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Talented senior class inks wrestling scholarships

Buford’s Chip Ness smiles during a signing day ceremony in the school’s football media room on Wednesday. Ness signed with the University of North Carolina’s wrestling program. (Staff photo: Brandon Brigman)

Buford’s Chip Ness smiles during a signing day ceremony in the school’s football media room on Wednesday. Ness signed with the University of North Carolina’s wrestling program. (Staff photo: Brandon Brigman)

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Collins Hill’s Sean Russell, right, and Ryan Millhof, center, look on as their wrestling coach Josh Stephen (not pictured) talks about them during a signing day ceremony in the school’s commons area on Wednesday. Russell signed a college scholarship with Edinboro (Pa.) University and Millhof signed with Oklahoma University. (Staff photo: Brandon Brigman)

Josh Stephen is a huge Oklahoma State fan, but the Collins Hill wrestling coach might have to make an exception to cheer against his team. At least in one match.

Collins Hill’s Ryan Millhof signed with Oklahoma on Wednesday, one of the nation’s top-ranked wrestling programs.

“Oh, it will be one match,” Stephen said with a laugh. “I’ll quietly cheer for Ryan and his matches.”

“Yeah, we’ll see,” a reluctant Millhof said. “We’ll have to wait for that one to come by.”

Millhof was one of four Gwinnett County wrestlers to sign a college scholarship on Wednesday. It’s an unprecedented feat for a sport that hasn’t been known to produce college-level athletes until recent years.

“It’s getting a lot better. A lot of kids are getting good competition,” Stephen said. “I think more kids realize they can compete at that level. It’s getting deeper and it’s only going to get better.”

In addition to Millhof, Collins Hill’s Sean Russell signed with Edinboro University, Buford’s Chip Ness is headed to North Carolina and Parkview’s Kamaal Shakur is going to Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“We’ve all been working hard since we were younger,” Millhof said. “I can personally say the amount of work Chip, Kamaal, Sean and myself have put into it is starting to pay off. We have a very blessed senior class, but at the same time we’ve put in the work and that’s why we are here.”

Gwinnett has had its fair share of wrestlers sign with college programs over the years. Central Gwinnett’s Jacob Aiken-Phillips (Cornell), Collins Hill’s Taylor Knapp (Virginia Tech), Joel Smith (Arizona State), T.J. Mitchell (Virginia Tech) and Peachtree Ridge’s Andrew Sartain (Oklahoma) signed with Division I programs, but it was never in the same class like this year’s.

“It’s by far the best senior class to come through Gwinnett,” said Dustin Kawa, who runs The Wrestling Academy in Lawrenceville.

Millhof and Russell are both ranked No. 1 in the nation in their weight classes. Millhof is a two-time state champion and a two-time Super 32 winner. He’s headed to an Oklahoma program that is ranked No. 5 in the nation.

“Oklahoma was the only visit I took,” Millhof said. “I went to the campus and fell in love with it. I knew in my heart that’s where I needed to be.”

Russell is a three-time state champion and a three-time placer at Super 32, finishing second to Millhof in 2012. Edinboro, which is located in Pennsylvania, is ranked No. 12 in the nation.

“This has always been a dream since I was 8 years old,” Russell said.

Gwinnett has never produced a college national champion, but Stephen believes Millhof and Russell are going schools they can reach that goal.

“We’ve had great kids sign places, but I don’t feel it’s always been the place they can win national championships,” Stephen said. “I feel they both — Sean and Ryan — are going places they can.”

Ness has followed North Carolina since he was in middle school. It came down to UNC, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Maryland before he decided to stay close to home.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” Ness said. “It’s been a six- or seven-year-long love with UNC. I’ve been following the school since I was in sixth grade.”

Ness is a three-time state champion and is ranked No. 2 in the nation in his weight class. He became just the third Georgian to win a Super 32 title last month. He will join a UNC program that is ranked No. 18 in the nation.

Shakur missed last season with a knee injury, but placed third at the state tournament in 2011. He won the USA Wrestling pre season national championship last month.

“As a whole, we’re arguably the best class Georgia has ever had,” Ness said. “We’re moving up the ranks for sure.”