In just its very first year as a varsity program, the Richmond Hill High School wrestling program saw seven wrestlers make it all the way to the state tournament. One Wildcat wrestler, 145-pounder John Phifer, reigned supreme in tough region 3-AAA competition and made history by becoming Bryan County’s very first region wrestling champion. In doing so, he also racked up the honor of being deemed February’s Bryan County Athlete of the Month.
Phifer received his award during a banquet in his honor at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s on March 12. Restaurant owners Doug and Georgia Goolsby also honored Phifer by giving him an achievement award and an Athlete of the Month T-shirt.
At the region 3-AAA tournament in South Effingham, Phifer competed against top rated wrestlers from tradition wrestling powerhouses Benedictine and South Effingham High School. Add in the fact that Phifer, a rookie to the sport, took the region crown after overcoming multiple injuries perhaps makes his achievements even more remarkable.
"I’m very surprised at the level of achievement I’ve reached this season because of all the injuries I came across," Phifer said. "I came very close to not being able to wrestle at all. I tore my bicep early this season. Last year, I tore my rotator cuff and it still bothers me. I also recently had surgery on my leg."
Coach Rick Bond said Phifer is the hardest individual worker on his team.
"To be able to win region and to hold his own at state says a lot about his character and work ethic," Bond said. "Not only that, but John is an outstanding student. In addition, he has a great deal of respect for his parents and I believe that has helped him become the well-rounded young man that he is."
Bond said Phifer is "exceptionally coachable" to where he will put to practice every move and strategy that is taught to him.
"John is one of the reasons that people stay in coaching," Bond continued. "He’s shown everyone in this young program that if you work hard and stay determined, you’ll learn and you will succeed – regardless of the short amount of time this wrestling program has existed. He’s proven it is possible and has helped put us on the map."
"I was in tears after he won the region tournament," his father John Phifer II said. "We (he and his wife Pauline) couldn’t sit still during any of his matches. We are so proud of him. All his hard work through the years paid off and we are so happy for him."
"He’s a very dedicated person," his mother Pauline Phifer said. "Everything he does, he does to the best of his ability. We don’t have to push him because he already has it within himself. Just the other day, I caught him explaining this philosophy to his younger brother and I just had to smile."
She said he has always had an athletic spirit, noting that Phifer started in sports when he was four-years-old with soccer before picking up baseball at age eight. He has continued with baseball and is currently competing as a member of the Wildcat varsity team.
Phifer, a junior, said he wants to continue to play sports on the collegiate level, but is unsure whether wrestling or baseball scouts will come knocking. Meanwhile, one of his immediate goals is preparing for next year’s Wildcat wrestling season.
"I now know what I have to do this off-season in order to make it deeper into the state tournament next year and I’ll be ready," Phifer said.
"He’s a leader in this program," Coach Bond said. "The strange thing about it is that he doesn’t even know it. It’s not something that he does intentionally; it’s just his nature. And that’s one of the qualities of a true leader. If others choose to follow him, he’ll be there to help them. If they don’t, he’s going forward anyway."
Honorable mentions: RHHS baseball’s John Johnson, BCHS baseball’s Justin Covington, RHHS basketball’s Chakiris Moss, Darius Postell, Tyler Carlson and Colleen Keller, BCHS basketball’s Samantha Howard and Thurman Gaines, RHHS soccer’s Graysen Surges and Lauren Hall.