Six Chilicothe grapplers – four as underclassmen – are back after 2017-18 trips to state tournament as Thursday, Nov. 29, season opener at Marshall nears
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
The Chillicothe High School wrestling Hornets have made themselves a hard act to follow of late.
On the heels of a historic 2015-16 season in which they won a CHS-record 25 of 26 dual matches and had their first state-tournament finalist in almost a decade as Aaron Baker took second place at 132 pounds, the ’16-’17 Hornets generated a school-most 11 state qualifiers, four state medal-winners, and CHS’ first state champion in a decade in Chase Minnick, Baker’s replacement at 132.
Last year, while advancing “only” another eight grapplers to Columbia state competition and having merely one medal-winner, the mat Hornets had a state finalist for a third-consecutive year with Kayde Burton earning second at 182 pounds. It was the first time they’d done that since Wyatt Pickering followed a runnerup finish in 1997 with 152-pounds state titles the next two years and the first time since 1989-91 that at least three different Hornets had been in state finals in a 3-years span (2-times champion Bryan Anderson in 1989-90, Denny Albertson in 1989, Drew Danner in 1990, and Shane Noble in 1991).
In addition to that state-level success, the 2017-18 wrestling Hornets carved their own niche in program history by taking second place in the rugged Midland Empire Conference Tournament, CHS’ highest-ever finish in the event which, since its 2009 debut, now determines the MEC champion. Prior to the existence of the league tourney, Chillicothe had last finished as high as second in 2002-03 when it was runnerup, based on round-robin, head-to-head, dual-match results.
The second-place showing was led by individual MEC champs Burton and freshman Connor Keithley (113 pounds), the first time in five years CHS had a pair of conference champs.
The burden of recent achievements suits fifth-year head coach Chad Smith fine, however. He sees it not as a weight to be borne, but a solid foundation on which to continue building.
“I think that is awesome!” the shaven-headed Nebraska native enthuses. “Past success has helped our program a lot.
“Those guys have helped build the strong program we have today. And the next generation can’t wait until it is their turn. We have some guys on this team that want to be Chillicothe’s next state champion!”
With a new season’s roster that includes six of last February’s eight CHS state participants, although – for the first time since 2011-12 – no returning state medal-winners, having a state finalist for a fourth year in a row – never before done by the program – is not far-fetched, even if not easy either.
Back in the red-and-black singlet, starting this Thursday night at Marshall, will be senior 2018 state qualifiers Keegan Valdez (285 pounds) and Lavery Jones (132), juniors Colten Sewell (126), Isaac Washburn (170), and Dawson Wheeler (152), and sophomore Keithley (113).
Of that group, Keithley had the best state showing, missing out on a top-6 finish and medal by one win. His state losses were in overtime in the opening round and then by a 5-3 decision in the consolation quarterfinals.
Valdez and Sewell, each making their second state appearances, each won once and lost twice at Columbia last winter.
Despite being hampered by a knee injury sustained a few weeks earlier, Sewell – the 2016 fourth-place state medalist at 106 – took his opening bout before falling twice.
Valdez, who was kayoed from the state tourney a minute into his first bout the year before by a knee injury which required surgery, capped his recovery by tasting victory in his first “wrestleback” (consolation-bracket) bout.
The coach reports neither Valdez nor Sewell show any lingering encumbrance from their prior injuries.
For Washburn – a 2017 state qualifier, too, Wheeler, and Jones, a second chance to get to Columbia and this time experience that winning sensation beckons on the heels of a fall sports season in which the trio arguably were the top performers on the football Hornets.
Considering four of CHS’ six state returnees are not yet seniors, and Sewell’s proven history of medal-worthy performance, the window of opportunity for top-level success by the wrestling Hornets appears to be very much open for at least a couple more years.
Smith says those six have proven themselves hungry for more.
“In my opinion, they have all improved a lot from last year,” he shared with the C-T this past weekend. “Our overall strength and speed improvements are very noticeable. They have also improved on the technical abilities, as well on their feet, and in the ‘top’ and’ bottom’ positions.
“Having wrestlers with state experience has made for a awesome practice environment. They are all capable of high medal finishes at the state tournament.”
Chillicothe’s prospects for sending more wrestlers to state were significantly enhanced recently, Smith concedes, when Class 2 district assignments were made and long-time state power Oak Grove was not in the northwest district Chillicothe is in. Instead, the 5-times state champion and top-3 team finisher Class 2 at state every year from 2008-17 was included in the state’s southwestern district. The 15-schools northwest (District 4) field will include Kansas City: Southeast, a school which did not qualify anyone for state last year.
Beyond the six 2017-18 state qualifiers available, Smith and veteran assistants Michael Marriott and Joey Rinehart have several other regulars from last year’s lineup who could make the push to join their ranks.
“Our lineup has some experienced wrestlers that had really good seasons last year and just missed going to the state tournament,” confirms Smith. “(Senior) Matt Callen, sophomore) Sheldon Rader, (junior) Kaleb Mullikin, and (sophomore) Donald McCracken have all worked hard in the offseason and should make a big impact on this year’s team.”
Injecting new blood into the Chillicothe lineup are several freshmen – Aiden Zimmerman, Spencer Cairns, and Gage Leamer – and move-in junior Cameron Dush, who earned considerable playing time as a football offensive lineman in the fall, the coach notes.
“They will all contribute to our varsity, especially in our varsity dual meets,” says Smith.
However, in something of a rarity, this year’s turnout of CHS wrestlers is short in some of the middle weights, he reports.
“Even though we have good numbers, we do not have a lot of depth at the middle weights and at times could be one wrestler short between 145 and 160 pounds, depending on what weight guys are at for that event,” Smith shares.
Given the solid core, however, the Hornets have their individual and collective sights on the heights.
“Our goals every year are to win conference and district and win a trophy (top-4 team finish) at the state tournament,” relates the coach.
An intriguing aspect of this wrestling season is the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s institution – by members’ vote last spring – of girls’ wrestling.
With that development, about a half-dozen Chillicothe female students turned out for the sport at season’s start, practicing simultaneously with the boys.
“All of the girl wrestlers are in their first year and are working hard to learn the sport,” Smith reflects. “With us still having only three coaches between varsity and junior-varsity boys and now the girls’ team, coaches Marriott and Rinehart have really done a great work to get us ready for the start of the season.”
There will be a single-classification girls’ state tournament held in conjunction with the boys’ tourney in Mizzou Arena at Columbia in mid-February.
That will come after a regular season in which girls will be involved in bouts contested in conjunction with boys-team dual matches and tournament competitions. Because of the small number of girls most schools will have competing, MSHSAA is encouraging the establishment – at least for the short term – of regionalized tournaments which draw female competitors from many schools to create a larger pool of competitors.
Weight-class ranges will be developed based on both comparable weights and the number of participants. Ranges could be narrower than boys’ in some cases and larger in others.
For the next couple of years, girls will have the option of competing against boys or against their own gender. After that, girls will face only girls and boys only boys.
CHS had a couple of girls go out for the sport in the past decade, but having separate gender competitions – especially in this era of high-profile distaff involvement in ultimate fighting, as well as boxing and professional wrestling – figures to bring out increased numbers as the years pass.