Fort Dorchester wrestler AJ Alford gets final shot at state title

The Coastal Clash high school wrestling tournament features 45 teams from across South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. (File/Roger Lee/Journal Scene)

In his final chance, Fort Dorchester senior AJ Alford hopes to capture an elusive gold medal at the state individual wrestling championships on Saturday in Anderson.

Alford, considered one of the best high school wrestlers in the state to not have won a state title, has been the victim of bad luck in his previous attempts in the state tournament. He has finished third in each of the last two seasons in the Class AAAA meet.

Last year, with an undefeated record and a No. 1 ranking in the AAAA 160-pound weight class, Alford was forced to retire (by officials) from his semifinal match with Goose Creek’s Caleb Rubin due to a broken bone in his foot. The injury happened during the state duals tournament a week earlier. Alford continued to wrestle through the consolation bracket and won the bronze medal.

“It was a very tough way to end my run,” Alford said. “It was fuel to the fire for me. I was back in the wrestling room for a solid month, busted my butt to get ready for nationals.”

About a month later, Alford competed in the national championships and finished runner-up in his weight class.

Alford enters the 2016 state tournament as the prohibitive favorite in the AAAA 170-pound division. He has suffered only one defeat this season — to AAA state title contender Talon Seitz of Bluffton. As (bad) luck would have it, Alford has spent most of this week battling the flu bug, which has limited him to very little preparation on the mat.

“No worries,” says Alford, who signed to wrestle with the U.S. Naval Academy a few weeks ago. “This is just another test for me, another challenge. I welcome it as another hurdle. I’ll be ready. As far as conditioning and all, I’ll be fine. I’ve been preparing and training all season, that’s where the confidence comes from.

“The big thing for me is just to get well, get healthy, and have my body ready to go. Not being able to wrestle much this week just has me so fired up to get after someone. Maybe it’s a good thing.”

Alford goes through life and wrestling refusing to sweat the small stuff. He has a plan for success on the wrestling mat and for the rest of his life. Alford had other opportunities to pursue wrestling on the college level but says the opportunity presented to him at a service academy was too good to pass up.

“The decision was a no-brainer,” said Alford, whose father (Dr. Sean Alford) played football at The Citadel and his brother (Jerry Johnson) wrestled at The Citadel. “When a program like Navy comes to me and offers all that they offer, how do you not take advantage of it? The academics are stellar. I’m getting a chance to set up the rest of my life and still compete in the sport I love.

“Everything about it, I just could not say no to what I think is a perfect situation for me and my life. I’m using wrestling as a way to get where I want to be and luckily the stars lined up for me perfectly.”

As for this weekend, Alford is “very hungry” to win a state championship but he also has his sights set on the upcoming national championships. If he had to choose winning one, he would take the more prestigious honor of being a national champion. But one should not take that as a lack of desire to be the best in his home state.

“Oh, I wanna win state, definitely,” he said. “It’s just a goal I have, especially with the bad luck I’ve had the last few chances. I’ll be focused 100 percent on doing my best this weekend.”