CHS matmen in rugged state-qualifying Class 2 District 4 tourney at Excelsior Springs Friday night, Saturday (Feb. 14-15, 2020)
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — A disjointed regular season shredded by bad weather and, for a couple of their top individuals, hamstrung by injuries now behind them, the 2019-20 Chillicothe High School wrestling Hornets are in the market for a smoother, successful ride through a potentially-pothole-pocked postseason, beginning this weekend (Feb. 14-15).
Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon, the Hornets will put – hopefully – their best wrestler of each weight division on the mats at Excelsior Springs High School in the state-qualifying Class 2 District 4 Tournament. The top four individual finishers in each of the 14 weight classes will advance to next week’s state championships at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
Three years ago, the Hornets advanced a school-record 11 competitors to state through District 4. After settling for a very-respectable eight two years ago, CHS marched 10 team members to state 12 months ago.
Based on several factors – regular-season performances, health, and heightened level of opposition, matching any of those three numbers this weekend has the sense of a tall order to fill.
While CHS has multiple grapplers who have proven postseason pedigrees – led by 2-times state medal-winner Colten Sewell – and a youngster or two who has fared well during the regular season, there are enough legitimate questions about this weekend’s projected CHS lineup to make it seem unlikely for more than half of the Hornets to extend their current seasons beyond the penultimate week.
Probably no 2019-20 Hornet better illuminates the frustrating vagaries of the now-dwindling season than Sewell, who still could turn it into a banner season for himself and the team.
The senior – third-place finisher at state at 132 pounds – entered this season with an outside chance to challenge Aaron Baker’s 2012-16 CHS record for most bouts won in a career, opening the campaign 54 back with 114. While only about a handful of Hornets ever have had 54 bouts in a season, those have come in recent years when the schedule was significantly expanded at the urging of sixth-year head coach Chad Smith.
With one ex-Hornet having had 59 bouts in 2015-16, if things worked out right health- and weather-wise, if Sewell could get that number of chances, 54 wins could have been in the realm of possibility.
However, Mother Nature intervened early to eliminate that goal, wiping out an early-season double-dual and then, in early January, a tournament which would have entailed perhaps a half-dozen bouts in a single day. With those lost events went any chance of amassing nearly enough bouts to accord the current Hornet a chance to catch record-holder Baker or even former teammates Chase Minnick in second place or Kayde Burton in third.
As if that wasn’t enough, even in the process of achieving the career highlight of a second-consecutive Midland Empire Conference Championships title at 132 pounds on Jan. 25 at St. Joseph, Sewell was dealt a blow to his ultimate hope of a state crown.
During his semifinals win in the MEC tournament, Smith has disclosed, the CHS standout sustained an injury which, while not threatening his ability to answer the bell for the postseason, caused enough pain and discomfort to make it necessary to reduce Sewell’s workload.
Taking some time off from practice, as well, he has been kept out of competition since then, missing all 12 duals and one tournament.
So, while the soreness has largely subsided at the injury site, according to the Hornets coach, Sewell will not have had a true taste of competition in three weeks when he takes the mat at Excelsior Springs for the first time this weekend.
Given his still-excellent 15-2 record this season and his MEC supremacy, he figures to still be seeded highly at district, which might lessen his workload a bit and heighten his odds of earning the top-4 finish that punches his fourth ticket to state, which is the bottom-line target for his return to action. However, the higher he finishes at district, the better his matchups and advancement chances in the early rounds of the state tournament figure to be.
While not out of the question, capturing a state title figures to have been complicated by the overall lack of competition for the season, the injury, and the lack of bout-level sharpness resulting from his recent time in drydock.
Sewell is not alone, either, in terms of being honed to a fine edge by a season full of action.
Fellow seniors and conference champions Isaac Washburn at 220 pounds and Dawson Wheeler at 160 have wrestled one bout – a loss by Wheeler – between them since Feb. 1 and Wheeler has not even been in the lineup any of the past six duals. Both have strong records – 23-4 for Wheeler, 28-4 for Washburn, so they should get high seedings for this weekend’s action, but how sharp they’ll be and, if not, whether that costs them a trip to state or saddles them with a low district finish and tougher opening-round state bout is up in the air.
Wheeler will be after a third-straight appearance at state, while Washburn missed district last year with a health issue after qualifying for state as a sophomore.
The Hornets’ fourth varsity senior – Isaih Kille – had his problems start before the season when a lower-leg injury in the football Hornets’ final game sidelined him until mid-January.
Since returning his results have been mixed and the lack of season-long acclimation to the physical stresses and strains on the body have had him dealing with other physical problems and soreness this month. That has affected his availability for some competitions, further preventing him from the repetitions needed to overcome his first-month absence.
Among CHS non-seniors, sophomore heavyweight (285-pounds class) Christian Peniston was something of a surprise MEC champion last month, but his appearances and results since then have been somewhat inconsistent. At 25-9 for the season, unofficially, he figures to be a contender for a state trip, if at his best.
At the other end of the weight spectrum, Hornets junior lightweight Sheldon Rader – like Wheeler, Sewell, Kille, and Aidan Zimmerman, part of last February’s CHS state contingent – has had a very fine season, unofficially owning a team-most 30 wins in 37 bouts. His experience and season-long performance suggest he’s well-positioned for a good district run and second chance at state competition.
A pair of freshman Hornets – Brock Miller (170) and Bryce Dominique (138) – and sophomore Nickolas Heldenbrand (152) offer potential for advancement to state, but no certainty, despite fine records (Miller 21-9, Dominique 15-10, and Heldenbrand 14-8, unofficially).
Being in the upper-light or middle weights, they have greater likelihood of encountering mid-sized upperclassmen with lots of competitive experience and greater physical maturity. Add in first-time exposure to the pressures of a potential “bubble” bout (win to go to state or lose and have your season end) and those three figure to be on a teeter-totter which could tip either way at the end of the day Saturday.
Among the others anticipated to round out the CHS lineup, if healthy, Zimmerman (120) has had a sub-.500 season, lessening his likelihood of following up on his state qualification at 113 pounds last year.
Jaxon Albertson (126) has about a .333 winning percentage and, at 145, none of the young prospects who have seen time there have found significant success. At 195, junior Evan Loucks also has tasted victory only about one-third of the time.
As they were for all but two dual matches this season, the Hornets will have no 113-pounds participant.
Adding significantly to the degree of difficulty for Chillicothe’s wrestlers is the depth of quality among the approximately 15 other schools in the tournament.
After Oak Grove was returned to District 4 last year, neighboring Odessa has rejoined it in 2020 after being in a more-southern group the past couple of years. Both of those teams placed in the top nine in the state team standings a year ago.
“This year’s district is very stout,” Smith acknowledges without conceding any negative impact for this squad. “We have several of the top-ranked teams in class 2 in this year’s tournament. Odessa and Oak Grove are two of the best (Class 2 programs) in the state, as are (MEC champion) Cameron and Excelsior Springs..
“That being said, I think we have guys that are up to the challenge. We talk a lot about not worrying who we go against and go out and attack.”