Although not claiming any individual or team crowns at district this weekend, Hornets advance their second-most individuals in history to Feb. 14-16, 2019, state championships
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. — A day which began with extremely-high team and individual hopes didn’t yield the zeniths of which the Chillicothe High School wrestling Hornets dreamed Saturday, but they still emerged from last weekend’s state-tournament-qualifying Class 2 District 4 Tournament with outstanding achievements.
The team standings leader after Friday’s first few rounds of competition and with 11 of its 14 entrants beginning Saturday merely one victory away from state qualification, Chillicothe “settled” for advancing 10 team members – the program’s second-most ever – to this coming week’s 2018-19 state championships at Columbia.
The only time CHS has sent more competitors to state than this year was two years ago when it qualified 11.
Representing CHS at state, scheduled for a Thursday morning start, if the weather cooperates, will be seniors Matt Callen, Lavery Jones, and Keegan Valdez, juniors Dawson Wheeler, Colten Sewell, and Isaih Kille, sophomores Donald McCracken, Sheldon Rader, and Connor Keithley, and freshman Aidan Zimmerman.
None of those 10 managed to emerge as a district champion, but third-time state qualifiers Sewell (132 pounds) and Valdez (285), second-timer Keithley (120), and inaugural advancer Callen (220) all earned second places.
Chillicothe had another quartet – Jones at 138, Wheeler at 152, Kille at 195, and McCracken at 182 – finish on a winning note by claiming their third-place bouts. Rader and Zimmerman each claimed fourth in their inaugural district appearances, snaring the district’s final individual state-qualifying slots.
“I was really pleased with how we wrestled,” Chad Smith, fifth-year CHS head coach, commented shortly after the medals-presentation ceremony, “especially in the round to get guys into the finals (on either the championship or consolation side of the bracket).
“Four district finalists is the most we’ve had since I’ve been here and then getting six guys (through) on the ‘back’ side, which is really tough to do…, that round was awesome.
“We didn’t quite wrestle as well (in the finals) and sometimes that has to do with you’re getting against the top-quality guys from (the other teams), but we did do some good things.”
Team-wise, after hoving the most points after Friday’s action in a tournament which this year was absent the state’s most-dominant Class 2 program, multiple-times state champion Oak Grove, Chillicothe faded to a tie for third place Saturday, posting a final points total of 160, the same at St. Joseph: Benton.
Cameron, this season’s Midland Empire Conference champion, also claimed the district crown with 193 points. Host Excelsior Springs was second with 177.
“There are still a lot of really good teams in this district,” Smith pointed out.
Of Chillicothe’s four competitors whose seasons concluded – Jake Chapman (145), Kaleb Mullikin (160), Nick Heldenbrand (170), and Gage Leamer (126), three are underclassmen – two freshmen. Only for Chapman, who had a strong start to the tourney with an important first-round win Friday before, according to Chapman Saturday, physically being knocked out a half-minute into his next bout, was this his “last time to the post,” in horse racing parlance.
“I’m p;retty excited about their future and how good these guys could be some day,” the Hornets coach said of frosh Heldenbrand and Leamer.
While Chapman had Chillicothe’s physically most-painful ouster, Mullikin, who provided the team with one of its biggest bout wins of the tournament with a comeback victory over a Cameron opponent Friday night, had the toughest, emotionally. The junior was ahead on points in the last 30 seconds of his “bubble” bout – the one which meant qualifying or not for state – when he suffered a loss by fall with under 20 seconds remaining.
“It hurts,” commiserated Smith. “He was ahead 6-3 … and got caught in a headlock right at the end. Otherwise, he would have made it to state. I thought he wrestled really well.”
For inspiration and a template for how to deal with such a near-miss, Mullikin need only examine the recent example of ex-Hornet Zack Boyles.
In 2017, Boyles was only 20 seconds away from advancing to the third-place bout and clinching a state appearance, only to have his opponents score a couple of points with about 15 seconds to go to flip the outcome. A junior then, the ex-Hornet used that as motivation to not only make it to state last year, but come within one bout win of medaling there.
Helping eventually ease the sting for current Hornet Mullikin was his unexpected Friday night victory over a tough Cameron opponent in the quarterfinals. That win, especially in the way he accomplished it and being against a member of the Midland Empire Conference champions, who Chillicothe knew it would have to outduel to claim the team title, was the Hornets’ highlight of the first evening’s competition.
“He ended up getting a big comeback win,” Smith related Saturday. “He was down, like, 6-2 and came back and won 7-6.”
After Friday’s strong start, Chillicothe began Saturday with 11 of its 14 entrants in the championship semifinals, in which a triumph would assure advancement to state.
However, the worm began turning for the Hornets at that juncture, as far as its team-title aspirations were concerned, although the results were, by and large, not surprising.
Based on seedings and prior results this season, only a few of the 11 Chillicothe grapplers in the championship semis entered those bouts as a clear-cut favorite, so advancing four to title tilts probably was about the most the Hornets reasonably could have hoped for.
Of the four who did punch their state tickets at that time – top seeds Valdez and Callen, second seed Sewell, and third seed Keithley, the latter’s triumph, while not surprising, did require besting a foe to whom he had lost previously.
In their only meeting of the regular season, Gates had edged the CHS 2018 Midland Empire Conference 113-pounds champion 5-4 in the finals of the 2019 120-pounds competition.
This time, a total of nine points was scored again, but the Hornets sophomore earned six of them to qualify for a crack at top seeded Braxton Rickart of Excelsior Springs in the championship bout early Saturday afternoon.
Rickart performed up to expectations, controlling the bout from early on as he posted a 10-4 triumph.
Sewell and Valdez assured themselves of their third state-tourney appearances by “sticking” their semifinal foes. Valdez halted Marquan Dickerson of Kansas City: Center in 3:33 after Sewell had prevailed over Aiden Perry of Benton with three seconds left in the second 2-minutes period.
Callen dispatched Ryan Nedblake of Excelsior Springs decisively, 8-2, in their semifinal.
For each of those four Chillicotheans, standing on the top step of the medals stand wasn’t to be – at least this past weekend. In their district-championship bouts, three lost decisions and one was pinned.
Callen came ever so close to capturing the 220-pounds title. After escaping the control of Louis Moten of Kansas City: Lincoln Prep with a second remaining in the second period, the Hornet inched with a point of Moten at 3-2.
Starting the final period in the “down” or defensive position, Callen’s second-period escape suggested he had a strong chance of at least doing that again sometime in the last two minutes, which would even the bout, assuming Moten hadn’t earned any “back” (near-fall) points before then.
However, despite repeated attempts, at least two of which came very close to providing the necessary separation to achieve the tying escape, the Chillicothe senior never could pull it off, saddling him with a 3-2 loss and the runnerup spot.
At 132, Sewell took on top seed Damon Ashworth of the host ESHS Tigers and, while being on close terms with a chance to win until the late moments, he lost, 8-4. Both Ashworth and Sewell ended the tournament with only three losses for the season.
Valdez and Benton’s Jacob Dowell had the distinction of being the last bout of the tournament, meeting for a third time this season with each having won once previously.
After a scoreless first period, with Dowell choosing to start the second “down,” the Hornet could not keep him there, the Cardinal getting the bout’s first point with an escape in the first 10 seconds of the period.
Later in the period, MEC champion Dowell managed to get enough leverage to pull Valdez down to the mat, the takedown creating a 3-0 lead that put the Hornet in a tough spot. Needing to try to escape or reverse, Valdez instead found himself turned to his back a time or two and eventually pinned with 12 seconds left in the second segment.
While CHS had no success in the championship bouts, it fared much better on the consolation side in its final bouts, clashes between already-state-qualified opponents trying only to, theoretically, improve their prospects this week by finishing third, rather than fourth.
In that scenario, four of the six Hornets involved came up “aces.”
It began with Jones, after Rader had been pinned and Zimmerman decisioned 4-1.
The CHS senior found himself locked in a nailbiter with Gavin Ott of Kansas City: St. Pius X, who Jones had pinned at 3:56 during the MEC Championships last month.
With Ott more prepared this time, they were tied 3-3 with as the last 15 or so seconds of the five minutes of regulation time (consolation-bracket bouts have only a 1-minute first period) when Jones wriggled free of Ott’s control to gain a 4-3 lead and, seconds later, win.
That set off a string of 4-consecutive Chillicothe triumphs.
At 152, Wheeler was able to repeatedly get single-leg takedowns of Maryville’s Drew Spire, allowing him to secure a comfortable 8-1 victory.
Next came McCracken at 182, who got the first takedown over Marland Trimble of Kansas City: Southeast with about 10 seconds left in the first period and added another in the second period for a 4-0 margin before finishing the foe at 2:51.
The final of the four third-place triumphs for CHS came from Kille at 195. He was able to get the early jump on Wyatt Burnett of Cameron with a couple of takedowns and releases. While the Dragon managed to keep it close into the third period, his need to catch up forced him to gamble for takedown tries a couple of times, moves the quick Kille parried with sidesteps that, with Burnett off-balance, he converted into win-clinching takedowns. When the lead official’s final whistle sounded, Kille too was a third-place district finisher, via an 11-7 decision.
For Rader and Zimmerman, while their tourney ended with consolation-final losses, their big moments had come a round earlier.
With the trip to state or the end of the season hanging in the balance, Rader took care of a Kansas City: Pembroke Hill foe by fall at 3:30 in the 106-pounds division. Zimmerman followed almost immediately with a tougher 9-7 winning decision over an opponent from KC’s Guadalupe Centers charter school.
In their final bouts, Rader was on the other end of a pin, beaten by Cameron’s Tanner Riley at 3:54, and Zimmerman again went the full five minutes before falling 4-1 to Andy Nguyen of St. Joseph: Lafayette.
The 2018-19 Missouri State High School Activities Association Wrestling Championships for Chillicothe will begin at 10 a.m. next Thursday at Mizzou Arena on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Based on their season-long and district performances, multiple Hornets enter state with legitimate potential to finish the tourney on the medals podium as one of the top-6 finishers.