Upper lightweight, one of seven returning state qualifiers, eyes state title after taking third last year. Opening match at home Thursday night (Dec. 5)

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Led by senior 2-times state medalist Colten Sewell, who envisions himself on the top step of the state-tourney podium at season’s end after finishing third last year, Chillicothe High School’s 2019-20 wrestling teams – including an expanded number of girls’ squad members – will open their season at home Thursday night (Dec. 5).
CHS’ Hornets, with seven of last year’s 10 state-tournament qualifiers returning (although one currently is injured), and Lady Hornets, who have increased their ranks by two to nine this winter, will host Marshall in varsity/junior-varsity dual matches at the Chillicothe Middle School fieldhouse. The opening whistle is set for 6 p.m.
Chad Smith is overseeing the Hornets’ program for a sixth year, the boys’ team’s 81 winning percentage under his guidance far and away the highest of any CHS mat coach ever. Assisting him again are veterans Michael Marriott and Joey Rinehart with another Chillicothe grad, Matt Shaffer, also helping out this winter on the high school and middle school levels as his primary job allows. Rinehart again will work most closely with the Lady Hornets group and oversee them in their matches.
Back in the red-and-black singlets after making the trip to Columbia for state competition last season are seniors Dawson Wheeler, Isaih Kille, and Sewell, along with juniors Connor Keithley, Donald McCracken, and Sheldon Rader, and sophomore Aidan Zimmerman. Had it not been for a health issue, then-junior Isaac Washburn also likely would have qualified for state.
“We have seven returning state qualifiers that are ready to go!” a self-described “excited” Smith shares. “Sheldon, Aidan, Connor, Colten, Dawson, Isiah, Donald, and Isaac all have their sights set on the medal stand in Columbia next February. And we have a lot of talented freshmen and sophomores looking to earn a spot in the lineup.”
For the girls, in this – the second year the Missouri State High School Activities Association has sanctioned separate distaff competition, the initial roster includes four returnees: junior Summer Drake and sophomores Jordan Hicks, Karyna Ireland, and Abigail Clements. Six newcomers intended to join them, but a preseason injury will relegate on to serving as a team manager instead, Rinehart reports.
Of those back from last year’s Hornets team which went 22-5 in dual matches – CHS’ fourth 20-wins campaign in Smith’s five previous years, Sewell far and away is the most accomplished and has the highest profile and ambitions.
Fourth at state at 106 pounds as a freshman, he made it to state despite a knee injury as a sophomore, but didn’t medal.
He made up for that 2018 disappointment this past February when he rocketed back from a second-round loss to eventual repeat 132-pounds champion Jay Strausbaugh of Logan-Rogersville with four consolation “wrestleback” triumphs without a loss to claim third.
While, in many – if not most – cases, a wrestler in Sewell’s spot would project to be a wrestler-to-beat when he returns for his senior year, but what the Hornet’s state fate might be could be impacted by the fact that Strausbaugh also is a senior this year, as is last season’s runnerup at 132, Joseph Semerad, who won the state crown at 106 pounds the year before.
Given Semerad’s having moved up 20 pounds from his sophomore to junior years, now that he’s a senior, it would seem probable that he’ll have grown further and climb beyond Sewell’s and Strausbaugh’s weight class.
As for Strausbaugh, having competed at 132 two years in a row, he would seem to be a candidate to either still be there or elevate to 138 or 145 pounds as a senior. With Sewell having just played football at what officially was listed as 145 pounds, getting to 132 again for wrestling could be challenging; being at 138 would seem more likely.
Ultimately, there’ll likely be some calculating and educated guessing done by Sewell and coach Smith on both what his most-comfortable weight at the end of the regular season will be, as well as tracking what weights Strausbaugh and Semerad are reported to be at, come January and early February. If the wrestler’s best state-title prospects involve trying to be at a lighter weight than he wrestles at in December, look for an effort to be made to have Sewell drop the needed pounds. If it seemingly would be advantageous for the Chillicothean to move up a weight class or stay at a heavier one, look for that tack to be taken, even if it pushes a teammate up or down a weight.
Beyond his quest for a state championship, Sewell, if healthy, also could mount a challenge to 2016 CHS graduate Aaron Baker for the Hornets’ record for most bout wins in a career (168). It likely would take a perfect season, since Sewell currently stands at 114. Only a couple of Hornets ever have had at least 54 bouts in a season. A year ago, the CHS standout posted a 42-4 mark.
Although Baker’s total-wins mark might be unreachable, Sewell looks to have very good prospects for passing 2017 state champion Chase Minnick (156) for second all-time. With 36 triumphs in 2019-20, he’d join those two and 2018 alum Kayde Burton as the only Hornets ever to win at least 150 bouts.
Two other notable milestones within Sewell’s reach, if healthy. would be becoming the sixth CHS wrestler ever to qualify for state the maximum four times and sixth 3-times state medalist.
While Sewell is the lone 2019-20 CHS wrestler with state hardware already in his possession, he is not the only Hornet with a championship pedigree or multiple state-tourney appearances to his credit.
Keithley, another lightweight like Sewell the past two years, was the Midland Empire Conference champion at 113 pounds as a freshman before taking second at 120 last season.
He, middleweight Wheeler, and probable light-heavyweight Washburn were, like Sewell, part of the CHS-record 13 state tournament qualifiers in 2018 in addition to being in last year’s 10-members delegation to Columbia.
Among this year’s Hornets, Wheeler is second to Sewell in wins a year ago, having gone 37-12. Rader (31-16) is next, followed by Keithley (25-7) and Washburn (19-5). Each of the latter two missed significant time with health problems; if fully available this winter, each projects to be in the 30-wins “club.”
Zimmerman, another lightweight, went to state last year – where he and most of his teammates went 0-2 – despite at 16-21 pre-state record. With that experience, he projects to be well into the 20s in bout victories this season.
Kille, who will not be available until around the start of 2020 because of his late-season football mishap, is looking at a second-straight abbreviated wrestling season.
A year ago, an early-football-season knee injury was treated gingerly throughout December and January to have him at his fullest health, if not his keenest competitive sharpness, for the postseason. That approach succeeded as he placed in the top four in the district tournament to advance to state despite having only a 7-7 season record.
Junior middleweight McCracken (15-15 last year) also is coming off a lingering football season injury that could delay the start of his mat competition.
Among those returnees who didn’t make it to state last season, junior light-heavyweight Evan Loucks had the most wins (eight) and bouts (33). Lightweight Spencer Cairns posted a .500 record (7-7). Also getting in at least 10 bouts were Gage Leamer and Nick Heldenbrand. The latter three are sophomores.
As for newcomers, coach Smith clearly expects some to impact the varsity.
“We have a bunch of new wrestlers that have been successful in middle school and in (non-school) USA Wrestling-sanctioned youth programs,” he reports.
As for season projections for the Chillicothe boys, another season of at least 20 dual-match triumphs looks eminently achievable. Whether there is sufficient depth of top quality to try to overtake always-strong Cameron for the MEC title is more uncertain, but the Hornets were only 25-1/2 points shy of the Dragons as runnersup a year ago.
If all are healthy, the seven holdover state qualifiers plus Washburn possess good prospects for state appearances again and usually a youngster or two emerges from the light weights to be state-qualifier caliber, as well. If that happens, another double-digits cadre of Hornets could represent the team and school at Mizzou Arena in mid-February.
That task will be markedly more-challenging, however, since MSHSAA’s recently-announced district assignments shifted both Odessa and Oak Grove, 2019 top-10 teams at state, back into the same district as CHS. With defending team champion Cameron, Benton, and presumed host Excelsior Springs as holdovers, loaded District 4 will have three of last year’s top nine state teams in it.
On the girls’ side, growth in raw numbers and continued accumulation of experience will be the mileposts to be passed, although Rinehart would love to see at least one of his charges become CHS’ first-ever girls’ state tournament qualifier. It narrowly missed with one a year ago.
Of the four experienced Lady Hornets, Drake holds an indelible place in program history. On Dec. 11, 2018, she defeated a Cameron opponent by fall to become the first-ever CHS girls’ wrestler to capture a contested bout. Later in the season, she added a second contested triumph and Hicks picked up one, as well.
By having more competitors available for matches than a number of opponents last year, the wrestling Lady Hornets actually were credited with winning seven and tying one of their 12 dual matches.
Rinehart told the C-T recently that indications he’d received were that more schools would be introducing girls’ teams this season and that the number of girls out for pre-existing teams was growing, as well.