Trojan wrestlers ready for Julian McPhillips Invitational

St. James wrestling coach Jeff Corley is hoping MPS and other Capital City Conference programs join the Trojans and Catholic with wrestling programs.  

St. James will hold a scaled-down version of the Julian McPhillips Invitational this weekend as the Trojans and seven other wrestling programs will compete for the title on Saturday afternoon.

What would normally be an all-weekend event with 20 teams from throughout the state will be turned into an eight-team event in two gyms (Alabama High School Athletic Association COVID-19 rules limit tournaments to four teams) that will exclude many of the state’s top programs and include two sessions staged as if they’re separate events.

“I’m going to have to actually clear out the gym of all fans and charge another admission fee, so it’s like two sessions,” St. James coach Jeff Corley said. “I tried to stay in the River Region area. When I had 20 teams, I have a lot of teams in the state that typically come. As individuals, it’s easier to compete against the higher end teams; as a team, points wise, it’s hard to pair up with a team that’s solid from the top to the bottom of their lineup.

“I like the Julian. I think it’s a highly respected tournament in the state. It’s not 7A schools -- we’re not going to be able to compete with the Vestavias and the Hoovers and the Thompsons -- but for the schools in central and south Alabama, I think they all look forward to this tournament because they know their kids can compete and it’s still a high level of wrestling.”

Wrestling classifications changed this year from 1A-5A to 1A-4A and 5A-6A, giving the Trojans a better opportunity in the postseason. The Julian McPhillips Invitational is a reflection of that change, trying to find the most competitive teams with similar makeup. As a result, the 6A Wetumpka Indians, who won the tournament in 2019, would have found the individual competition in each weight class enticing, but the team format a little less competitive, so they passed on entering.

The 2020 field includes Catholic, W.S. Neal, Prattville Christian and St. James in one gym and Stanhope Elmore, Holtville, Elmore County and last-minute substitute Baker in the other gym. The top two teams from each gym will compete in the afternoon session for the title (while the other four will compete in the other gym).

“It’s definitely got all the teams from the tri-county area, but it’s not as big this year because you’re only allowed to have four teams in the gym,” said St. James senior Tennison Norton, who competes in the 120-pound weight class. “I think this type of tournament is a bit more fun because in a normal tournament, every single wrestler is in their own bracket, but in this kind of tournament you get to watch everyone wrestle as the duals go on.”

The Trojans’ other senior, Taylor Penney, competes in the heavyweight class and said the competition is similar despite the change in classification this season.

“You’re still wrestling the same people,” Penney said, “because it’s one on one and you’ll end up seeing everybody. With the change to 1A-4A, we used to see the 5A teams a lot so now we’re seeing teams we haven’t seen before. It’s still the same quality. A lot of the good guys that were in 1A-5A are in 1A-4A still. It didn’t really change much.”

Norton and Penney are among two of the ranked wrestlers for the Trojans this season, along with 106-pound Braylen Corley, an eighth grader; freshman Logan Hartson in the 113-pound class; 126-pound junior Granger Hicks, who will miss this tournament; freshman Jake Huff in the 138-pound weight class; and junior Clayton Craft in the 170-pound class. It is a team that features just two seniors (Norton and Penney) and seven wrestlers in the eighth and ninth grades, but despite its youth a squad that can challenge for a state title this season.

“We pretty much have the same team as last year because not a lot of people graduated,” Norton said. “They’re just a little bit bigger and a little bit better.”

The key to competing for a state title, like any sport, is to put quality athletes in all 14 weight divisions. The larger 5A, 6A and 7A programs have that type of depth, but it’s harder to find in the smaller programs, so Corley often finds his program competing against the larger schools. The Trojans have lost to 5A-6A Wetumpka and Tallassee and 1A-4A Piedmont, Weaver and Cleburne County, the latter two of which are aligned to compete in the South Super Sectional at Garrett Coliseum next month with St. James.

In the past, Corley has competed against Montgomery programs, but there are only two Capital City Conference schools that field wrestling programs and all of the MPS programs shut down wrestling this season, reportedly as a COVID-19 precaution.

“There’s just not a lot of competition as far as 1A-4A other than us, Catholic and PCA,” Corley said. “If I go wrestle some 1A-4A teams that are not good teams and my kids are 20-0, then when they go into the (postseason) tournament and have to face someone good, they’ve never faced adversity before. It doesn’t help when I’m having to wrestle me, Catholic and PCA all the time, so we have to go outside the box. I think there are more schools around here that need to start a wrestling program.”

JULIAN McPHILLIPS TOURNAMENT

SATURDAY (Session 1)

St. James High School Gym

Mat 1

St. James vs. Catholic

St. James vs. Prattville Christian

St. James vs. W.S. Neal

Mat 2

Prattville Christian vs. W.S. Neal

Catholic vs. W.S. Neal

Catholic vs. Prattville Christian

Elementary Gym

Mat 1

Stanhope Elmore vs. Holtville

Stanhope Elmore vs. Elmore County

Stanhope Elmore vs. Baker

Mat 2

Elmore County vs. Baker

Holtville vs. Baker

Elmore County vs. Holtville

SATURDAY (Session 2)

High School Gym

Mat 1

No. 1 high school gym team vs. No. 2 elementary gym team

Winner Mat 1 match vs. Winner Mat 2 match

Mat 2

No. 2 high school gym team vs. No. 1 elementary gym team

Loser Mat 1 match vs. Loser Mat 2 match

Elementary Gym

Mat 1

No. 3 high school gym team vs. No. 4 elementary gym team

Winner Mat 1 match vs. Winner Mat 2 match

Mat 2

No. 4 high school gym team vs. No. 3 elementary gym team

Loser Mat 1 match vs. Loser Mat 2 match