By Josh Sigler
As the old cliché goes, success breeds success.
Kokomo High School wrestling coach Ryan Wells is seeing it happen first hand.
After sending nine wrestlers to the semistate and three to the individual state finals, as well as earning a berth in the IHSAA’s last team state finals, Wells had over 50 athletes show up for his initial callout meeting, giving him the opportunity to evaluate kids before settling on a final roster.
“That’s more than we’ve ever had, and I think last year’s success has a lot to do with that,” Wells said. “[After preseason practice], we will have numbers in the low 30s. The guys are busting their tails every day. I couldn’t ask for these guys to work any harder than they are. We have some guys stepping up, and I anticipate a good season.”
Numbers appear to be up across the board in Howard County. Western returns a wealth of mat experience, Eastern will enter the season having the opportunity to fill nearly every weight class, and Northwestern and Taylor will usher in new coaches with full rosters to choose from.
The following are season outlooks for each county squad, in order of sectional finish a season ago.
Wells graduated three state finalists in Jesse Goodnight, Bo Butler and Cameron Colby but welcomes back five semistate qualifiers in juniors A.J. Nelson, Chad Gaddis, Keair Ross and Fletcher Miller and senior Andrew Ledford.
“Those guys went from being underclassmen led by last year’s seniors to taking the role as leaders this year,” Wells said. “They’ve stepped right into that role and done a good job. Those guys are the experienced wrestlers on the team, and they spent a lot of time in the offseason wrestling, so they’re leading by example on and off the mat every day. I couldn’t be happier with their leadership.”
Nelson went 23-9 last season in the 106-pound class and will move up to 113 this season. Ledford went 43-8 last season and was one win away from advancing to state at 113. He will make the move to 120. Gaddis posted a 43-7 record at 138 a season ago and will jump to 152.
Keair Ross will remain at 170, where he went 38-10 a year ago.
Miller went 47-3 at 182 last season, and will begin the season ranked No. 8 in the 220 class’ Indianamat.com state rankings. Junior Christian Hall also returns. He went 29-18 last season at 126, and will move up to 132 this season. Sophomore Scotty Barbary went 23-10 last season at 120, and will fight it out with Sage Slusher for the spot at 126.
A host of other varsity newcomers will compete for the spots open in the seven remaining weight classes.
Freshman T.T. Allen will wrestle at 106, while senior Brandon Walters and freshman Cole Henderson are vying for the spot at 138.
Freshman Kendall Keeling won the wrestle off at 145, while classmate Ezra Berry will man the 160 spot. Sophomore Shaheem Thompson will begin the season at 182 and the duo of sophomore Daniel Colbertson and junior Brenton Etherington are both in the running for the opening at 195. Junior Evan Heim won the wrestle off for the open spot at 285.
“Some of these young guys are getting thrown into the fire,” Wells said. “We have some freshmen in there that don’t have a whole lot of experience yet. But, hopefully they can feed off the leadership that some of these more experienced guys have, and just keep getting mat time and learn from their experiences. You don’t expect them to go 5-0 every week. We’ll be realistic with them. As long as they can keep getting better, by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’ll be winning those matches. Them getting better is what it’s all about right now.”
Coach Chad Shepherd boasts five wrestlers who have advanced to the semistate at varying points in their careers. And despite no seniors, the Panthers return 11 wrestlers from their sectional lineup a season ago, where the squad finished in third behind Kokomo and Oak Hill.
“We’ve got a good group of juniors, all but one or two of them have quite a bit of wrestling experience,” Shepherd said. “They’re doing a job of leading. You think of having no seniors and [are worried because] senior leadership is what drives a team. But, these guys are doing real well. The sophomores and freshmen have come in and are doing what’s expected of them.”
Leading the returners for Western are sophomores Caleb Maddox and Corey Hinkle, who both won sectional titles as freshmen. Maddox will move from 106 to 113 this season, while Hinkle will move from 152 to 170.
Dustin Hinkle was a semistate qualifier at 138 last season as a sophomore and will move up to 145 this season. Skylar Braden returns at 152 after spending last season at 145. Junior Ben Lenahan earned the trip to semistate as a freshman at 152, and after sitting last season out with an injury, returns at 160.
Logan Shepherd made the trip to semistate last season as a sophomore in 170 class and will move up to 182. Russell McDorman is back at 195 after finishing 25-12 there as a sophomore last season. Dante Graham also returns, manning the 220 spot where he was a sectional runner-up a season ago.
Freshman Paul Pinkham and sophomore Tristan Norfleet appear to have the upper hand to wrestle at 106 and 126, respectively, while varsity returner Cody Stout will be in the mix to take over the 138 class after wrestling at 126 last season.
A host of wrestlers will do battle to decide the remaining open spots, including freshman Robert Pinkham and sophomore Liam Page at 120, sophomore Jake Stout and freshman Nolan Stout at 132, and juniors Sydney Allen and Matt Kelly at 285.
“They’ve got a good chemistry within the group,” Chad Shepherd said. “I like how they all get along. They don’t single people out. It’s just a good group of kids. They come in and learn and do a good job, but they have to find that next level. If we can do that, we we’ll be pretty successful and have a fun year.”
Coach Bob Jarrett has just one senior on his roster in 285-pounder Chris Travis, who is out for the squad for the first time since his freshman season.
Several wrestlers return with significant experience for the Comets, including sophomores Tanner Reed , Andrew Turner and Austin Workman and juniors Taylor Arnold and Ty Swisher.
Reed went 16-18 last year at 113 and will move up to 120. Arnold went 11-15 a season ago at 138 and will bump up to 145, and Workman will wrestle at 220 after spending last season at 170. Swisher returns to the 106 class after going 22-15 there last year, while Turner will take over at 160.
The varsity newcomers include sophomores Isaac Hanny (113) and Chris Bittle (152) and freshmen Trevor Pharris (126), Spencer Day (132), Dalton Hipsher (138) and Gavin Cox (195).
“The practices have been great and the attitudes have been super,” Jarrett said. “We should improve every week, and by conference [tournament] time we should look like a much better team. But, again, we’re young. We have outstanding eighth graders, and with this group coming back, we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with in the years to come. Coaches say it every year, but obviously this is a total building year with all the freshmen and sophomores we have.”
New coach Adam Ferguson served as an assistant coach under previous head coach Scott Miller last season, so he’s been able to take advantage of the level of familiarity he his with the squad.
Also an assistant coach on John Hendryx’s football staff, Ferguson has recruited several football players over to the wrestling squad. Because of that, the Tigers will feature upwards of six wrestlers who are either new to the high school squad or wrestling altogether. It all adds up to the squad fielding a full roster for the first time in recent memory with 23 athletes.
“I’ve been pretty amazed. I expected them to be a little sluggish coming off of football season, but they have worked so hard every practice. You can tell they’ve gotten in shape. They’re enjoying it. They drill hard. I was worried our core returners would be impatient as we catch up the new guys, but they’ve been like assistant coaches guiding the new guys.”
Leading the returning Tigers is junior Luke Akers, who went 25-17 a season ago and earned a trip to the semistate in the 152-pound class. He’ll bump up to 170 this season.
Sophomore Brian Rawlings (120) and juniors Alec Gaither (132), Alex Williams (145), Tanner Kidwell (145), Owen O’Dell (152), Austin Foreman (160), Austin Bowley (182) and Colten Ferren (285) all return with varsity experience for the Tigers.
The remainder of the roster will feature freshmen and athletes who are new to the squad. Sophomore Jesse Murdock is out for the first time and will wrestle at 106, while freshman Matt Turner will take over at 113. First year sophomore Christian Russell has the upper hand at 126, and first year senior Jordan Schwartz will fit in at 138.
A trio of newbies, senior Trevor Richmond and juniors Zach Hetzner and Trae Nearon, all are in the running to earn the spot at 195, and first year junior Dylan Collins will do battle at 220.
“Our big thing here is that we want to build our wrestlers into men first,” Ferguson said. “We looked to be a disciplined team because wrestling is such a discipline sport. Although [the IHSAA] has gone away from the team atmosphere recently, we really want to look like a team, warm up as a team and really support each other.”
The Titans welcome in new coach Aaron Schlueter with a full roster and three returning semistate qualifiers in Pestron Hendickson, Logan Sarber and Parker VanMeter.
“We have a good bunch of kids who are hard-working and dedicated,” Schlueter said. “What I like about our kids is they’re allowing us the opportunity to coach them and asking a lot of questions. They want to learn. We’ve really focused on teaching the basics and working from there and letting the kids grow, but I don’t expect anything but their best. So we’re looking to contend for a conference title and a sectional title.”
Sarber went 34-13 as a sophomore at 145 and will move up to 160. Hendrickson went 27-22 as a sophomore at 170 and will move up to 182, and VanMeter returns to 220 after going 37-11 there as a freshman.
Several other Titans return with experience, as well. Sophomore Tyler Ford returns at 106. Classmate Stephen Sholty will man the spot at 132 after wrestling at 120 last season. Sophomore Logan Williams (138), junior Austin Smith (145) and senior Dalton Arvin (170) all return with varsity time under their belts, as well.
Junior Gwen Cruse is out for the team for the first time. She will wrestle at 113, while freshman Chad Elmore will do battle at 120. Junior newcomer Isaiah Martin will wrestle at 126, while classmate and fellow newcomer Kaleil Rucker will take over at 152. Foreign exchange student Samuel Oscarsson will wrestler at 195, while senior newcomer Josh Foust will man the 285 spot.
“One thing we stress is goal-setting,” Schlueter said. “We have the kids set daily, weekly and season goals. One thing I’m a believer in is high expectations, high rewards. We’ve been teaching the kids that they can do it if they put in the time and effort and have the willingness, they can do what they strive to achieve. We set high expectations for them, but the kids are also setting high expectations for themselves.”