Caleb Turrentine / Tallapoosa Publishers Tallassee coach John Mask celebrates after a pin.

Tallassee wrestling coach John Mask knew his team would be talented, but he didn’t know how quickly the Tigers would adapt to the varsity level.

Tallassee graduated seven senior starters in 2022 — half of the Tigers’ starting lineup. His replacements had the skills, but most had never wrestled at the varsity level.

Despite the youth and inexperience, his team continued to step up this year. Tallassee’s duals team went 32-1 and finished runner-up in AHSAA Class 5A. The Tigers reached the duals state championship for the first time in program history, losing by a narrow five points to state champion Jasper.

For those reasons, Mask has been named the 2023 Elmore County Wrestling Coach of the Year.

“Every year is different when you start out,” Mask said. “You always hope and plan, and we thought we had a good group. They really grew and progressed as each week passed. They worked hard and we had countless kids step up. That’s what it takes to have a good year as a team. 32-1 is a very hard record to achieve. That’s just a testament to their hard work.”

One of the most important aspects of duals wrestling Mask had to teach his young team is it’s not always about winning the match.

Wrestlers have to do what’s best for the team, and that could include just getting a major loss instead of getting pinned, or sitting out of the match this week because there’s a better matchup for someone else.

Mask’s starting duals lineup consisted of only three seniors by the end of the season, but the veteran wrestlers really helped solidify it was a team event and trying to scramble at the end of a match for points could sometimes hurt the team worse than it could help.

“We had to get them to understand that they’re playing a role,” Mask said. “Even if someone loses, if they don’t get pinned and only give up three points, that’s helping our team. That’s sometimes really tough for young men to understand but our guys have always believed in doing what’s best for the team. That’s what our kids bought into this year.

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Tallassee ran through the majority of its duals, but there was always one team in the back of the Tigers’ mind: Gulf Shores.

Gulf Shores eliminated Tallasee from the duals tournament in 2022 in blowout fashion, 59-9. That loss stayed with Tallassee throughout the offseason, and the two inevitably faced a rematch in the state semifinals.

Instead of being nervous, Mask saw his team determined to avenge last season’s loss. Every wrestler who was supposed to win did, and he even had a few kids who were outranked on paper or in the standings walk away with victories.

Tallassee ended up winning, 32-29, to advance to its first-ever duals state championship.

“Our guys expected to win and we had a lot of young kids step up and propel us to victory by pulling through their matches,” Mask said. “Our guys were excited about that opportunity from the beginning of the season. Our guys remembered what happened at home against them last year and they wanted to face them again.”

Following the end of the duals tournament, Tallassee turned its sights back to the individual championships. After a few years of not having anyone place in the state tournament, Mask was ready to see a few more kids get their names on the wall inside the team gym.

Tallassee had 11 wrestlers qualify for state in Huntsville, five more than any other team in the county. Of those 11, four placed, earning an etching of their names on the gym walls.

Sophomore Land Bell won the state championship in the 132-pound class, while seniors Caden Griffith and Rutland Phillips and sophomore Mason Nelson also placed.

“This year, the goal coming in was to put people on that wall,” Mask said. “We were able to do that with four guys. They did really well, and we had seven other guys who made it to state and that’s a tough feat to achieve. Our guys bought in. To have 11 kids qualify for state is a remarkable feat.”