VALDOSTA -- Justin Smith can name the names of Lowndes High's recent state champion wrestlers. Jonathan Wiezorek. Adrian Sermons. Buck Buhler. Rufus Baldwin. David Bertsch. Matt Godwin.
Now he wants to add his name to that list.
Smith is the defending region champion at 215 pounds. Last year, he made the semifinals of the state tournament, and wound up finishing fifth. The four wrestlers who finished above him last year have all graduated, and now Smith is one of the favorites to win state this year.
"They say on the internet that the favorites are me and (Keith) Hudson from Parkview," Smith said. "It's going to be tough. At state, you have to stay focused and can't look past any match. It all depends on who shows up that day."
So far this year, Smith has done nothing to dispel that hype. He's gone 34-1, and placed first at several tournaments. His only loss came at a tournament in Greeneville, Tenn. to the defending Tennessee state champion, by one point, 2-1.
"Justin's had an incredible year," Lowndes head coach Spencer Graybeal said. "He's 34-1. He's also been a real asset to us. He's our only senior, he's provided us with good leadership, and has a good work ethic, always working hard to get better.
"He has really put in the extra time needed to become a state champion, and I really hope he gets it. He deserves it."
Smith has trained with Bertsch and Godwin, state champions at 125 and 145 pounds last year, for the last three years, and credits both for helping him become a better wrestler.
And like Bertsch and Godwin last year, he has also been a leader for a young, improved Lowndes team. Smith should make the state individual meet in three weeks, and several Viking teammates could join him, including Ryan Allen (140 pounds), David Hernandez (103), Trey Tyson (189), Cody Edwards (275), Constantino Gutierrez (145), Aldric Hardnett (119) and Josh Key (112).
"We've been working really hard. We want to get better, and tried to encourage each other," Smith said. "Coach Graybeal has gotten us better."
Smith is a heavy favorite to defend the region championship he won last year. He has already defeated every 215-pounder in the region. Smith was second in the region as a sophomore, and third as a freshman.
Smith also was a three-year starter at guard for the Lowndes football team, and an All-Region pick this year.
Smith has also wrestled at the national tournament each of the past three summers. Last year, he came one win short of being named All-American team. This year, he hopes to go back and go at least one win further.
"There's two things that every wrestler goes for: All-American and national champion," Smith said. "Hopefully if things go right, I'll make it this time."
Smith will lead the Vikings into the Region 1-AAAAA dual meet Saturday in their own gym.
The region meet is a bit atypical this year. Valdosta High, which is undefeated this year, has already been crowned the region champion, and has earned a berth to the state dual meet next week in Powder Springs. Colquitt County and Coffee do not field full teams. That leaves Lowndes, Lee County and Tift County to battle for the one remaining spot in the state tournament.
Essentially, the duals will come down to the Lowndes-Lee matchup, held at 10 a.m. Saturday, with the winner going to state.
"We're hungry for it. We want to go to state. I know Lee does, too," Graybeal said. "It's going to be a tight one, going down to the last matches. They beat us earlier in the year, but I think we've got a good chance this time."
"We wrestled well against them earlier this season, but five or six of our wrestlers had food poisoning that week, and we had to forfeit three weight classes," Smith said. "We've got a full team now. It should be a great match.
"It would be big for us to make it to state. We take pride in wrestling the best competition we can, and going to state duals, we'd get to see some of the best in the state."
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