Grappling with success
A new wrestling season is ready to begin when the Leavenworth Pioneers play host to Shawnee Mission West Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Four area teams are indeed looking for some huge dividends of success this winter.
All four teams – the Pioneers, Lansing, Basehor-Linwood and Pleasant Ridge – have big names to replace, but all may have the talent back and then some to replicate previous high marks.
Fourth-year head coach Nick Flynn battled lineup issues aplenty in 2016-17 as his roster was full on only certain occasions.
Now, with an influx of talented freshmen to call on, things are looking even better for the scrappy program.
After a fifth-place finish in the Kaw Valley League and a postseason that saw the Lions not place at state, this year will be huge for the program moving forward.
Tucker Bieber, Tyler Williams, Joseph Irwin, Claye Howard, Tyler Green and Braiden McKee are all returning to the fold after having their share of highlight moments. Toss those wrestlers in with the newcomers and Flynn has many pieces to work with.
“We are adding a number of quality freshmen to the team this year,” Flynn said. “Joseph is a returning regional champ and currently ranked fourth in the state. Braiden McKee is currently ranked sixth in the state.
“Our top newcomer this year is Cam Maestas. He is a quality wrestler that is going to make huge impacts right away. I am really excited to see him get out here and make things happen.”
The team will rely on its veteran makeup to make things happen this winter.
“Right now, we are definitely starting with more experience than in the past,” Flynn said. “Yes we are young, but most of our kids have quality wrestling experience and we have some awesome leadership with Claye and Joseph this year. These guys are excited and ready to get out on the mat.”
The veterans are excited about the new freshmen.
“We have a lot of hard-working freshmen and have a lot of potential to grow as a team,” Howard said. “They remind me a lot of me and Joseph as freshmen. We got a lot better as the year went by. Getting that toughness by getting the crap beat out of you at the beginning of the year really helps and you start to give it back.
“They will get better. I see it every day.”
“These freshmen are 1,000 times better than the freshmen last year and I love (the current sophomores). They’ve grown since last year,” Irwin said. “These freshmen, they listen and they are so much like us. They just want to learn more. These guys are really hungry. They want to win and they want to become great.
“I can see that they are listening, they are trying it and executing it and it’s really showing. I’ve watched a few of these guys in practice show me something that was taught to them the day before.”
“Right now, we need to focus on the mat,” Flynn said. “We are pretty solid on our feet, but are struggling to get off the bottom.
“I think by the time we get rolling in competition, we can assess and break down key areas that we need to fix.”
Now the need is to fill holes in the lineup and many of those holes will be filled by freshmen.
“We have a lot of people who will grow into their weight classes,” Howard said. “They are going to learn … to take pride in their own weight class and say ‘Hey, this is my spot, no one is taking it and you will have to wrestle me for it.’
“The kids are going to try their hardest, fill whatever spot they need to and continue to thrive.”
The last year of the KVL promises to be a slog as a lot of teams come in ready to battle.
“Bonner Springs and Tonganoxie are both bringing quality teams this year,” Flynn said. “Although we don't focus on league an extreme amount, I think we will be able to put on a better performance this year than we have the past couple years.”
“Our team is going to do great this year. I can already see it and the work ethic shows on the mat,” Irwin said. “They are not going to be giving up points. We have more kids this year and that will make a difference.”
It is no secret that the Pioneers have some big-time performers to replace this winter.
Undefeated state champion Daniel Butler, Anthony Gold, who moved to Oregon, and Nick Evans are gone. The team will have some big holes in the 14-man lineup.
For head coach Jacob Beck, his third season will have some challenges, but with so many bodies in the room, he should be fine as the Pioneers look to replicate or better last year’s 7-2 dual record and third-place finish in the Sunflower League. The team had 12 state wrestlers and took 13th place in Class 5A.
With junior Joey Hancock (33-11 record), Hartwell Taylor (24-21), Sean Becker (13-14), Dylan McLain (16-22) and Etena Tuivaiti (16-19) back, he has a nice core to start with.
Throw in newcomers like freshman Jacob McLain, who has invested a lot of time on the mat, and rising sophomore Tyler Robinson, and an intriguing lineup begins to take shape.
“As a team, I think one of our strengths is that we are picking up where we left off last year with the system,” Beck said. “All of them know that every day will be a struggle and have shown up with positive attitudes and quality work ethics. Again, we are only in (preseason), and this is a long season, so I am just interested in getting some competition under our belts then reassessing.
“I wouldn't say I'm concerned about anything. This is a very long season, and we honestly are only worried about winning when it really matters at regionals and state. We have to continue to improve on a daily basis and then fix the technical errors as we see them.”
“I am looking more at the now and not as much into the future, but we are looking good and we had a significant number of boys come out,” Tuivaiti said. “As a team we look pretty tough. I like to think everyone is a stud, but individually we are going to work hard, do what we have to do, score points and do what the teams needs to do.”
“We should have some guys who could make the rankings and place at state,” Hancock said. “I am looking to place this year and my goal for the year is to be top eight at state – that’s the minimum goal. I believe we can do that if we wrestle well. The last couple of years, we’ve been great at regionals and then we kind of shut down at state, including myself. We need to condition ourselves that regionals is not where it stops. Being a state qualifier is not good enough. Everyone should have the goal of being top six in state.
“I have a lot of trust in these guys this year and I am making an effort to help them a lot more to be in the mental shape they need to be in in order to compete in these matches against big names.”
That will be the next step – take the state tournament to another level for a program that has increased its expectations.
“There are a lot more kids in the room. … I wouldn’t say people weren’t interested in what we are doing,” Tuivaiti said. “Beck got here and he did a lot of promoting and showed us a lot of where we are as a team. It helps the whole process getting a bunch of kids involved in wrestling.
“Beck has us push our wall every day. He has the mentality to not just win once or twice, but win the whole thing and that’s what everybody is starting to get in their head.”
LVHS has had a nice run in the Sunflower as of late and its last season in the league could be a good one if all breaks right for them.
“We are in a league of heavy hitters, but that's what we love about it,” Beck said. “Our league tournament is not until the end of our season, just prior to regionals, so handicapping it now is a stretch. I know we will see some legit studs from all of the schools primarily from the Olathe ones. With the physicality of our sport, lineups change daily though, and the holidays lead to some shifts in weight as well. I'm just honestly ready to get things rolling.”
Jason Puderbaugh has moved into the head coaching role at Basehor-Linwood, bringing in six years of experience leading the Royal Valley program.
He will have a nice core of Bobcats to start his tenure as the program comes off of a 14th-place finish in Class 4A. The team ended up fourth in regionals and third in the KVL.
Brayton Olesen (113 pounds), Kaden Jacobson (138), Justin Gallup (152), Jonny Trowbridge (160), Josh Willcutt (170), TJ Williams (182), Hunter Parish (195) and Victor Bejarano (285) allow for the new coach to work with a veteran lineup that will be balanced by some solid newcomers in Dawson Lambed (106) and Chase Carter (145).
“I like our work ethic, enthusiasm, commitment to the team vision and values,” Puderbaugh said. “We have a great bunch of young men.”
The athletes are excited with new coaching staff and the opportunities in front of them.
“We have really good coaches and they are working us hard,” Trowbridge said. “We still have a couple of open spots, but we got a couple of good guys coming up from the middle school who have good potential, but still have a lot of things to work on.
“Overall, we should have a pretty good lineup this year. I am thinking it will be more small and big guys (scoring points).”
The team did lose some stalwarts like state champion Corbin Nirschl, but the current team learned plenty from him while he was with the Bobcats.
“I’ve always looked up to Corbin and I always wanted to imitate him and all his moves,” Jacobson said. “Everybody wants to strive to be as good as Corbin was. Everyone wants to be that competitive.”
The coach does have concern over the roster depth, so he emphasizes the team’s immediate need of staying healthy to keep a full lineup.
If all goes well, the Bobcats could have a strong, final KVL campaign and beyond.
“If asked, we see ourselves as competitors for a league championship,” Puderbaugh said. “However, our focus is on competing with 100 percent effort, improving each week, working toward our goals and not focusing so much on the outcome but more on enjoying the process. We have a fun bunch of guys that understand hard work and really love the sport. It will be a great season regardless of the outcome.”
In all honesty, wrestling is a grind at Pleasant Ridge and 19th-year head coach Darren Weber.
Not necessarily in regards to producing results on the mat – they tend to do just fine when the action starts – but just getting enough grapplers to field a full team is where the coach’s battles usually start and end.
The Rams ended up 10-18 last winter despite not holding a full lineup, so the win total was impressive as the program sent one wrestler – Luke Oatney – to the Class 3A state finals.
Oatney comes back with fellow seniors Seth Beying, Trevor Ragland and Robert Gwartney. Ragland qualified for state in 2016, but missed out a year ago while battling an injury.
A beast on the football field, Hunter Wagner is trying out the sport for the first time and the athletic junior appears to have caught on quickly, according to Weber.
“It’s good having two returning state qualifiers to help lead an inexperienced team,” Weber said. “Low numbers have been our concern the past two seasons. There is not a quick, easy fix to our low numbers. Wrestling is a tough sport, and it takes a special kind of athlete with the right mindset to endure the season.
“One way to help fix the low numbers is that I have recently taken over as the middle school wrestling coach which will help with future recruiting.”
The veterans have liked what they have seen so far.
“We have some promising kids coming up,” Oatney said. “(The low numbers) are not as bad as it seems because you can go into a meet knowing that it doesn’t matter how the team does, but how you do. We care more about how many pins or how many wins we can get.”
Ragland is just happy to be back on the mat.
“It feels good, healthy, and I am glad to be back in the room,” Ragland said. “I was out for a couple of meets (last season). Around state, it really hit me in the heart because I couldn’t go because of my shoulder.”
There is no league tournament for the Rams, who travel to all points of the map for competition. Dual success won’t be emphasized as much as having individual wrestlers battle it out.
“Our goal will be to improve on a weekly basis, try to peak at regionals and qualify as many wrestlers as possible for state,” Weber said.