By Kary Booher
For years, coach Garrett Hawkins fought the good fight. He’d recruit the hallways and football rosters every fall, hoping to fill 14 weight classes on his wrestling team, and then also help run the annual Kinloch Holiday Classic.
That should bode well for the Branson High School wrestling program now that Hawkins is in charge there. You see, he knows the intricacies of running a high school program, having led the Parkview High School program from 2008 to 2016.
Besides, it’ll be even more of a family atmosphere for Hawkins, given his wife teaches in the Branson district and his two sons also attend school there.
“I’m more than excited to be at Branson,” Hawkins said. “It’s a great place. This fall, we have been focused on grades and character, making sure we are representing our team well in the classroom and hallways. Wrestlers not involved in a fall sport are attending offseason workouts and open mats.”
The roster excites Hawkins. About 40 athletes have joined the team, and Hawkins got a look at it over the summer. Going in, he envisions at least six wrestlers at reaching the state tournament and earning medals. That’s double from a year ago.
The team has three returning state qualifiers in Skyler Harris, Hunter Holderfield and Jacob Ulrich.
Harris was 28-15 last season at 106 pounds and could certify there again this season.
“If he continues to work hard like he did last year, and take charge in his matches, he should get a medal at state,” Hawkins said, noting that Harris plays soccer. “He’s a multi-sport guy, which I like.”
Holderfield was 30-6 last year, qualifying at 132 pounds. He is expected to move up to 152 and 160 this year.
“He’s been in the weight room,” Hawkins said. “He’s got a lot of muscle now, so I think can see him doing some great things.”
Ulrich placed fifth at state in 2015 and finished 33-8 last year, just missing out on a chance to advance to the state tournament.
“He’s going to be bringing it,” Hawkins said. “I see him as a top guy at state going into it at the end of the year.”
The rest of the projected lineup includes freshmen Caden Lorenz and Colton Chrisman pushing Harris at 106, Lorenz or Harris at 113, Kelly Henson at 120, Nate Halliburton at 126, Halliburton or James Miller at 132, Reagan Ulrich or Jacob Ulrich at 138 or 145 and Collin Andrews at 152. In the upper weights, it could be Isaiah Wittmer at 170, Seth Watson at 182, Jordan Hall and Cameron Bunting at 195, Bunting or Eric Shockey at 220 and David Stacey at heavyweight.
Halliburton, a junior, was a match away from reaching state last year at 120.
“I know he’s been working and hitting open mats this fall, and working pretty hard,” Hawkins said. “I’m expecting him to be a real contributor this year. He should be a state qualifier.”
Wittmer also has been a weight room regular.
“He’s a big, strong 170,” Hawkins said. “He went to the Drury (University) camp, so he’s been working in the offseason and continuing to get better on his feet. I think he could surprise some people this year.”
“Coach (Robert) Pittman and staff have done a great job producing quality wrestlers over the years,” Hawkins said of his predecessor. “We will have some strong senior wrestlers and leadership this year. I look forward to continueing Branson’s wrestling tradition and competitiveness in our conference, districts and state.”