Last year, COVID restrictions changed the Julian McPhillips Invitational, converting the popular local wrestling meet into more of a dual meet between teams. This year, the 15-team event will revert to its focus on individuals, giving the participants more of a gauge among individual weight divisions, even if those competing teams participate in three different classifications.
“I think this tournament is more of an individual feel, what you feel like going into sectionals,” St. James senior Clayton Craft said. “If you do well in this tournament, you have a lot of momentum, going forward.”
The Trojans are the host team and one of the favorites as well, counting on seniors such as Craft and Granger Hicks to lead the team to a first-place finish. Like many wrestling teams, these two leaders came from different perspectives but emerged with a common goal of leading their team toward a state championship.
For Craft, a 205-pound linebacker in football, wrestling helped him with his footwork, so he joined the team as a sophomore and has wrestled at three different weight divisions in each of his three seasons with the Trojans.
“Granger kind of convinced me to do it,” Craft said. “My freshman year, my sister was a senior and she knew all the kids that were seniors that were wrestlers and we were good that year. That kind of convinced me to do it. I thought it would make me better.”
For Hicks, a fifth-year starter since the eighth grade, he has moved up through the ranks, starting at 106 pounds and competing for the last two years at 126 pounds after rebounding from a broken collarbone and a knee injury suffered in football.
“He came out as an eighth grader and I knew right away he was going to be a pretty good wrestler,” St. James wrestling coach Jeff Corley said. “He’s just natural. He’s not the biggest kid so this sport fits him well. With him being small, he just thrives in this sport more than he does in others.”
Craft has worked carefully on losing weight, setting the 182-pound division as a goal because it would help the Trojans fill a void in that weight class. He has compiled a 21-3 record so far this season.
“Two of his losses were in the first three or four matches,” Corley said. “He was still in football shape, sloppy on the map. Since he’s gotten in better shape, he’s pretty much been the Clayton that I expected.”
Craft finished sixth in the state a year ago in the 170-pound division.
“The practices will make you lose a lot of weight,” Craft said. “But it’s also a lot of dieting. Last year, I was at 195 after football so I went to 170. But 170 this year probably isn’t possible for me. I went from 160 my sophomore year to 170 my junior year to now at 182.”
Hicks also had to lose weight because of football, where he played a 150 pounds, but has wrestled at 132 pounds before but at 126 the past two years, where he finished fourth in the state in 2020 and is 11-1 this season.
“At 132, there are a lot of good kids,” Hicks said. “I know I still have a shot at placing in the state at 132, but the road at 126 is so much easier for me. I should win it.”
After a moment’s reflection, he added, “I will win it.”
The Trojans, like many of the River Region’s wrestling teams, have traveled to other parts of the state to wrestle but the local tournament remains their favorite.
‘”The Julian’ is always a big tournament for us,” Hicks said. “It’s a good way to start building to sectionals. It’s probably the biggest tournament we’ll at this year besides sectionals and state. It’s a good way to prepare ourselves for that.”
The tournament is named for local attorney Julian McPhillips, the biggest supporter of the sport in the River Region.
“He’s been a big supporter of wrestling in the tri-county area for some time,” Corley said. “We take pride in our program around here, being one of the few schools in the River Region that wrestles. Wrestling is more popular up (in) north (Alabama), so it’s easier for them to find tournaments for them to go to. This tournament has been held for a long time so we want to keep the tradition going, but it helps a lot of teams that are building programs in the south (part of the state). It helps a lot of River Region teams that have to travel a lot.”
24TH ANNUAL JULIAN McPHILLIPS TOURNAMENT
Where: St. James School
Participants: American Christian Academy, Brewbaker Tech, Charles Henderson, Dothan, Holtville, Houston Academy, John Carroll, Catholic, Prattville Christian Academy, Reeltown, St. James, Stanhope Elmore, W.S. Neal, Westminster Christian, Wetumpka