VALDOSTA –– The Valdosta High wrestling team raised its hands in victory after winning the first GHSA Class 6A Traditional State Championship in school history in February.
Wednesday morning, the 'Cats put a ring on their fingers as they received their state championship rings in a ceremony in the VHS gymnasium.
"It's a personal and a team accomplishment," 120-pound wrestler Jordan Hampton said. "We worked so hard in the wrestling room every day just building up our technique just to have this moment and it's really exciting. ... We made something special. Something special happened and I'm grateful to be a part of this team and part of this community at Valdosta High School."
Each diamond-encrusted ring features the Valdosta "V" logo, each wrestler's last name, an illustration of two wrestlers grappling and acknowledgments of the team's victories in the State Duals and State Championship meets.
While championships in sports are typically acknowledged with trophies or medals, championship rings have become the most fashionable way to celebrate. When asked about how it feels to have a ring instead of a trophy, 285-pound wrestler Demetrius Allen was giddy.
"It feels better (than a trophy) because we finally get to see them and finally get to hold them," Allen said. "It's our first state championship, I don't even know what to say about it."
VHS wrestling coach John Robbins knew exactly what to say about the moment, acknowledging that championship rings are the reward but not the reason for what his team accomplished this season.
"It's so special because...you don't play for the trophies," VHS wrestling coach John Robbins said. "You don't play for the awards. You don't coach for the awards. You don't do any of that. These young men, the whole purpose of them wrestling is not so we can put our hands on a material item. It's the things wrestling helps us with, it's the habits that it teaches, it's the discipline that it brings with it, it's the learning how to work with one another that we'll need for the rest of our lives that's most important.
"Having said that, the ring just symbolizes something that, every time I look at it, I'll remember all those small sacrifices these guys made that accumulated to this championship. I'll remember all the guys that had to leave practice to get their grades right. I'll remember the guys who stayed late to make sure their weight was right. I'll remember the guys who worked and never missed a lift over the summer. In that aspect, the ring when you look at it is not a material thing. It's like looking at a storybook tale, the fairytale ending we had at state duals when it just happened to bounce our way. ... It's really a feeling you can't explain."
In the state championship, the 'Cats led every round of the tournament as the team answered the call each round, putting more and more distance between themselves and the rest of the field. Pope High School finished second with a score of 141.5 while Alexander finished third with 132.5. Richmond Hill (131.0) and Creekview (116.5) rounded out the top-five, finishing fourth and fifth respectively.
Freshman Noah Pettigrew highlighted the team's victory with an individual title in the 195-pound weight class. Fellow freshman Darrell Rochester blazed his way to the finals, but fell just short in the 106-pound bout. Allen earned his third straight honor as a state medalist, losing a close bout in the 285-pound heavyweight championship match.
Valdosta City Schools Athletic Director Reginald Mitchell spoke about what the ring ceremony means to him as well as the Wildcat community.
"It's a great day to be a Wildcat, particularly a Wildcat that's involved with athletics," Mitchell said. "This is a historical moment. As I alluded to in my speech, when we hired Coach Robbins, these are the things we expected when we interviewed and talked with him about becoming our wrestling coach. You could tell without a doubt that he had a plan that would move our program from where it was –– which was already a championship level, but we just knew he would move our program to even higher heights."
Mitchell continued, "It's a lifetime thing, man. That's what I've told the wrestlers all along as we came to the point of knowing we were getting rings for them. You'll forever be a state champion. That ring, throughout your life, you'll take that ring off, put it back on a thousand times. We're just proud of these young men.
"I was there when they won their first state championship. Just to see the excitement on their faces, the smiles when they knew that all their hard work and all the things the coaches had been drilling them on had finally paid off; it's exciting to watch those young men put those rings on. Very exciting."
Robbins is now the proud owner of two championship rings –– one as an assistant coach on a state championship football team at Screven County and now one as the head wrestling coach of the 'Cats. Robbins called the first ring with Screven "unbelievable", but called his newest bling "something completely different."
"I think the ring is something that can be part of you personally," Robbins said. "I spoke of the championship ring I got with Screven County football. I choose not to wear it every day, but when there's a special occasion like a wedding or a funeral or a special church service where I want to be my best, I put that ring on to remind me of that. Some men wear it everyday because it's that constant special bond and memories they have of their link to the team that accomplished those goals.
"That's exactly what's so special about a ring –– every time these guys put it on, no matter what kind of pitfalls or trouble they're in in the future, they can look at this and say, 'You know what, I'm a little better than that. I can do better than this. I'm part of that.' If anything happens, they can say nobody can take this from me. I earned it and I was part of something that was really special."
After their first taste of state championship gold made history –– reaching the pinnacle of their sport unlike many championship-caliber teams of years past –– the 'Cats will return a talented and hungry bunch led by Pettigrew and others that will look to repeat as state champions.
Allen, who will graduate as a part of the 'Cats historic title team, raised his right hand when asked what this championship means for the future, "We get to keep this tradition going."