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January 8, 2014

Trojan wrestling strives for more

MILLEDGEVILLE — In a first-year run, John Milledge Academy wrestling won a region title and placed seven athletes on the state medal podium.

Last year’s assistant coach Sean McConnell now serves as the Trojans’ head coach.

McConnell wrestled at the varsity level at Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville before attending Berry College, where he played collegiate baseball.

The wrestling fire never died down.

“I loved wrestling. It was just the purest sport to me,” he said. “It’s for all shapes and sizes. Maybe the kid who didn’t get as much playing time in football can come out here and be a state champion.”

After completing a master’s degree at Emory in 2011, McConnell came to Milledgeville and now serves as the youth director at First United Methodist Church.

When former coach Adam Gillhouse left for Howard, McConnell became the leader of the young program with eight varsity and five middle school wrestlers to mold this year.

The numbers aren’t what the coaches hoped because wrestling isn’t for everyone.

“It’s a tough sport physically but also mentally having that discipline and focus,” McConnell said. “It takes a lot of different skills, strength and stamina.”

In year No. 2, JMA’s training moves past simple fundamentals into emotional strength.

“We focus on mental toughness. A lot of what we had to do last year was just teach moves, so they could go out and compete,” McConnell said. “Now, our focus isn’t just having a chance, but we expect you to win. I understand that your body is tired, but you need to push through that. You can make your body do anything as long as your mind is strong enough.”

JMA wrestling practices two hours each weekday at Bodyplex. Co-owner Larry Mullis let the Trojans utilize a backroom facility that was a lifesaver for the program that was cramped last year.

“(Bodyplex) has been wonderful. This mat is over twice the size. The kids can move,” McConnell said. “It’s a tougher, blue collar atmosphere. I think they’ve responded well.”

Returners like junior 220-pounder Jordan Bush and senior 182-pounder Andrew Hayes are ready for a successful output.

Hayes stated placing higher in the state tournament as a second year goal.

“That’s what we all want to do. I think last year we surprised people,” Hayes said. “This year we want everybody to know we are a good team.”

The Trojans go head-to-head with Mount de Sales today. JMA tied the opponent earlier in the season.

“It’s exciting to work with them. We see them a lot,” McConnell said. “We haven’t wrestled competitively in a month. This is a good plum line for where we are at now and what we can expect going forward.”

JMA’s first home match against Windsor, MDS and Bulloch is Jan. 23.

Though the coaching staff wants to improve steadily in the record books, winning takes a back seat to lessons of perseverance and toughness that translate to everyday ups and downs.

“I want them to be good wrestlers, but they need to be good men when they leave this program,” the Trojan coach said. “Once they graduate, the things they learn on the mat don’t just die away.”

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