Creekview’s Eli Daugherty and Sequoyah’s Christian Small may not appear to have much in common, but both found themselves celebrating for the exact same reason last month.
Both closed the season with Class AAAAAA individual championships -- Daugherty at 285 pounds and Small at 120.
“That’s the goal every season,” Small said. “Everything you do is building toward getting a shot to win a state championship.”
They ended up in the same place, but Daugherty and Small, the 2018-19 Cherokee Tribune Co-Wrestlers of the Year, took very different paths to the top of the podium.
For Daugherty, his initial goals were much simpler. He just wanted to get through the season after missing his freshman year with a shoulder injury and seeing his sophomore year end after about a month due to a knee injury.
“I was able to perform how I wanted to perform,” Daugherty said. “I went through physical therapy twice trying to get healthy enough to wrestle again. Just coming back and trying to finish a season was a relief.”
While getting his body ready for the grind of a full season was a challenge, Daugherty said the mental hurdles were just as difficult. He had to learn to trust his reconstructed knee once again while reacclimating himself to the mental aspect of the sport.
“It took a lot,” Daugherty said. “My coaches had to help me get mentally prepared to wrestle big guys. I had to get used to wrestling six minutes on a knee that had some parts replaced. It really took getting mentally healthy to be able to do what I did.”
Small did not have the same injury history to overcome, but he did have to get past his own obstacle in Pope’s Max Druhot, a returning state champion.
After losing to Druhot in overtime last season, Small knew how close he was to contending for a title, and after beating Druhot in their first three meetings this season, Small knew he could win a state championship.
“I thought I had a chance to win,” he said. “I felt like, if I worked hard enough. I could beat (Druhot) and win state. I worked harder than ever over the summer, and it just kind of happened.”
Small’s championship marked a major turning point in the resurgence of the Sequoyah wrestling program. It was the the Chiefs' first individual state title in 13 years, but Small was never focused on the program's long wait.
“I just focused on me and the team,” he said. “I wasn’t really that worried about other years. I just wanted the team to do as good as we could this year.”
At Creekview, Daugherty had his own streak to worry about.
The Grizzlies have had at least one state champion every year since 2014, and once Daugherty made the final, he said he knew it was up to him to keep it going.
“It was one of the things I was most nervous about before my finals match,” he said. “We’ve had a state champion every year since 2014. I knew I couldn’t break that streak.”
Daugherty and Small are both set to return next year as seniors, with both having to deal with the increased expectations that come as champions. Neither said it will change their approach, though, and they hope the same results come with it.
“You just keep doing the same thing,” Small said. “It’s worked before.”