By Kary Booher
Unlike some wrestling coaches in the Ozarks, Seneca High School’s Jeff Sill doesn’t have to recruit the hallways.
In fact, selling the sport has become even easier now that former Seneca standout Will Roark is in his second year on the University of Missouri wrestling team.
“He got first in Fargo (N.D.) in freestyle and that was quite an accomplishment,” Sill said. “That opened a lot of eyes” both in the community, to say nothing about college recruiters.
Thus, Seneca appears to be entering another strong era, buoyed by the fact that the program will have an additional wrestling room opening soon, too.
This for a program that won the Class 1 state tournament last season – its first since 2010 – and returns three state champions in junior Max Roark, sophomore Dalton Hembree and senior Trey Smith. Plus, four other state qualifiers are returning, too.
The key will be filling spots left behind by 138-pound state champion Jesse Rhoades and five other starters who graduated. When Seneca won state last year, it did so by only 5.5 points against the second-place finisher, Whitfield.
Fortunately for Sill, he has the advantage of coaching in a town that loves wrestling, with dads who competed for Seneca sending their sons into the youth and high school programs. That’s helped Sill in the sense that the wrestlers themselves hold each other accountable.
Plus, a safe room is due to open soon, allowing Seneca to install two mats and use the old cafeteria, where the Indians can squeeze in almost two full mats. Thanks to their former wrestler now at Mizzou, those mats get used more frequently.
“When they get in the room, there are expectations there and you’re not just taking up space,” Sill said. “It’s not us (coaches) just yelling.”
Look for Roark to compete at either 120 or 126 after winning 48 matches last year and winning the 106-pound weight class. Hembree could be at 126 or 132 after winning the 120-pound weight class and finishing with 57 victories. He is also healthy after competing despite an elbow injury late last season. Smith won 50 matches and the 145-pound weight class last season.
“We don’t try to put any more pressure on the kids,” Sill said, regarding the three state champs carrying the burden of their status. “We try to coach them to perform and wrestle to the best of their ability.”
On Hembree, Sill said, “He’s just a hard-nosed kid. Sometimes he pushed through it when he’s body is him not to push so hard.”
The other returning state qualifiers are sophomore Dayton Fields (132 or 138), Cole Hatfield (138 or 145), Dawson Stephens (132 or 138), Taylor Cook (170 or 182), Lance Hymer (170 or 182) and Matt Caputo (145 to 152).
Fields placed third at state last season after rallying through the consolation side of the bracket, and Stephens and Cook are looking to return to state after advancing two years ago.
Other notables are seniors Chase Schrader, Blake Hodge, Levi Connelly and Cale Schrader.
The schedule won’t be easy, though. Sill has lined up tournaments in Harrisonville, Carl Junction, Platte County, northwest Arkansas and a dual against Class 2 powerhouse Monett.
“If we keep everybody healthy, we should be competitive,” Sill said.