“Mason Shell and Jackson Stocks have set themselves up in their bracket to have a chance to do something great, not that the other ones don’t. The other ones are just going to have to battle a little bit more different competition than they’re going to in their respective (brackets).
“Seth Kent has got a good shot to do something great, but he’s going to have to -- if he wins the first round, he’ll end up going against Clay Webb from Oxford, who is the No. 1 heavyweight in the state, in the second round. It’s all a mindset. Everything’s a mental game … It’s all about being on a huge stage and wrestling when it really, really matters.”
Regardless how his wrestlers finish, Hufford said he’s excited for their opportunities and the future of Pell City’s wrestling program.
“We didn’t know how this season was going to go,” he said. “We knew we had a couple of bright spots and a couple of go-to guys we were going to score some points with, but we really didn’t know how it was going to end. It’s kind of a Cinderella story with us making the regional duals like we did and the state duals tournament, then rolling into sectionals.
“We took the same kind of mental approach with the kids … We took 11 to sectionals. Seven out of the 11 we took qualified, and we had a couple others right there on the bubble. At one point, we felt we may take nine.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the kids because people were like, ‘You’re getting lucky.’ I always tell everybody there’s no such thing as luck. Luck is when hard work meets opportunity, and that’s what the kids have done. They’ve worked their tails off, and when the opportunity has come along, they’ve always been able to take advantage of it because of the mindset, the physical condition their bodies are in and the mental condition of their brains, so to speak.”