Brewton-Parker College continued its mining of Bartow County's rich wrestling talent Thursday with Cartersville's Jake Johnson making his intentions to compete for the school known at a signing ceremony at the Cartersville High media center.
Johnson's pledge comes a month after the signing of Cass's Sammy Rosario, who also will be a part of the Barons' inaugural wrestling class.
Brewton-Parker, an NAIA school in Mount Vernon, is led by coach Jake Brumbelow, a Woodland alum and former Bartow wrestler.
The Barons couldn't have targeted a better wrestler to join its fledgling program, something Purple Hurricanes coach Garvin Edwards knows firsthand.
"I've said this many times and I've had the good fortune to talk about Jake all through his high school career, but his career started here with us as a sixth-grader and he's had an excellent career from the sixth grade level all the way through the high school level. He's been the cornerstone of our program in many ways," Edwards said.
Johnson, a state champion wrestler at 160 pounds his junior year, has been at the forefront of Cartersville's wrestling program for a long while, and Edwards turned to his budding star from the get-go.
"He's been a leader. I don't think there's been a season that I haven't selected him as the team captain, even as early as his freshman year here -- even through the middle school program. That's important to us because that means that that person is leading by example -- the work ethic, the commitment, the attitude. For those reasons, he's been our captain every year," the Canes head coach said. "He had an outstanding high school career. ... But what he's done for us -- more than just the winning and the success that he personally had -- he's always been a team-oriented person. For wrestling, everybody knows that wrestling's an individual sport, but again, we try to emphasize the team concept where individuals can have their success. He's always bought into that, and he's always been a leader and encouraged the guys to follow along with the team concept. You take a kid who can emphasize the team concept but then also has the individual success, that's the example that you want the rest of the guys in the room to see. He's been the example that we wanted the rest of our guys to see."
The future Baron wrestler completed his high school career with a record of 184-21, an average of 46 wins per season, and placed three times at the state tournament -- third as a senior and sophomore -- while qualifying for state each of his high school seasons. Johnson, who went 54-5 this season, was an area champion as a sophomore.
Though he may be excited at the prospect of continuing his wrestling career, Johnson acknowledged that he may not have gotten involved in the sport if it weren't for Edwards.
"[I'm] not ready for it to end, but at the same time I'm looking forward to the next thing, the next challenge basically. I'm gonna miss my coaches 'cause coach Edwards is the guy that basically got me into this. He asked me the first day of sixth grade did I want to wrestle, and I had no clue what he was talking about," Johnson chuckled. "Here I am now, so he's been a big part of this for me and I'm really gonna miss him. I love him like a dad. I'm just gonna miss him and coach [Jeff] Cave and the rest of the guys on the team. I'm gonna try to get back and help out as much as I can, but I'm ready to get to college and wrestle."
He noted that collegiate wrestling will provide a challenge like none other, but that it can only add to his abilities as a wrestler.
"[In] college, there's not gonna be any easy matches like there was in high school. Everybody is gonna be the top guy," Johnson said. "I feel like with the difficulty and everything it's gonna make me better. It's gonna make me a lot better."
Edwards agrees, believing that the rules differences between the two levels could propel Johnson even higher as a wrestler.
"Jake will be a better collegiate wrestler even than he was a high school wrestler -- and he was an outstanding high school wrestler. But in the high school level, unfortunately, we get penalized for some things that on the collegiate level you get credit for, [things that] you actually get more points for," he added. "With the Greco-Roman and the freestyle [wrestling] that he's done during the offseasons and with his ability to ride on the top, he's gonna be a better collegiate wrestler than he's been a high school wrestler."
Coming off a state championship and going into his final high school season, the Cartersville wrestler altered his approach in practice to assume the focus needed at the next level.
"College is just gonna push me that extra mile. Every day you gotta go into the practice room with a different mentality, and I tried to do that this year. I tried to go in and work out hard every single day. I wanted every day to be my best day at practice. I feel like that's what I'm gonna have to do to excel in college," Johnson said. "I know it's gonna be really tough. The periods are longer and [the] rules are a little different, but a place or two where I've been penalized a lot and I've gotten into a little bit of trouble in high school, it's actually gonna benefit me a little bit in college. I feel like it's gonna help me out a lot. That's what I'm really hoping is I can just keep doing what I'm doing, keep working hard, get better and better every single day."
What also could aid Johnson at Brewton-Parker will be his teammates, which will include some of the top guys in the state.
"The group of guys that I know that have already committed to this school, they're awesome. They're all really good wrestlers, and I feel like that's the best way to build a great team is to be in a room full of great wrestlers that love it just as much as I do," Johnson said. "We're basically gonna be that team. It's gonna always be remembered as that [first] team and hopefully it's gonna be one of the positive things. We're mostly all freshmen, that I know of. Four years from now when we're mostly all seniors, it's gonna be benefiting [us] a whole lot more and we're gonna have four years' experience, four years together. Wrestling already builds a brotherhood. It's a tight bond 'cause you have to be. You can't go into a practice room and beat up on each other for two hours every single day and not be brothers. This is just gonna be a new bonding experience. These friends of mine that already [are going] there, we don't go to the same school and stuff, but I pick up conversations with 'em like I see 'em every day.
"I just really hope we can leave a positive footprint on the history for that school. I want everyone to say, 'Wow, Brewton-Parker, they jumped into it.' You can't ease into this kind of thing. We gotta jump into it. We gotta start winning matches, winning dual meets," he added. "Four years from now [to] walk away with a national championship as a team, I think that [would be an] unbelievable kind of thing -- after four years and you get that type of success. I really think it can happen. It really can happen. The coach is a great guy, he's a great coach. That's what it takes."
The Barons are entering "uncharted territory" and Johnson said he is looking forward to that experience of being the first.
"Everything is brand new for us, the new practice room and everything is awesome, the brand new mats. Actually, I got to wrestle on it at state, my third- and fourth-place match ... that was the mat I wrestled on. [I] stuck the kid and I looked up and coach Brumbelow was actually [there]. I kind of looked up and I was like, 'Oh, there he is.' He was watching and it's great," Johnson said. "I feel like I'm real ... superstitious and everything like that, so I feel like that mat's got a little bit of luck in it, got a little bit of luck for me. Hopefully I can do good and leave a positive legacy at the school and make everybody proud."
His legacy as a Cane already has been cemented, and it is one his former high school coach will recall fondly.
"It's bad to lose one like that, but what you have to look at is how much you've gained by his presence, and we've gained a great deal by his presence over his high school career," Edwards said. "With Jake and the other seniors that we had this year, every day that came to my thought process. I knew that every day that we practiced, each day was one less day that I was gonna have to be able to be there with those guys, and Jake included. And I knew what a special group they were and what a special person Jake was and how once they're gone, they're gone.
"But again, they leave behind them their example, and he leaves behind his example. He'll be physically not there, but his memory and everything will still be there, still be present and he'll still be held up to the rest of the team as the shining example."
Johnson may not always enjoy his initial transition to collegiate wrestling next season, but he would never wish to trade his future or past wrestling experiences.
"It's gonna be really hard. There's gonna be times where I'm gonna hate it, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I don't know what I would've done if I never had wrestled. It's basically my identity now, and I'm cool with that. I just absolutely love it," he said. "There a lot of other sports that people say are hard, but in my opinion, there's nothing like wrestling. There's nowhere for you to hide. There's no goalie to make the save or something, and that's what I like about wrestling -- I'm responsible for me."