By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The 2003 Ashville High baseball team’s 18-year run as the school’s reigning state champion ended last Saturday (Feb. 13) in Montgomery.
Sparked by solid performances in the preliminary, consolation and semifinal rounds, the Bulldogs capped their season with the Class1A/4A state championship at Garrett Coliseum. Ashville finished with 174 points, 32 more than second place Weaver.
The Bulldogs’ substantial cushion heading to the championship round gave the Ashville coaches confidence that their team would end up with the first-place trophy.
“We kind of did the math at that point and knew that it was getting close to being out of reach for the other teams to catch up,” said AHS head coach Jim Browning. “But we didn’t mention that to the kids; we just told them to go out and do what they were supposed to do.”
That fact that the Bulldogs won by such a large margin despite no Ashville wrestler winning an individual title spoke to the team’s strength from top to bottom.
“To build up that good of a lead means that you’ve got a lot of good wrestlers,” Browning said. “We really are just one big family, and we work hard every day for each other. These kids care about each other and love each other, which helps a lot. Individuality in this sport is great and every one of these kids is a competitor, but at the end of the day, I think it meant more for them to win the state championship as a team.”
Eight AHS wrestlers medaled and four finished as state runner-up, including Jabe Burgess at 160 pounds, Dylan Harris at 170 pounds, Luke Harris at 182 pounds and Jacob Ebner at 220 pounds. Two AHS wrestlers took third place – senior Nick Spears at 132 pounds and sophomore Mason Wilson at 285 pounds. Trent Martin finished in fourth place, while Justin Autry took fifth.
Ashville entered the semifinal round with an 82 to 76 lead over St. James, and the Bulldogs pulled away with four victories. Burgess (27-6) pinned Ranburne’s Tylor Cornwell at 160 pounds; Dylan Harris (31-2) posted an 11-2 major decision over Thomasville Taylor Robinson at 170 pounds; Luke Harris (31-2) had a 15-7 major decision over Deshler’s Devon Jeffreys at 182 pounds; and Jacob Ebner (28-5) pinned Weaver’s Taylor Thompson at 220 pounds. Autry (18-5) was pinned by Beulah’s Blain Hines at 152 pounds and Mason Wilson (24-9) was pinned by Ranburne’s Carson Hall at 285 pounds.
Browning said the senior class of Nick Spears, Luke Harris, Trent Martin, Jacob Ebner, Jabe Burgess, Austin Hale and Justin Autry was crucial to the program’s success.
“Taking all seven of our seniors to state was amazing. This group has been a foundation for us for a long time. Each of them contributed something different to the room, and they’ve been some of the best leaders this school has ever had in any sport. They’ve shown the other kids how hard you’re supposed to work every day.”
Browning pointed to assistant coach Shaun Carter as the “heart and soul” of the Ashville High wrestling program.
“Coach Carter knows the ins and outs of the sport, and it’s a tribute to how hard he works on the mat with these kids. I do the administrative stuff and help coach on the mat, but when it comes down to how to perform and execute the moves, he’s really the guy that does it. The kids have really bonded with him and trust him, as I do.”
Carter said the program has grown from leaps and bounds since he arrived eight years ago.
“The first four years, we were low on numbers and we were trying to get kids interested and involved. These past four years, we’ve been maintaining some good numbers, and as far as participation goes, these last three years have been incredible. We qualified 11 kids for state, which was the highest number that Ashville has ever qualified. Out of those 11 kids, eight of them got on the podium. These guys have put the time in and finally did what they needed to do to bring the championship home.”
Like Browning, Carter views the team’s upperclassmen as indispensable.
“There’s no words to describe these seven seniors. They brought into the program, they brought into us coaches, and they literally worked their tails off every single day to get to this point. The leadership from these guys is incredible, especially Luke Harris and Trent Martin, who are like the daddies of the team. They get the kids going at practice and hold them accountable for everything they do.”
Since Martin is his son, Carter said the 2020-21 season was bittersweet.
“We’ve been on this journey for many years together, and we finished it off on the last season he’ll ever play. But it’s a heck of way to go out.”
“We feel like we all achieved our goals and did what we wanted to,” said Luke Harris. “We had some guys in the back of the bracket that really killed it, which really sealed the deal. Us four in the finals helped finished it off. All seven of us seniors worked hard since we all started, and it really showed up this year.”
“We worked our tails off for years, and it finally paid off,” said Martin. “Weaver’s a great team, but they just had a couple of heavy hitters, and just a few heavy hitters will get beat by a solid group of wrestlers. If you have four [wrestlers] on the championship side and four on the backside, there’s no way you can lose a tournament. Three of us the backside were seniors, so we weren’t going to lay down, because we knew we wouldn’t have another shot at it. It’s just been a good year for Ashville athletics all the way around.”
Martin said having so many youngsters on the 2020-21 team put pressure on him and his fellow seniors to provide the necessary leadership.
“We had to do it for them, because they had to see what it was like to win,” he said.
Harris and Martin appreciated winning the state championship after Ashville fell just short to Cleburne County in the state duals meet last month.
“I think that we needed that loss,” said Martin. “If we didn’t, I think we would have come into the state tournament with big heads and probably have gotten complacent. We had a couple of really solid weeks of practice after duals, and we used that time to sharpen our craft.”
“Losing duals was tough, but after that, we set our goals to win the real state championship,” added Harris. “We all wrestled like we wanted it.”
Browning noted that success by a sports team tends to uplift a high school as a whole.
“It brings a positive feeling all the way around,” he said. “This is really big for our student body, for our school and for our community.”