By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Not that the Willard Tigers wrestling team needs any more inspiration – expectations have long been high – but, when it comes time to dig deep in a grueling six-minute match, they could look mat-side.
Senior Michael Finley, who overcame a near-death experience last spring just weeks after earning a Class 3 state runner-up at 113 pounds, will be a student-coach.
“Last semester was a very tough time for us as a wrestling family,” Willard coach Justin Wisdom said of Finley, whose lungs required a bilateral lung transplant in April after he had suffered flu-like symptoms after the state tournament, later to be diagnosed with Staph infection, sepsis, pneumonia and HLH. “For him to have a second chance at life is huge for all of us. He won’t be competing this season on the mat, but he will be competing on the bench as a student coach.”
Finley is among eight returning starters, a group that includes five state qualifiers and three state medalists. They highlight a roster of about 40 boys and another five to 10 girls – with the boys program having been Central Ozark Conference runner-up three of the past four seasons, a top-three district finisher and top-eight finisher at state.
The other state medalists returning are 113-pound junior Christian Finley and 182-pound senior Jed Brandon. Finley was a state runner-up at 106 and finished 50-3. Brandon is a two-time state medalist (fifth and third) who finished 45-4 last season. Both were district and conference champions, and Brandon also could be at 195.
“(Christian Finley) will look to pick up right where he left off. He’s a year older and stronger with the confidence to go with it,” Wisdom said. “(Brandon) is a three-sport athlete that is very talented in all three. He will be a leader for us this season.”
The rest of the projected roster includes: freshman Jeffrey Stevens (106), sophomore Jaxton Berry (120), junior Oscar Martinez (126), junior Tim Stevens or freshman Andrew Keithley at 132, junior C.J. Standford (138), junior Ryder Heimbach (145) and sophomore Gunnar Wildermuth (150). Stevens and Standford could move up a weight class.
In the upper weights, it’s senior Gavin Wallace (160), junior Rylan Dixon (170), possibly Jonas Keohane at 182, and then senior Carson Gehring or junior Cole Keeton at heavyweight. The 220-pound weight class is up for grabs.
The other state qualifiers in that bunch are Martinez and Heimbach, while Stevens, Standford, Wallace and Keohane are returning starters.
Martinez was 36-21 last year. Heimbach won 43 matches and was one match away from earning a state medal. Stevens is a “big move guy,” Standford also finished a win shy of a state medal and Wallace and Keohane are three-year starters.
“(Martinez) had his breakout season last year as a sophomore, winning some big matches and qualifying for the state tournament,” Wisdom said. “We look for Oscar to be one of the main guys in our line-up this year, and we’re looking for him to be consistent as a junior.”
Of Heimbach, Wisdom noted, “If Ryder can stay focused and find his competitive nature, he could have a big year.”
Stevens and Keithley have a lot of youth wrestling experience, Berry was stuck behind two state finalists last year, Dixon is a junior with an unorthodox style, and Gehring was 20-2 in his first year as a wrestler.
The schedule is interesting. Willard faces Kearney and Neosho in its first two competitions – and those schools have been either state champion or runner-up the past two years. The Tigers also host their own tournament (Jan. 18) for the first time and a second assembly dual against Class 2 state runner-up Bolivar on Feb. 7.
Meanwhile, Willard is trying to build its girls team after its only wrestler, Gracie Lawhon, placed third at the state tournament and lost only once.
Lawhon has graduated, but Willard has picked up Lexi Adams, a transfer from Glendale who competed in Fargo, N.D., in Greco-Roman and freestyle tournaments this past summer. She just missed qualifying for the state tournament last season.
Overall, Wisdom wants to see postseason hardware, and the wrestling room has the leadership to get there.
Wisdom is 66-8 in four years as Willard’s coach, and assistants are former Rogersville standouts in Clay Stine (2014 undefeated state champion and a two-time Juco All-American at Iowa Western), Ethen Carlberg (three-time state medalist) and Gabe Cowan (2015 state qualifier).
“We have been close three of the last four years. We just have to better in the quarterfinals and blood rounds so we can claim the medals that have slipped away from us,” Wisdom said. “This will help us take that next step as a team.”