With only one senior, two letter-winners and a total roster of 13 athletes in a sport that requires 14 for a full lineup, you might think Hillsboro wrestling coach Scott O’Hare is apprehensive about the season ahead.
On the contrary, O’Hare, now in his ninth year leading the program, sees a lot of upside to this team.
“Even though it’s a small group numbers-wise, a young group grade-wise, and an inexperienced group, we are excited,” he said. “As a group, this might be the most athletic team I’ve ever had.
“I feel like I’ve got a group of 13 kids who really want to work hard. They’ve got explosive nature, they’ve got competitiveness in them, and they’ve got a decent work ethic—which we’re going to continue to get stronger on because you’re not going to succeed at this sport if you don’t work hard.”
Bret Mueller is the lone senior and one of the two letter-winners on this year’s squad. Last season he compiled a 22-19 record and came within one match of qualifying for state.
“I’m expecting good things out of him,” O’Hare said. “He’s progressively gotten better.”
Even so, O’Hare believes there’s another of level performance awaiting the senior.
“I can’t say the kid has ever had a bad year, he’s just never gotten over the hump,” he said. “He’s been a great practice wrestler for a couple of years now, and he’s shown flashes of that greatness in competition, but it’s been inconsistent.
“I’m hoping we can get the consistency this season and build a little more confidence. For him, as much as anything it’s going to mean being mentally and physically tough. If he gets tough and nasty with people, he’ll do fine.”
Mueller, who wrestled at 130 pounds last year, is projected for either 135 or 140.
The Trojans’ second letter-winner is Tanner Jones, a junior who sported a 20-20 record and fell one win short of earning a state berth a year ago.
“Where Bret might be our best technician, Tanner might be our best in terms of explosiveness, intensity and that little bit of grit we like to see wrestlers have,” O’Hare said. “He will get in and get physical with people.”
Jones, projected to compete in the 160-pound weight class this winter, came on strong late last season at 152.
“This being a year later, and settling into a weight where hopefully he’s a little more comfortable, I think Tanner could have a really good year,” O’Hare said. “He wrestled some quality kids late last year, and gave them some really tough matches.”
The Trojan coach is looking to Mueller and Jones to lead Hillsboro’s young squad.
“The thing is, neither one of them are extremely vocal kids,” O’Hare said. “They’re going to lead by example—Bret more by his attention to detail and his technique work, Tanner more so with his tenacity and intensity.
“I think those things together, coming from these two, will be a good thing for other kids to see.”
While veterans are a natural source for leadership, O’Hare is looking to one first-year wrestler to carry some of the load, too.
Tyrell Thiessen has decided to wrestle this year instead of play basketball, and O’Hare expects the 260-pound junior to make an immediate impact in the 285-pound weight class even though he has limited competitive experience.
“The kid just has so much upside,” O’Hare said. “He never wrestled until he was in middle school. He wrestled as a seventh and eighth-grader, and in those two years he went 24-1.
“At that time he wasn’t necessarily bigger, because we matched him up with the biggest kids we could find. (He won) because he was so much stronger and he moved so well for a big guy.
“That’s why I felt all along that (wrestling) was a place for him. He can go places here because you just don’t find kids at 260 who can move like he did, and have that fast-twitch, explosive muscle.”
Missing two years will put Thiessen behind the pack at the start, but O’Hare believes he’ll progress quickly.
“You can teach a heavyweight a couple of good moves in every position, and they’re going to win a lot of matches,” he said. “He’s going to see some good heavyweights in the area, but there are going to be a lot of heavyweights we match up with where he’s going to beat them in sheer athleticism and strength.
“Now, if he just shows he has the mental fortitude and the consistency to get after it, he could be pretty darn good. So far he has shown me a willingness to learn, to work hard and to get better.”
Of the six sophomores on the Trojan roster this year, Cody Delk and River Cecil are the only ones who wrestled as freshmen last year. Sidelined with an injury for much of last season, Delk came back to win a spot at 135 pounds and posted a 6-7 record. This year he’ll move up to 140 or 145.
“He’s grown, he’s more mature,” O’Hare said. “If we find the right spot for him in the lineup, he’ll do well. He’s starting to show me a little of the mentality that (older brother) Dylan had—he’s just real scrappy and gets after it.”
Cecil, meanwhile, saw limited varsity action last year, but O’Hare said he’ll be deceptively competitive in the lighter weight classes.
“I kind of view River a little bit in the mold of (2011 graduate) Justin King—you see him and you don’t really think a whole lot of it,” he said. “But they’ve got something in them, that when they put a headgear and singlet on and step on a mat, they’ve got a little fire.”
The remaining four freshmen and four sophomores on the roster are new to the HHS wrestling program, though all but one have wrestling experience.
“They’ve been around it, so they know what it’s about and they understand some of the basics,” O’Hare said. “We just have to review the basics and build on that.”
Given the weight spread of his athletes, O’Hare believes the Trojans could fill 10 or 11 of the 14 openings in the lineup card.
“If we can find a way to fill 11 weight classes I’ll feel good,” he said. “With 10, that’s 24 points you’re losing right off the top, assuming the other team has somebody there.”
Because of the team’s limited experience overall, O’Hare said his team may struggle early in the season. For one thing, the Trojans’ small roster will make competitive matchups in practice more difficult.
“Being realistic, we might take some lumps early, especially in duals,” he said. “But I think in tournaments we’ll still be able to hold our own because we have some upper classmen and some kids who have potential to be consistent medalists and finalists, if not tournament champions. We’ve just got to bring some of these young guys along.”
O’Hare expects Smoky Valley, Pratt and Halstead to be the top competition in the Central Kansas League. He hesitates to say where his team fits because he’s not sure what kind of depth the other schools will bring.
“We can be competitive in a lot of the weights with the kids we put out there,” he said. “Our goal is that even in the matches we lose, we let the other guy know he was in a match—and we’re going to build on that.”
The Trojans open their competitive season Dec. 1 with a double dual against Minneapolis and the host team, Halstead. Action begins at 5:30 p.m.