The Eagles have gotten to the state meet three years in a row now, but the first two years haven't brought the amount of success the team would like. This year is the time to make that change and pick up a dual win at the state meet.
"It's another rung on the ladder. We're still climbing that ladder, trying to get better, trying to become the Holy Innocents' and the Gordon Lees. And if we can get a win or maybe get two wins, that would be huge. If you get two wins, you're bringing home a trophy. That's our goal — we want to bring home a trophy. If we do that, they will have something to beat their chests about. But until then, we keep telling them, 'We're not there yet, boys,'" MZ coach Michael Cleek said.
The wrestlers aren't acting that way, either. One of the seniors on the team, Javier Martinez, isn't taking these trips for granted.
"To me, it's an honor and privilege because it's my senior year and going back we've got to go all the way this time," Martinez said. "We already know what to expect. Last year, we went in there and didn't wrestle our best. This year, we know what we have to do and need to step it up and wrestle hard."
Junior heavyweight wrestler Will Sizemore echoed Martinez's sentiments. Sizemore has had success at the individual level — placing third in state last year at the traditional meet — but is ready for some wins to finally come at the dual meet.
"The pressure is on this year. Going our third year in a row, the last two years we haven't won a dual. If we want to make a statement, if we want to make it to Saturday, we have to do our best," Sizemore said. "Last year and the year before, we were just happy to be there. Nobody expects little Mt. Zion to do anything, and we proved them wrong. This year, I'm expecting to make a statement."
This year's trip to Macon will begin on Friday at 1:15 p.m. in the quarterfinals against a familiar foe, Turner County. Last year, Turner County knocked MZ out of the state tournament in the first round of the consolation bracket, 52-21, after the Eagles lost to eventual co-champions, Holy Innocents'.
That experience, that familiarity, adds to the ability to prepare for a hopeful first-round win and another meeting with HI.
"Turner County, I've wrestled them in the past, but it was a totally different style of wrestling last year and it took us aback. Now we can gameplan for them a little bit better, but they can gameplan for us. We have an idea of what we're going to do with Turner County and we hope it works. A way of neutralizing something they did to us that we hadn't seen before," Cleek said. "We're going to practice every day this week for Turner County. We're going to practice a little bit for Holy Innocents', but we've got to beat Turner County."
"We know what to expect because we wrestled Turner County last year and we got blown out against them. We have an idea of who we're wrestling and how to wrestle them," added Martinez.
Not only do the Eagles know what to expect from their opponents, they know what to expect from the overall experience of competing at the state meet.
"It helps with the pressure and being in front of a bunch of people," David Ramirez said. "The energy that's there is just, there's nothing like it."
This year, Cleek has seen the differences in the wrestling room. The team has found its maturity and knows what it will take to get to the next level. This week is all about making that next step as a program.
"I haven't said a word to them and they know what they're supposed to do," Cleek said. "They could run this practice without me right now, but we'll go through it and we'll push them harder than they think they can do it. Not one of them will complain. There won't be one of them who will cry and they will work as hard as they are humanly capable of. That's how much faith I have in these kids."
The Eagles will be the No. 5 seed out of the eight Class A teams to make it. None of the area runners-up can qualify for the top four spots, making MZ the highest seeded runner-up and place it against No. 4 Turner County, with No. 1 Holy Innocents' waiting. Gordon Lee took the second seed, with Eagles Landing Christian getting the third spot.
Making the team's third trip in a row, there isn't a question about whether the small school from Mt. Zion deserves to be there. The Eagles now have a level of legitimacy to them.
"I think after this weekend, we walk in there and we're not the fluke anymore. People expect us to be there," Cleek said. "In the past, especially the first year when they were ninth-graders, [people didn't]. [Gordon Lee's] coach Brent Raby told me at the seeding meeting, [his team] better be ready for [us] because they're not going to back off. They're not going to be afraid."
In the three-year span, the Eagles have taken individual wrestlers to the traditional meet, but the most success has come at the dual level. According to the MZ coach, there is a reason for that. At Monday's practice, Cleek asked his team by show of hands who would rather wrestle a dual match or traditional — almost immediately almost every hand in the room shot up.
The Eagles want to wrestle together, they want to succeed together.
"Our team is really built, we build it for a duals team," Cleek said. "We love duals, because that's how we built the football team to be a team concept. We've tried to make wrestling into a team concept, almost a family. Not everybody wins in a dual, but if the team wins, we all win. That's what it's about and it's paying off."
The team also embraces the dual meet as a chance for the team to compete at the highest level together.
"Traditional-wise the past few years, if we've had anybody go, it's not that many people. Maybe one or two wrestlers and the coaches. Duals, you take the whole team, your friends and your brothers and wrestle together. It's amazing. It's really fun," Sizemore said.