ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Touting a record number of athletes for the second year in a row, Hillsboro wrestling coach Scott O’Hare believes his program is now harvesting the fruit from seedlings planted and nurtured over several seasons.
This year’s rosters includes 29 wrestlers, eclipsing last year’s record of 24.
“The numbers are certainly exciting, but the other very positive thing about that is that it’s not just sheer numbers,” said O’Hare, who is starting his third season as head coach after assisting for seven years under Corey Burton.
“I’ve got only one kid in the room who does not have wrestling experience,” he said. “In the past, we were working with 18 to 22 kids, but had maybe five or six trying it for the first time-or maybe more.”
For some, experience came only in middle school. But several of O’Hare’s proteges are veterans of the Kids Wrestling program offered for the past 12 years by Burton and O’Hare.
“A number of them have been in that program since they were 5, 6, 7, 8 years old,” O’Hare said. “We’re starting to see the benefits of that program. It’s really what Coach Burton and I talked a lot about and envisioned happening at some point.”
Growth in the HHS program necessitated a renovation that has doubled the space in the wrestling room by removing the wall to an adjacent racquetball court.
“Last year I had some injuries in practice because of the limited space we had with 24 (athletes),” O’Hare said. “We just had to give ourselves more space because we get so active in there.”
Adding to the challenge during the preseason, assistant coaches Jake Schenk and Carson Greenhaw were still playing football for Tabor College through this past weekend.
“I’m excited for them and I want them to go as far as they can go in the playoffs, but I’m going to be more than happy when they come back,” O’Hare said.
The challenges created by a growing program are not detriments, O’Hare said.
“As I’ve said to many people, it’s a great problem to have because I love seeing these numbers-I love seeing these kids excited about competing for us.”
Seniors at the core
Numbers and experience begin at the top for O’Hare’s team. Six seniors form a strong core this year-five of them won at least 24 matches last season.
“My seniors are certainly going to be the strength of the squad,” O’Hare said. “They’ll take the leadership role, which they should be.”
Heading the list is Ric Johnson, a two-time state qualifier who finished with a 25-17 record last season. He is hoping to wrestle at 130 pounds this season, but Johnson starts the season with a question mark. The hip he broke in fall 2004 is causing him discomfort.
“The doctor suggested he sit out until he can see a surgeon again because he’s grown 3 inches since his plates were put in,” O’Hare said. “We’re hoping, if they decide they want to remove the plates, that we can do it before Christmas break hits so he can get that healed back up and come back shortly after Christmas.”
Eric Cress, one of three Goessel High School athletes on the squad, finished last season with a team-high 26 wins against 10 losses. He was a state qualifier two years ago, but fell one match short in 2005. He will start the season at 140 pounds.
Andrew Bina, 25-15 a year ago, may start the year at 160, but will likely moved down to 152 or even 145 as the year progresses.
Matt Brown established a 25-16 mark last season and qualified for state at 152 pounds. He may wrestle at 145 this season.
Kurtis Shaw went 24-10 in the heavyweight class (275 pounds and above). He won the class title at the Hesston Invitational and was a top-three finisher in several other tournaments.
O’Hare’s sixth senior, Chris Jensen, compiled a 13-10 mark at 119 in his first year at HHS and likely will return at that weight this season.
“He hadn’t wrestled since the sixth grade when he moved here,” O’Hare said. “He’s just such a good, explosive athlete. As he picks up on the technique, he’s going to be a big contributor for us.”
Filling the weight classes
Given the depth he has at several weights, O’Hare said it’s too early to know who will fill the varsity lineup. But he mentioned several candidates who could make significant contributions.
Frankie Martin (14-16) wrestled last year as a freshman at 112 pounds, but will be bumping up two weights to 125.
Sophomore Jacob Yoder has a chance to make some noise at 171 pounds-at least until Bina and Brown move down to 145 and 152. Yoder would then compete at 160.
Alex Jost, another sophomore, last year wrestled behind Zach Magnuson (15-14) at 103 pounds. But with Magnuson competing at 112 this year, Jost is expected to step in at 103.
Two other wrestlers return with varsity experience. Grady Stultz (7-15) and Sean Leihy (7-10) wrestled last season at 130 and 140 pounds, respectively.
Two freshmen are competing for a spot as well, O’Hare said.
Nicholas Mueller begins high school competition after completing an undefeated career at Hillsboro Middle School.
“He’s one of those who is a product of our program-he’s been wrestling for a lot of years and has a lot of experience,” O’Hare said. “Coming into high school, he still has a lot to learn, but he really works hard.”
Mueller is vying with classmate Tyler Jones for an opening at 135 pounds to start the season.
Also returning with varsity experience are Grady Stultz (7-15) and Sean Leihy (7-10), who wrestled at 130 and 140, respectively, last season.
Depth will give O’Hare the opportunity to fill almost every weight class for dual meets.
“The only (class) I’m concerned with filling is 171,” he said. “I do have two 160-pounders, which means one of them probably will be moving up. “
Last season, the Trojans finished fourth in three tournaments-missing a top-three plaque by five points or less. They placed second in the Mid-Central Activities Association tournament.
O’Hare believes his team will be in the running for high finishes again this season.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I anticipate that we’re just going to go out there and tear everything up,” he said. “What I’m trying to stress is that I’m terribly excited about the opportunities we have if we can get people in the right weight, if we can continue to improve every day, and simply go out and compete up to our abilities.”
As for the MCAA, O’Hare looks for last year’s champion, Hoisington, to be the team to beat again this season. He believes Marion, Halstead, Lyons and his Trojans will be contenders.
Folks wanting to see the Trojans compete at home need to attend the season-opening meet on Thursday, Dec. 1. The Trojans will play host to Marion, Smoky Valley and Hoisington in their only home appearance of the season. Matches will begin at 5:30 p.m.