Senior 185-pounder Travis Joyce, junior Rhett Hembree (132) and sophomore Taylor Lujan (152) each had to overcome adversity to have their hands raised in the middle of the Centreplex and return home as champions.
"You look at Travis, Taylor and Rhett, and even Turner [Martin], all four finalists, they really wrestled great tournaments. I felt like from a poise standpoint, they were under control, wrestled within themselves and stuck to their gameplan. It's exciting when you have one that's just graduating and two more that are coming back," noted first-year Carrollton coach Ryan Wilman.
For Joyce, it was a physical challenge that derailed his junior year after finishing as a runner-up his sophomore season. After expecting to compete for a state championship that year, he was forced to sit on the sideline, something the multi-sport athlete was not used to due to injury.
The result was a renewed focus and determination coming into this year, his last wearing the Trojan black and gold.
"It was really tough, especially at first, watching wrestling and being a bystander. After I got back and could do workouts and train again, I think it made me work that much harder because I wanted it that much more," Joyce said. "That was a special, special moment for me. Not just only my whole wrestling career leading up to that stage, but just having to watch last year. It was something super special about that."
Wilman saw the determination that made it fun to watch Joyce throughout the season. Wilman also had hands-on experience with Joyce, often working as a grappling partner in the practice room.
"For me, it was special with Travis. I've coached at the high school level before, but this is my first time as a head coach. He was my first state champ with the way they did the order in reverse. Pretty neat having him, the guy that I work out with in the room, really excited for him after last year. Seeing him come back in and seeing the success he had was really inspirational," Wilman said.
For Hembree, it was a pair of experiences that pushed him in his state championship campaign. The first was getting through the disappointment of second and third-place finishes in the two previous years and finding the motivation to work even harder. That motivation came, unfortunately, in the form of a death in the family when one of Hembree's biggest supporters passed away.
"I thought I was going to get it freshman year, that was second, and then last year I got third. I should have won it last year, but slipped up. I put a lot of work in over the summer," Hembree said. "It was a big monkey off my back. After my sophomore year, I got third I was like, 'This is getting ridiculous. I've been doing this since I was 5 years old and I have yet to win a state championship.'
"This summer I didn't want to do anything. You start thinking that you might just go down as a two, three-time state placer, which is a good thing, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be the best I could be. I got a lot of support from my family and my dad. I had a tragic accident in my family. My cousin, who was 23, died in a car accident a week before our first tournament. He came to all my wrestling stuff, he never missed a tournament. He came when I was young because he wrestled. After he died, I told myself I'm not going to let it slip away this year."
In that time, Wilman became like a big brother, coach, mentor and leader to Hembree as he achieved the first step of one of his main goals — become a two-time state champion to pass his dad, who won one during his time as a wrestler in Georgia.
"Rhett and I have a really special relationship in the sense that being a younger coach, taking over a team, I'm 31 and I know there's a gap, but Rhett is like my younger brother. For whatever reason, guys gravitate towards you," Wilman said. "I know from a standpoint of when I see a guy and the conversations we've had, he's the guy I've taken under my arm. On the flip side of it, he's one of those kids that has been really open to it and enjoys the mentor relationship."
That feeling was mutual, as Hembree noted the difference in workouts as Wilman brought a college mentality to the practice room. It took some adjusting to the high level of work and expectations, but once the team did, the results started to come.
"Coach Wilman really played a big part, too. Coach [Mike] Mason was a great coach and then we get coach Wilman in and he changed up a lot of things. For the first month, we were all hating him. We weren't used to it," Hembree said. "This is like college practices he was putting us through. There's no way we can do this for a year, but he put us through a system ... that really made us better. He really cares about his wrestlers."
Then there is Lujan, who seemed to breeze through his undefeated freshman campaign en route to his first state title. This time around, the sophomore suffered his first loss and regained some focus and relaxed a little as he again pinned his way to a state title.
"Kind of towards the beginning of the season, I put a lot of pressure on myself. After that first loss, it was all gone. I was more relaxed out there. I just went out there and tried to put a show on," Lujan said. "I didn't have to worry about being undefeated, I didn't have to worry about wrestling my matches so tight. After that, you go out loose and fun ... I don't think it's really about the record at all. It's how you finish out."
Through many matches this season, it wasn't always a question of if Lujan would win, but how quickly into the match he would get a pin or how many points he would amass in the six — or fewer — minutes on the mat.
That attitude, skill and work made a second straight state title something of a joy to watch for Wilman.
"We've got really talented wrestlers here and he's a different kind of wrestler. I think people that are around the sport long enough can recognize, I know our team recognized, that he's gotten some god-given abilities and talents, but he works hard to really develop his skill and become a better wrestler. It was neat to see him on that quest of not just winning another state championship, but his goal every time was to put as many points on the board and then let me pin you," Wilman said.
"I think for Taylor, it's a little more of, 'How many am I going to win? How fast can I put points on the board?' He's turned it more into a game. It's a challenging sport, so for someone to be able to turn it into a game is quite an accomplishment."
Lujan is no stranger to big competitions as he prepares to compete at the national level in a month or so and competes throughout the offseason, there is something about the GHSA state tournament.
"I really don't know how to describe it, but I like it, though. It really puts things in perspective because you have all the divisions there, all your friends and all the people you've been training with are in the finals, too," Lujan said. "It's a brotherhood. It just felt like another tournament with all them with us. It didn't feel like state or any big tournament, just a regular tournament."
While the other two will have a chance to defend their state titles, it was the end of the road for Joyce. While he will never put the singlet back on at the high school level, he knows the last time he did he did so as a champion.
"A lot of different emotions were flowing through me when that final whistle blew. Relief from all the hard work and dedication I had stayed focused on through these last couple of years. Excitement to have that experience with all those people there watching me. Just a thousand different emotions," Joyce said. "It's been my goal from the beginning, to be a state champion. I'm going to miss it, but I can always look back and be really pleased with how my high school career ended."
And now the preparation begins for next season.
"Tremendous season by all three of those guys and really a tremendous season by the team. I think we performed right up to our expectations," Wilman said. "It's a time of the year where you look back and are proud of the things you accomplished and build off them. We're going to lose five kids, but it's one of those things where I think it will help us build momentum."