It was deja vu all over again this spring when Bulloch Academy walked away with the GISA 2015 AAA State Wrestling Tournament Championship for the second time in four years. With an overall point score of 253, Bulloch Academy was 90 points ahead of long-time rival Westfield of Perry, GA. It was a win the team had been preparing for since the 2014 Championship, when just 5.5 points separated BA and Westfield, last year’s winners. The Gators have been narrowly missing the championship since the 2012 State Wrestling Tournament, when for the first time the team brought home the coveted state title by defeating the Westfield Hornets 281 – 208.
Since Head Coach Andy Tomlin started working with the BA Wrestling team in 2005, he’s had his eye on winning championships with a simple approach – wear out the opponent.
“We train our players harder, and make them train longer, than most schools,” Tomlin said. “We use weight lifting and conditioning to get our players into top form, along with training for endurance and stamina.” Tomlin believes the best players have great balance, strength, and endurance, plus the mental strength to impose their will without being afraid to hurt the feelings of the opponent.
When the program first started in 2005, the young men trained in the old West Building Supply building in downtown Statesboro. “There was no heat. Don Lanier and DeWayne Conner used to bring propane heaters in for us. It was a very humbling experience. We moved from there to the lunchroom here at BA.”
Accepting the head coach position in 2007, Tomlin brought with him plenty of wrestling experience. He was a three-time state placer in high school at South Gwinnett in Snellville, GA. After high school, Tomlin attended Georgia Southern and played football on the defensive line for one year under Coach Mike Sewak. He was going to move back to the Atlanta area after graduating, but instead, “I fell in love with the kids and the school,” he said. He was hired at 20-years-old by BA Athletic Director Clint Morgan.
Four years ago, Tomlin and Morgan hired an assistant wrestling coach, Kevin Ulmer, 2009 Individual State Champion in the 119 weight class from Effingham County.
“We wanted to give kids a different option for winter other than basketball. We didn’t want our athletes sitting around. There’s a small number on the court with basketball. We have 14 different weight classes to compete in with wrestling,” Tomlin said.
Children at the school can start training as early as fifth grade. “Our feeder program and our work ethic is our key to success,” Tomlin related. “We also are blessed to have people here buy into our program,” he stated. “We have excellent family support. Our squad had an entourage bigger than the Atlanta schools! When we had matches in the Georgia Dome, our BA families, alumni, and fans filled half the dome. Every time a kid scored, the crowd erupted. That’s part of the whole culture here, it keeps the kids engaged.”
Tomlin also coaches middle school football, a second assignment that keeps his schedule full. “Most of the kids here play more than one sport. Our athletes mostly play football or run cross country,” he said.
But wrestling is like no other sport according to Tomlin, “In wrestling there are no team mates. Coaches can only teach you so much, then you are out there by yourself with the other guy.”
In addition to the challenges of out-performing themselves with each match, the wrestlers must also manage their weight to stay in a specific weight class. “The parents are used to us calling them to check on the kids,” Tomlin related.
The wrestlers must be weighed in before each match to meet qualifications for their class which can be a daunting thing to manage with growing teenage boys. “They can grow a foot in one year!” Tomlin said.
An obstacle to player recruitment centers on the uniform. “It’s called a singlet,” said Tomlin. “It’s a one-piece wrestling uniform that takes confidence to wear. That can be one of the biggest challenges for the younger kids. They don’t like the singlet.” In addition to the singlet, competitors must wear a helmet. After that, it’s all technique, strength, and endurance.
In training, the kids wrestle with each other: heavier vs. faster, lighter vs. heavier, to increase strength and perfect technique. Sometimes the coaches wrestle the kids, but that form of training can have its drawbacks. “I’ve only been beaten once by a student,” Ulmer said. “And he was a three-time state champion.”
Tomlin and Ulmer especially enjoy the success of those boys who started early without many signs of promise. “Asa Johnson came into the program in sixth grade. He had two left feet, no good balance, and wasn’t very strong,” said Tomlin. “But we got him early. He won five matches in three years. In 2013, the year he graduated, he was state champion in his class. Watching a kid that wasn’t necessarily a natural, who had the determination, grit, and heart to make if from the bottom to state champion is very rewarding. Not to mention how much he added to our success.”
Motivation is also a factor for the coaches. “We keep posters of Individual State Champions in the wrestling room,” Tomlin shared. It’s a new $300,000 facility that BA alumni and parents have invested in for the program.
It’s been a lot of hard work, but a lot of good times with the kids,” said Tomlin. “We couldn’t have done it without the BA family overall. It’s been almost a decade of working together,” he said. “That parental support is what sets us apart from all other schools both public and private.”