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Western’s Anthony Martin, top, works against Hamilton Heights’ Isaiah Rodriguez during a match in the Hoosier Conference tournament last season. Martin is one of three state qualifiers returning for the Panthers.

More than any year in recent memory, the 2020 wrestling offseason and start to the season have been a challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed offseason work and affects preseason practice. There’s no blueprint on how to deal with that changing landscape, the teams and coaches just handle it the best they can.

“The offseason was nonexistent,” Western coach Chad Shepherd said. “The biggest challenge is everybody’s got the fear in the back of their mind that it’s not going to happen and you’ve just got to tell them ‘prepare like it’s going to and if it doesn’t, we’ll deal with it when it comes.’”

Some teams have moved to bigger rooms, some have limited practice partners, and many deal with a changing contingent of athletes available on a given day. Soon, wrestlers will get to face the more welcome challenge of facing actual opponents as the season begins gradually this weekend or in December, depending on the school

Every team has a lot at stake, Western perhaps more than any other. The Panthers were the team winners of the individual semistate last season and return three wrestlers who went to state. Eastern has two wrestlers back with state experience, and other squads hope for improvements that lead to a breakthrough. Below are looks at the five Howard County squads.

WESTERN

The Panthers can fill half their weights with wrestlers who reached the regional, semistate or state finals last season, highlighted by returning state qualifiers Braydon Erb, Hayden Shepherd and Anthony Martin.

“We graduated some really good guys, but we’ve got some really good guys coming back,” Chad Shepherd said. “And then we’ve got some freshmen coming in that are pretty solid kids.

“You’ve got a lot of guys back who understand what’s going on, they know what to expect, they understand the system. It’s pretty simple. At 2:55 the seniors have got us warming up, I don’t even have to say anything. That helps them take leadership of the team.”

Moving through the lineup, two freshmen are at 106 pounds, Tanner Tischner and Aden Yeary. At 113 is senior Martin, who is moving up a weight class after making state at 106. He’s backed up by freshman Braeden Korf.

Senior Aidan Belt is at 120. Senior Justin Brantley is at 126, backed up by sophomores Aiden Raab and Gabriel Bumgardner. Sophomores Robert Dinn and Graham Berry are at 132. Chad Shepherd said the 120, 126 and 132 spots are fluid but that’s how they’ll start the season. Belt and Brantley both reached the semistate ticket round last season.

Freshmen Mitchell Betz and Conner Pockette are at 138. Junior Hayden Shepherd is at 145, up one weight class from where he wrestled at state last season, backed by freshman Brock Frazier. A mix of three wrestlers will man 152 and 160 — senior regional qualifier Jaedon Smith, senior Jackson Hartsough, and freshman Deaglan Pleak. Junior Brayden Shoaff is at 170.

Sophomore Christian White is at 182. Sophomore semistate qualifier M.J. Norman is at 195, though he is also an option at 182. Also at 195 are sophomores Wade Ryan and Evan Stout. Sophomore Landon Hale and freshman Cole Armstrong are at 220. And Erb is back at 285 after taking seventh at state at that weight last season.

Chad Shehperd has big expectations.

“I want to qualify six guys to the state finals, that’s my goal,” Chad Shepherd said. “I want to win semistate again. I’d like to win the coaches’ association’s state finals, the duals. It’ll be tough, but I think we’re capable.

“I want the kids to perform at their upmost ability. I don’t want them to leave anything on the table. I’m just going to assume we’re having a season until they tell me we’re not. I’m tired of the guessing. It’s out of my control. We’re going to prepare like we’re having a season and I’m going to do the best I can to put my guys in position to be successful, to go as far as they can go as individuals and as a team.”

Western opens with a dual at Northwestern on Dec. 2.

KOKOMO

Kokomo has a seasoned team back for this season and has ambitions to see wrestlers compete at the highest level, including in the girls state tournament.

“We’re real happy. We’ve got 25 wrestlers right now and we look around the room and there’s probably only one wrestler on the mat that has not ever wrestled before,” Kokomo coach Mike Miller said. “We’ve got a lot of experienced guys that have wrestled at a high level. We’re real excited to see what these guys can do and we’re hoping to make some noise come state tournament time, to see if these guys can make a run and turn some heads.”

On the team front, the Wildkats have the personnel to cover all weights. On an individual level, there are several who enjoyed postseason success and are in position to make waves again.

Senior Harvey Barr is entrenched at 106 pounds. He’s been to the semistate ticket round twice and Miller hopes to get him through to state. Sophomore Blayke Acord is likely to man the 113-pound spot. Sophomore Kacey Coak, a regional qualifier last season, is at 120. Sophomore Kindrick Fox is at 126, and the 132 spot hasn’t been hashed out yet.

At 138 is sophomore Keegan Name. Senior regional qualifier Wilmer Corrales is at 145. Senior Myles Lenoir wrestled between 170 and 185 last year but wanted to move down to 152 this season and was already making weight on the first day. Sophomore Brady Stump is an option at 152 or 160. And sophomore Jaquan East is at 160.

Junior Kymani Howard, a semistate qualifier, is at 170. The 182 spot is being contested between sophomore Gavin Zimmerman, and freshman Chad Washburn, who was runner-up at middle school state last season. Senior Jakobe Sparger is another who is moving down a weight to take 195 after competing in the semistate at 220 last season. Miller said Sparger showed up at practice 20 pounds lighter than last season. Junior George Montes and freshman Kadin Dempsey are contesting the 220 spot. And senior regional qualifier Sam Baity is at 285.

Additionally the Kats have four girls on the squad: sophomore 113-pounder Amaya Bowen; sophomore 126-pounder Kamryn Boone; sophomore Aulani Davis, who will probably compete at 138; and junior heavyweight Ladasia Cornell. Bowen and Boone were both fifth in regional action last season, missing state by one spot. Davis won a title in the girls state meet.

“We had a really good season with them last year,” Miller said of the girls contingent. “We look for a really good season with them this year. It’d be real cool to have four state qualifiers for them, especially wrestling [the state finals] on our home floor again.”

Miller wants to see the squad build on what they’ve already accomplished, starting Saturday at the Purdue Tech Invite.

“We’ve had really good seasons last couple year. I think last year we went 28-3 as a team,” Miller said. “What I just want to see and go out and do every week is go out and compete hard, focus in on what our jobs are. There’s a lot of distractions this year. We just need to focus on what we can control, and put ourselves in position to finish the year strong.”

EASTERN

Eastern sent two wrestlers to state last season, and graduated one. But the Comets welcome two state qualifiers back in the fold again this season. Junior Brodie Porter returns after reaching state last season, and senior Bryce Buckley is back after missing last season due to injury. He reached state as a sophomore.

The Comets have 15 wrestlers, which is about the same as before, but will fill all weights if everyone is available on a given day of wrestling.

Coach Zack Pence outlined where the returning group is strong, and said some new wrestlers have good raw material to work with.

“We’ll be strong again pretty much the same weight classes we were strong last year, kind of right in the middle,” Pence said. “Everywhere from 38 to 82, we’ll be pretty strong. We’ll be a stout team. We’ve got a lot of experience there.

“The difference from this year to last year, we’ve got some really good athletes that came in to try wrestling this year. We’re really athletic. Even though there’s not a lot of wrestling knowledge, there’s a lot of athleticism in the new guys so I’m really excited about that.”

At 106 is sophomore Savannah Pope, the first girl Pence can recall taking a spot in the Comet lineup. At 113 is senior Caleb Melton. At 120 is sophomore Eli Ferguson. Sohpomore Matt Grimes, a move-in from Tri-Central, is at 126. Sophomore Gabe Monize is at 132. And sophomore Kayden Boles is at 138.

The 145-160 spots are unclear, but packed with good options. Senior Tallan Morrisett, who lost in the ticket round at semistate last season, is a candidate to wrestle anywhere from 145-160. Two more who can man any of those same weights are senior semistate qualifier Luke Hetzner, and junior regional qualifier Bradie Porter. Also in the mix for 160 or 170 is Buckley.

Brodie Porter will bounce between 170 and 182. He was at 170 when he wrestled at state last season, the same weight Buckley was at when he wrestled at state two seasons ago. Senior Nathan Herr is at 195. Sophomore Elijah Buckley is at 220. Senior A.J. Wiles, and sophomore regional qualifier Tyler Wright are at 285.

“First and foremost I’m hoping for a full season,” Pence said. “I’m hoping we get everything under control and things can continue to move forward, mainly for the seniors and some of the older guys who take it serious. Two, I’m hoping some of the guys that are invested in the program and have been like Hetzner, like the Porters, like Tallan, that they get a fair shot at a season and we can prepare through those weird practices and make a run at the state series.

“I think our season’s going to be quite a bit different as a team. I think we’ll be missing kids for most of the year. More than anything, we’re looking at more of an individual basis this year because I think that’s where the focus is going to have to be. We’re going to have to stay motivated through all the weird, short practices and quarantines and all that. If we stay motivated, I think we have a group of kids that can make a run into the state series.”

Eastern opens Dec. 2 at home against Kokomo.

NORTHWESTERN

The Tigers will fill 11 weights and have 15 wrestlers in the program, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in experience. Six returning wrestlers experienced success in the postseason.

Northwestern coach Steve Swinson said “all four semistate qualifiers are back, and some regional qualifiers, so I’m really excited about the guys I’ve got.”

The semistate qualifiers are seniors Kyle Cardwell, Bodey Henry and Marcos Castorena, and junior Julion Creason.

Kyle Cardwell will begin the season at 182 and perhaps may move down to 170. Henry will start at 152 and expects to move down to 145. Castorena is at 138. A fourth senior who has also been in the lineup since his freshman season, Blayne Leeman, is at 132. Two new seniors are Cesar Xolo-Ixba (132 and 126 pounds) and Jordan Davis (160).

Juniors are Creason at 220, Christian Allen, also at 220 and hoping to drop to 195, and Silas Phillips, who is at 132 and plans to move to 126.

Sophomores are regional qualifier Isaac Bumgardner at 106, regional qualifier Tiquan Howell at 132 and hoping to get down to 126, Cole Cardwell at 170 and planning to move to 160, and Jansen Slate at 152 and planning to go to 145. Between them, Slate and Henry will man the 152 and 145 spots. Freshmen are 152-pounder Terry Warnock and 170-pounder Alec Fourez.

“Three of the four [semistate qualifiers] are upper weights so the back end of our lineup is probably our strength. With having Bodey and Marcos in the middle, that keeps us in it [in dual meets] and obviously Isaac at 106 is pretty good too,” Swinson said. “We’re just going to sprinkle in guys and wrestle off and try to get the best lineup in we possibly can. If there’s a positive to the lineup, you can move guys around without bumping anybody out.”

More than any previous year, Swinson is focused primarily on helping individuals improve since the team’s lineup and schedule could be in flux due to the pandemic.

“No. 1, we obviously want to wrestle and don’t want this good senior class to lose their senior season,” Swinson said. “We want to be as healthy as possible at the end of the year and everybody having the opportunity to wrestle, not get knocked out at the end. And we’re still looking for that one guy, two guys to advance to the state finals. We feel like this year is as good as any for us.”

Northwestern hosts Western on Dec. 2 to open the season.

TAYLOR

The Titans continue to work on getting experience into the program and will be underclass-heavy.

“Right now we are still a fairly young team, going off bringing the program back, from last year close to 20 kids, we do still have close to that 20 number,” Taylor coach Kyle Murphy said. “Most of the squad is sophomores. We brought in a couple more freshmen this year too.

“Right now the most experience we have is probably an average of two years. We do have some that have been wrestling for longer than that.”

The Titans will forfeit a few classes at times when potential team members can’t get to practice during weeks when Taylor is in virtual learning. As of now, the lineup starts at 120 where freshman Kiley Nutter has the spot. Sophomore Maddyx Campbell is at 126. Freshman Alton Griffin is at 138, and sophomore Jonathon Doty is at 145.

Taylor has a glut of wrestlers at 152 and 160. Freshman Aaden Langley, freshman Paul Lowery and senior Hayden Snow are at 152. Sophomore Trey Hancock, freshman Ethan Smith, sophomore Bricyn Cooks and senior Jack Bogue are at 160.

Sophomore Alex Collins is the most experienced Titan with four or five seasons in the program. She and senior Josh Doty are at 170, though Josh Doty may take the open 182 spot. Senior Ethan Cage is at 195. Sophomore Nathan Williams is at 220. And sophomores Johnathon McKoon and Alex Lindley are at 285.

Taylor’s intended super duals for Saturday was called off, so the Titans’ first meet will be a dual against Rossville on Dec. 9 or 10.

“[I’m] hoping we can get some mat time,” Murphy said. “I know our team’s still young, but I know our goals for the team are to do better than they did last year. Right now I’m looking for improvement. I’m not expecting them to go be sectional champions and regional champions their second year out of the gate. I’m hoping for a winning season from most of them and the young ones to go out and learn.

“Don’t get me wrong, they will battle though. They work hard in the room and I’m looking forward to see how they do on the mat. This year I have high hopes that a couple at least make it to regionals so we’ll see how that goes.”

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