NORCROSS - Jeff Bedard is used to winning. As a three-time high school wrestling state champion he's always had a knack for being successful.
So when Bedard became head wrestling coach at Wesleyan three years ago, it was quite a change.
Not for him, but for Wesleyan wrestlers.
"Before Coach Bedard came it was kind of laid back here, and once he came it became a lot more intense and a lot more focused," Wesleyan senior Bobby Boylston said. "It became a year-round sport."
Three years later, Bedard's winning attitude, intense practices and tough schedule have paid off. The Wolves captured their first wrestling state championship last Saturday, winning the Class AA duals title, and are a favorite to win the traditional state tournament next month.
"It's definitely come faster than I
anticipated," Bedard said of his team's success. "I was thinking right around the five-year mark we'd start to develop something pretty strong. I hope it continues. I think I'll have a pretty strong team next year."
What Bedard has built in three years at the Norcross private school is pretty impressive.
The Wolves have gone from barely filling a varsity lineup to now one of the top teams in the state, which is largely due in the way Bedard trains his wrestlers.
"I train them a lot like I trained my college guys almost," said Bedard, who coached at Nebraska, Georgia State, Cumberland College and Cornell. "Obviously, not that hard, but right up there with them."
Said senior Sam Ball: "Practices are just a lot harder and more intense. We learn a lot more and are a lot more prepared for each match."
Bedard's grueling practices have run some kids off, but for the most part he's been able to draw more wrestlers to the team each year.
His first year there were only 34 wrestlers in the program from seventh to 12th grade.
"To be honest with you, when I first got here after the first month I was thinking 'Man, am I ever going to win here?'" Bedard said. "Just simply because none of the kids had wrestling experience."
The program now has around 55 wrestlers out of 200 boys in the school.
The tough part was watching his team struggle on the mat and routinely get beaten up on.
Bedard knew the only way to make the program better was for his team to wrestle bigger schools from Class AAAA and AAAAA.
"I sat through some brutal beatings for the first month," Bedard said. "I don't think we scored more than 15 points. I sat through I don't know how many matches where we'd get beat 60-something to 15 and 72-12 and I'm thinking 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
The beatings eventually paid off and Wesleyan got better. The Wolves placed second at the area duals in 2005 behind Lovett, qualifying for state, where they placed fourth.
Last year the Wolves placed second at the area duals again behind Lovett and eventually finished fifth at state.
It wasn't until three weeks ago that the Wolves were able to get past their nemesis Lovett, beating the Lions to claim the area title. That win gave Wesleyan all the confidence it needed heading into the state duals. In the finals, it was a 27-26 victory over LaFayette that gave the Wolves their first state title.
"I'm real proud of them," Bedard said. "They exceeded my expectations. I knew that we had a shot, but I wasn't sure if we could get it done or not. I want them to know that we've still got a month left."
A big part of Wesleyan's success this year is due to its seniors Ball, Boylston, Edward Van Winkle, Jay Heslin, Brendan Patterson, Kip Thompson and Chris Alexander.
Of the seven seniors, six of them have been wrestling together since the seventh grade.
"Those kids have stuck together since they were seventh-, eighth-graders and that pays huge dividends when you've got that kind of senior leadership," Bedard said.
It's the seniors who want to end the season on another winning note. With the traditional state tournament only a month away, nothing would be better than two state titles in one
"That's the plan. That is definitely the plan," Bedard said. "For us to win traditional we're going to have to wrestle really, really well. If I can get some good draws, then I think we can make a serious run at it."
So how do Bedard's individual wrestling titles compare to his team state title as a coach?
"Oh, there's no comparison," Bedard said. "I'll take the coaching title. All my buddies asked me that this past weekend. It feels 100 times better as a coach."