By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Daryl Bradley couldn’t have asked for a better way to end his 20-year run as Monett wrestling coach.
The Cubs won the Class 2 state championship for the second year in a row last February and Bradley announced in April he was stepping down as head coach. Monett didn’t have to look far for his replacement: Ben Hohensee, who was Bradley’s assistant for the previous seven years.
“It was a fun ride,” Hohensee said. “Obviously it was amazing to send coach Bradley out getting back to back state championships. We knew what we had but obviously you never know for sure until it all plays out in the end and we had some great leadership. Young guys stepped up, they just did exactly what we knew they were capable of. It was quite the experience, I’ll never forget it.”
Hohensee was born and raised in Monett and wrestled for Bradley in high school. All three of his assistant coaches are Monett graduates, as well.
Anybody hoping for the Cubs to take a big step back this season will probably be sorely disappointed. Monett only graduated four wrestlers from its district lineup – three of them state medalists – but returns five other state qualifiers from last season.
Granted, it won’t be easy replacing Karter Brink, Joseph Semerad and Gunnar Bradley. Brink placed third at 132 pounds last year and was a two-time state champion. Bradley was the runner up at 152 pounds and finished as a four-time state medalist. And Semerad was the champion at 138 pounds, giving him three titles in his high school career.
“All three are in college wrestling,” Hohensee said. “I don’t know how you replace those. We’re just going to have to move forward, that’s all you can do. You don’t get those but once in a lifetime but we’re blessed here with a good program and we’ve got more guys willing to step up.”
The Cubs will again rely on a decorated group of veterans this year. They return a state champion at 285 pounds in junior Harrison Merriman, whose best wrestling is probably still ahead of him. He was 40-8 last season.
“He hasn’t even filled into his feet yet,” Hohensee said. “He hasn’t figured out what he’s capable of yet. He’s going to be very scary the next two years with his size, athletic ability and will to win. He’s a smart kid so it’s going to be fun to see how much better he’s going to get in the next two years.”
Joining him are a trio of third-place medalists from last year in senior Matthew Bahl, Elias Barrientos and Ethan Umfleet.
Bahl went 46-7 and placed at 126 pounds last year. He’ll probably wrestle at 132 this year. He’s a three-time state placer and was a state champion in 2019.
“One of the toughest kids we’ve ever had,” Hohensee said. “When he won a state championship he was on a bum knee and did things I’ve never seen a kid do. One of the hardest workers we’ve had. He’s about as scrappy as they come.”
Barrientos placed at 145 pounds and finished with a 46-7 record. He’ll probably wrestle at 152 this year. Hohensee called him one of the most dangerous wrestlers in the state and said he’s good enough to beat anybody.
“Probably has the craziest hips and takedown defense I’ve ever seen,” he said. “A strong, smart kid. He’s going to be fun to watch.”
And Umfleet finished 39-7 and wrestled at 160 pounds. He’s a two-time state placer who will probably jump to 182 this season. Hohensee said he could make a title run this winter and, like Barrientos, is capable of beating anybody.
“He’s a kid that’s always found success in everything he does,” he said. “He’s a great athlete, a very physical wrestler.”
Those four will be the team’s main leaders, the coach said. Senior Raymond Villalta qualified at 220 pounds last season and was 31-13, but is battling an injury and Hohensee isn’t sure if he’ll be able to wrestle.
The Cubs will look to some younger and more inexperienced wrestlers to fill what voids remain.
Simon Hartline is a freshman at 106 pounds who’s had success in the past and Hohensee said he has a chance to do big things as a ninth grader. Junior Corbin McCully will fill in at 152 or 160 and has been on the cusp of breaking through the last two years.
“I think he’s so much stronger this year,” Hohensee said. “He’s matured a lot and is going to be one to watch.”
Seniors Joe Korasick and Dru Guinn will be battling for the 195 and 220-pound spots after wrestling at 170 and 182, respectively, last year.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are fighting for spots,” Hohensee said. “It’s going to be fun. We’re going to wrestle and those guys are going to figure it out. If they want that spot they’re going to go take it. We leave it up to them, it’s their team.”
On the girls’ side Monett expects its biggest group of wrestlers to date, with as many as a dozen potentially wrestling this year.
The Cubs will be led by returning starters Abby Jastal, Jenna Spencer and Jewelia Willoughby.
Jastal, a senior, was a state qualifier at 110 pounds last year and finished with a 35-10 record. Head girls coach Justin Semerad said she’s a natural leader.
“She’s pretty intense both in her drilling and in her matches,” he said. “Her aggressiveness is probably her best quality. I never have to worry about her effort. She shows up to everything she can. She worked out this summer with us and she’s come in and worked with some of our middle school girls.”
Spencer is a sophomore who wrestled at 103 pounds last season. She’s the first product of Monett’s junior high wrestling program, which Semerad also coaches. She shares in Jastal’s aggressiveness.
“That’s probably the hardest thing to teach in wrestling is to be aggressive and she’s a natural,” Semerad said. “When her technique catches up with her aggressiveness she’ll be a solid wrestler.”
Willoughby, a senior, wrestled at 152 pounds last year and will likely wrestle at a lower weight class this season.
“I think she’s lost about 20 pounds since last season and just looking at her she looks great,” Semerad said. “If she can keep her strength despite the weight loss she’s going to be tough.”
One relative newcomer who could make an impact is Brelynn Wellbaum, a senior who wrestled in eight matches last season at 143 pounds. Semerad said she showed potential last season and has a lot of athleticism but needs to refine her technique before districts.
Another newcomer is sophomore Brooke Bluel. She wrestled in Kansas last season so she has some experience.
“We’re a young team,” Semerad said. “We have three seniors and there’s really only two with a lot of wrestling experience. Everybody else are sophomores and freshmen. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. I see it as a good thing. My numbers at the junior high level have been climbing. This is the second year in a row I’ve had 10-plus girls at the junior high level. It’s a good sign when those girls are coming from the junior high level and want to continue wrestling at the high school level.”