Getting its second state wrestling championship this season might not be a downhill race, but Cleveland High School's task isn't anywhere close to a trek up Mount Everest.
If there was any doubt regarding this year's favorite, Cleveland grabbed the Division I favorite's role last Friday at the Region 3 tournament when it put 11 wrestlers in the championship finals. The Blue Raiders finished the precision performance Saturday afternoon with a whopping 268.5 team points and became the only team in the state to secure a qualifier in each of the 14 weights.
The nine individual champions among the 14 qualifiers would certainly qualify the Blue Raiders as head-and-shoulders picks for the biggest hardware this weekend in Franklin.
"It's a no-brainer," Soddy-Daisy coach Jim Higgins said. "Of course our goal is to make it interesting. We're not going up there to make a run for second. That's not the Soddy-Daisy way of doing things. We plan to be in the fight for first."
The closest any team came to matching Cleveland's qualifying feat was 11 each from Collierville and Class AAA state duals runner-up Wilson Central. Soddy-Daisy, Blackman and Ravenwood each managed 10 qualifiers, while Hixson and Walker Valley have nine apiece.
"I definitely think there are teams out there that are capable of beating us. However, it's a tall order," Cleveland coach Jake Yost said. "I feel good about where we are and also how we competed last week."
Of the serious contenders, no team could come close to the Blue Raiders' nine champions out of what is becoming an above-average region. No teams other than Soddy-Daisy with seven in Region 4 and Wilson Central with six in Region 5 had more than four champions. The three with four region winners were Cordova, Ravenwood and A/AA duals runner-up Pigeon Forge.
The question is how many combinations of other teams will it take to run the Blue Raiders aground.
"We'll take as many [championships] as we can get," Yost said. "But I honestly feel after looking at the brackets that every one of our kids has a chance to place. That doesn't mean we'll have 14 place-winners, but when you feel you have 14 that can place, then that [final] number's going to be pretty high."
And he actually doesn't see any type of duel developing between his team and Wilson Central, whom the Blue Raiders blew out in the state duals final with a record-setting 78-4 beatdown.
"I said before the duals that Soddy-Daisy would beat Wilson Central because of experience, but then what happened (Soddy-Daisy sending three starters home) happened and Soddy-Daisy didn't get to go into that meet with all their studs," Yost said. "I still think Soddy-Daisy has more horses than Wilson Central, and to win this type tournament you have to have those big horses that can make runs to the finals."
He was referring particularly to Jacob Stevens (120), Gage Richmond (145) and Blaike Henry (182) but likely was including Tucker Russo (126), Austin Houser (113) and possibly Austin Williamson (138) and Garrett Alexander (170).
"The task [of defending their state title] got a lot tougher, no doubt about it," Higgins said. "We're sending 10. I've seen the brackets, and for the most part I like them."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...