BY NICHOLAS SULLIVAN
Kyle Gollhofer was shaking as he sat in a chair adjacent to the GHSA-adorned wrestling mats Saturday inside Macon Centreplex. The Woodland senior was struggling to control his emotions.
One of the best wrestlers in the state of Georgia and arguably the top grappler in the storied history of the Woodland program, Gollhofer had achieved everything in his four years with the Wildcats. Everything that is, except for one thing: a team state championship.
That all changed Saturday, when Woodland beat out Buford in the Class 5A state finals by a 36-30 score to capture the Wildcats’ third duals championship and fourth overall wrestling title.
A three-time individual state champion on his way to wrestle at Northern Iowa, Gollhofer will have the chance to become the school’s first four-time winner at the state traditional meet in February. While that moment, should it arrive, will undoubtedly elicit plenty of joy, Saturday’s experience will be hard to top.
“I’m extremely happy,” Gollhofer said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. This is so many years in the making. Had some guys get hurt last year, had some guys come in this year. We called it payback season for a reason. It’s been in the making. …
“It doesn’t come naturally. We just work harder than everybody else, and I think we showed it out here. I’m extremely proud, extremely happy for our guys. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Gollhofer hugged his head coach, Adrian Tramutola, almost as soon as the clock hit all zeros on Caleb Jones’ minor-decision win to seal the victory with one match remaining. A nine-year head coach of the Wildcats, Tramutola received hugs from the rest of his roster before finally being able to put into words how far this team has come.
Since lifting a first-place trophy in his debut 2011 season, following two years as a Woodland assistant coach, Tramutola has been through his fair share of close calls in pursuit of his second state title. From 2012-17, there were six consecutive runner-up finishes. Last year, the Wildcats were derailed by injuries and wound up missing out on the state tournament altogether, but Tramutola believes the setback only pushed his athletes harder.
“If we don’t have the injuries we had last year, maybe we don’t have the focus we had throughout the summer and throughout the fall,” he said. “You live with injuries. They happen every day. You can’t control them. You just try to move on, and we battled some this year. We had guys step up. You’re talking about a freshman in Colton Bishop, who goes out there and battles a three-time finalist and loses 8-7, almost beats him. We have a complete team, and we got it done.”
Even still, things didn’t get off to the best start Saturday for Woodland, as two-time defending champion Buford managed to take a 21-6 lead with all of the Wildcats’ points coming from a pin by Bryce Shedd at 195 pounds.
Even though he ultimately lost, Bishop’s tenacity in the 113-bout seemed to spur Woodland. Following his minor-decision defeat, Gollhofer produced a technical fall victory. Caleb Henson followed with a pin, while Easton Bishop and Caden McCrary added technical fall wins.
The momentum swing gave Woodland a brief 27-21 lead before Buford trimmed the deficit to three. A forfeit by the Wolves at 152 pounds gave Jones a chance to close things out in the penultimate match. The junior seized the opportunity, rolling to an 11-4 decision that set off wild celebrations among the Wildcats on the floor and in the stands.
“Right now, I’m a little tired, but I feel great,” Jones said afterwards. “We finally won the state championship, and this is the happiest moment of my life.”
As for Tramutola, he didn’t want to compare the 2011 title-winning squad to this year’s. That team made a great run after coming in as the No. 4 seed to claim the crown, while this year’s bunch dominated its way to a No. 1 seed and essentially cruised into the finals.
“They’re all great in their own ways,” Tramutola said. “When we did it in 2011, we came from the four seed. I don’t want to downgrade the other one. This one is great, because it’s right now.
“After all the consecutive losses and heartbreaks, to get this one is pretty damn special.”
The duals season has shown to be a special one for more than just the Wildcats.
Cass overcame injuries to produce a top-six finish in Class 5A, falling to Buford in the semis and Ola in the consolation semis after starting the tournament with two wins; Cartersville finished 2-2 for a top-eight showing in its first appearance in the duals tournament; and even though they didn’t reach the Class 3A tournament, Adairsville has continued to improve and likely has a few individual state-placers on its roster.
But the crown jewel of the duals season will always be Woodland’s title. Tramutola had been touting his team’s chances all season. Gollhofer, though, admitted he was even surprised by how well the Wildcats ended up doing.
“Before even the season, I knew we were good,” he said. “I didn’t know we were this good. I knew we were good; I knew we were capable of it. We showed tonight we were more than capable of it.”
McCrary, who joined Gollhofer and graduate Cody Cochran in winning an individual state title last year, agreed with his current teammate that nothing compares to being a part of a team championship.
“Individual is one thing, but with the team, us all winning it, it’s so much better,” the sophomore said. “We’ve worked so hard this year. I felt like we deserved it, and we went out there and got it.”
Now, Woodland will embark on the path to capturing a double with the traditional state tournament set for Feb. 13-16 back in Macon. The 2011 team was unable to win the traditional championship, but back in 2003, the Wildcats managed to secure both.
A handful of individuals seem likely to finish as champions, but Woodland won’t be satisfied until they bring home the third state championship for the school this year. (The girls cross country team also won the Class 5A state title in the fall.)
It’s fitting the Wildcats will enter the traditional portion of the season as state-title favorites. Even though they didn’t reach the duals state tournament last year, Woodland put forth a stellar showing at the 2018 traditional tourney, serving as a nice reminder of just how good the Wildcats can be.
Saturday proved to be the culmination of that redemptive journey.
“We left Macon last year, waiting to get back,” Tramutola said. “At the individual [tournament], we knew how good we could be. … Everybody stayed the course, and we’re state champs.”288