By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard wrestling has continued to build into a dominant force over the last decade, and the Tigers are showing any signs of slowing down.
Months before starting last season, the Willard Tigers graduated two guys who had combined to earn seven state medals. But it was just a bump in the road. Eight guys qualified for state last year and, despite only four of them returning for this season, third-year coach Justin Wisdom likes what he sees for the winter ahead.
“I think it’s in a great state,” Wisdom said of the program. “Numbers are increasing at every level. We’ve had really good success at each level and, at the high school, we’ve done some great things the last two years.”
This year’s team features returning state qualifiers in 113-pound Riley Wertz, 138-pound Tallon Heimbach, 145-pound Alex Garrett and 195-pound Cameron Caldwell.
Garrett is a two-time medalist who placed third last year in the Class 3 state tournament, in which Willard finished seventh as a team. He suffered a 3-2 loss in the state semifinals to the eventual champion of his weight class.
“Alex is one of those kids you wish you had 50 of,” Wisdom said. “He’s got that mentality. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. And he really shines when it’s big-state time.”
Wertz is a defending Central Ozark Conference champion and is expected to wrestle at 113 this year. His summer included time at the Adidas Nationals and a 7-0 mark at the Corn Cob Nationals in Iowa, where Wertz was named the Wrestler of the Tournament for wrestlers between 106 and 152 pounds.
A year ago at this time, Wertz was barely weighing 100 pounds and fell short in the state tournament.
“That’s going to make him hungry coming in,” Wisdom said.
Heimbach could be a force at 138 after falling a match short of reaching the state medal round last season.
“He’s going to be one of our leaders,” Wisdom said. “He’s a tough-minded kid is a starter on the football team. He’s going to come in with a lot of confidence, so I am hoping he has a great year.”
Caldwell, a junior, looks to build off the end of last season and also just missed out on the medal round.
“He was wrestling some really good matches at the end of the year,” Wisdom said. “He’s got some growing to do as far as scoring points.”
Brandon lost in the bubble match at districts.
“With him coming into the weight room a lot and seeing him mature, we’re really excited,” Wisdom said. “He’s a sophomore, but he’s got the maturity of an upperclassman. He’s doing things right.”
All this comes two years after the team graduated four-time state placer Hunter Yeargan and Kyle Caldwell, and just months after Willard graduated four state qualifiers, including Niko Chavez, a 2016 state champion and 2017 state runner-up.
As a team, Willard was the runner-up in the district tournament and COC tournament. This is Wisdom’s third year as head coach at Willard.
“We have a lot of kids who believe in what we are doing,” Wisdom said.