Apr. 30—VALDOSTA — A pair of Valdosta High wrestling standouts will get to compete at the next level.
Seniors Johnny Walsh and L.B. Neloms signed college letters of intent Tuesday afternoon in the VHS wrestling room.
Walsh signed with Life University while Neloms signed a pact with Reinhardt University.
"It's very important (to me)," Walsh said of signing with Life. "I feel very nervous, but at the same time, I'm very excited. I'm looking forward to getting on with this next part of my life."
Neloms added, "It means a lot. ... It's been a lot of long, long, hard work. That's about it, and having good coaches."
Walsh joins a Running Eagles team that has gone 24-1 over the past two seasons under head coach Omi Acosta, while Neloms will be joining a powerhouse at Reinhardt that went 13-2 and won an AAC Championship back in February under head coach Jeff Bedard.
"I knew they had a great wrestling program," Walsh said. "I love wrestling, so I really wanted to do that. Plus, I know they have a great academic system with business and their other programs at their school."
Neloms said of his decision to sign with Reinhardt, "I loved the coaches. It's a good school. It'll keep me out of trouble and I already have family up there so it'll be good for me being up there."
In Walsh, a 132-pound competitor, and Neloms, who has been a constant force in the 285-pound weight class, the Wildcats will be losing two key cogs from a team only two years removed from winning its first traditional state championship.
After Tuesday's signing day, Valdosta head wrestling coach John Robbins talked about what Walsh and Neloms have meant to the program over their four-year careers.
"I've got mixed emotions," Robbins said. "As coaches, we're so focused on preparing for the next thing. We've got two huge gaps in our lineup now. We've got gaps that I haven't had to worry about in several years. There's an immediate need at two weight classes right now. Then, after about two seconds, I realize how big of a deal this is. These guys should be celebrated. They've worked their tails off and they're going to get a chance to compete that a lot of people don't get. They're going to two schools that happen to be in-state, so that they can take advantage of a lot of in-state grants and tuitions and it won't be as expensive.
"But, at the same time, both of them are top five programs in the nation in their classifications. Personally, I know what wrestling did for me when I stepped off that ledge after high school and said, 'Well, I was pretty good in high school but I really want to compete. I don't know what I can do, but let me see,' and it changed the rest of my life. Not to be nostalgic, I'm looking forward to that for them. I feel like they'll have an opportunity to have those same experiences and find best friends from all over the nation and all over the world like I did. I'm very excited."
Not only is Robbins excited for the opportunity Walsh and Neloms will have at the next level, he also feels the landscape of collegiate sports has changed so much since he was a competitor.
According to Robbins, the learning curve for athletes is not as steep as it was 10 or 15 years ago.
"What we're seeing now at the collegiate level is — when I wrestled, you were just going to be a doormat for a few years; very much like football was," Robbins said. "We're seeing that, across all sports, kids are better prepared now. They're coming out and they're closer to being lineup-ready and the same thing goes for wrestling. Johnny and L.B., particularly L.B. — he's been wrestling from a very young age so his wrestling IQ is off the charts. He's in kind of a special weight class at heavyweight. It takes a different skill set than a lot of the other (classes). I think he's ready to compete for a starting job right away.
"Johnny, it's all about his work ethic. You can't outwork him. You can't work him too hard. As a coach, you can't run him in the ground. He just won't be broken and that's something that's just going to set him up to be successful."