When the Westside wrestling team last met a major goal, Larry Farner rewarded his team by dying his buzz cut a shocking blond tone.

This time, the coach’s head appears safe — the victory alone should be more than enough to keep the Rockets smiling for quite a while.

Westside capped a breakthrough season by winning the biggest prize of all on Saturday, edging two-time defending champion Bagley in the North Georgia Middle School Athletic League tournament.

And the Rockets did it in dramatic fashion, too.

Trailing the Braves by four points heading into the last match of the finals, Westside needed a victory from heavyweight Derek Witcher to tie. Witcher gave them something even better when he pinned Dalton’s Deven Bradford to score six and put the Rockets over the top.

“In the past years, we hadn’t really been close to (Bagley),” Farner said while clutching the championship trophy. “We had a few good kids, but team-wise we weren’t even in the ballpark. So this year, to compete and actually pull it out is just unbelievable.”

Westside finished with 171.5 points, two ahead of Bagley, while host Dalton was third with 102.5. Gladden (98), Eastbrook (89), North Whitfield (47) and Valley Point (23) rounded out the field.

The Rockets had shown signs all season long that they could contend for the NGMSAL title, but they really turned heads with a 39-28 dual meet victory at Bagley on Jan. 12.

That was the win that prompted Farner’s new look, and while it was cause for celebration, nothing could compare to winning the league tourney.

“Even though we beat them in the dual meet, I felt like we were a little underdog coming in,” said Farner, who led the Rockets to a third-place finish in his first season at the helm before taking fourth the last two years.

“They’d beaten us in two tournaments, so I felt that we were going to have to wrestle really well to come out on top.”

Farner gave credit for the breakthrough to his wrestlers.

“Every single day in practice I don’t have to hound on them about working hard,” he said. “They take it on themselves to make themselves better. That’s just the biggest thing, in my opinion.”

The Rockets had five champions, one more than Bagley, which placed 11 wrestlers to Westside’s 10.

And while the Braves led going into the finals, with seven representatives there compared to Westside’s eight, a down-to-the-wire finish wasn’t exactly unlikely. The two teams went 2-2 in head-to-head matchups in the finals.

“We gave ourselves a chance,” Bagley coach Nathan Ridley said. “Sure, we’re disappointed. We thought we should have won. We had some kids that stepped up — a lot of kids that we weren’t expecting to step up did — and then we had some disappointments.”

Westside’s Russell Royal (103 pounds), Josh Lewis (143), Tyler Kirk (157), Miller Horton (183) and Witcher (275) all won titles.

Zach Shoemaker (189), Dalton Lane (97), Kolby Youell (126) and Derek Carnes (133) took first for Bagley.

Ridley said his team, which had to deal with season-ending injuries and hospitalizations this season — they were short two weight classes as a result — had shown its ability to deal with adversity.

That’s something to be proud of, Ridley said, but past performances have made for a high bar when it’s time to measure a year’s success.

“We’ve got ourselves to the point where we’re not going to be satisfied with second place,” Ridley said. “We’re happy, but we’re not going to be satisfied.”

The Braves will likely keep that in mind as they work toward next season.

“These kids that are going to high school, they’re going to try to keep working there,” Ridley said. “The ones that are in sixth and seventh grade will come back with the same goal. That will be to win this thing next year.”

The next step for Westside will be dealing with the loss of most of its varsity lineup — eight of the team’s 13 starters were eighth-graders.

But it’s something the Rockets will have to do to meet the next challenge.

“I have a lot of respect for coach Ridley,” Farner said. “The program he’s built over there, it’s really hard to compete with year in and out. He’s going to have a good team every year. That’s what I’m trying to get here at Westside.”

The other league champions were Dalton’s Christian Washington (81) and Henry Torres (118), Eastbrook’s Alfredo Apodaca (111) and Gladden’s Zac Dills (168).

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