By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
In the past few years, the head coaching job for the wrestling program at Bolivar High School has been a revolving door.
That’s no different this year, as the Liberators have another new head coach. Fortunately for them, he’s a familiar face.
Clayton McCullah takes over in what will be his 22nd year within the Bolivar wrestling program. He was an assistant coach from 2002 to 2005, moved to the middle school level for years and, last year, was hired to be the varsity assistant again. Plus, he coaches the Bolivar youth program.
“We will have the expectation and understanding that we are going to show up every day with the intent to get better,” McCullah said. “We plan to foster a tough, aggressive, and relentless style of wrestling when an attention to detail built upon solid, positional wrestling.”
It could be argued that McCullah has that rare ability to connect both with seasoned wrestlers and new ones in the room.
After all, he took up the sport only after getting into teaching, after his football playing days at Southwest Baptist University. At the time, Bolivar’s varsity wrestling coach was a former teammate, Daniel Bayless.
“I love sports and love learning new things, so I agreed,” McCullah said. “For the next five years, I was an assistant and daily drill partner for our 215 and heavyweight in the room. I learned through doing and drilling alongside the kids. I fell in love with the sport and have never looked back.”
McCullah anticipates about 35 wrestlers on the roster, including three returning state qualifiers. It’ll be interesting, though, to see the way the Liberators transition a year after they graduated three state medalists, including two state runners-up, and its heavyweight.
The projected lineup has sophomores Madden Ross and Isaiah Ortega either at 106 or 113 pounds, freshman John Goff at 120, sophomore Koven Parks at 126, junior Chance Hensley at 132, junior Maddux NeSmith at 138, junior Cooper Moore at 144, senior Peyton Cambell, senior Elijah Ortega and freshman Andrew Small at 150.
Look for sophomore Cale McCurry, Cambell and sophomore Logan Bunn at 157, junior Tristan Olivera, junior Mason McCurry and sophomore Sam Harless at 165, McCurry and sophomore Owen McCullah at 175, sophomore McCullah and junior Matthew Santos at 190, Santos and sophomore Braden Cambell at 215, and Campbell and junior Preston Tamayo at 285.
Moore placed fourth at 138 in Class 3 last season, when Hensley and NeSmith also qualified for the state tournament.
“(Moore) wrestled in, arguably, the toughest weight class in Class 3 last year at 138. It was a senior-heavy bracket with state medalists at every turn,” Coach McCullah said. “Cooper came out and more than held his own as a sophomore, placing fourth. Cooper is a natural. His ceiling is very high, and he should be in the hunt for a championship this year.”
NeSmith is interesting, too.
“He is a dogged competitor with an eye for detail,” Coach McCullah said. “If he improves as much as he did last season, he could look to be on the podium.”
Hensley has gained valuable experience.
“Chance has put in a lot of time in the offseason, wrestling freestyle and Greco, as well as attending various camps and clinics,” McCullah said. “He also has his eyes on the podium in 2023.”
Ross, a sophomore, is a returning starter who was a match away from advancing to the state tournament last season. Ortega has put a lot of time in the room during the offseason. Campbell gained valuable varsity experience last year.
Cale McCurry hit the weights this summer after being one match away from qualifying for the state tournament. Mason McCurry missed last season after sustaining a football injury. Owen McCullah’s only varsity tournament last year was district, as he battled injuries, but he is ready for this season. Bunn and Harless could crack the lineup at some point.
Bolivar has shown success in recent years, with five Top 10 finishes: In Class 2, second in 2019 and third in 2020, and in Class 3, sixth, fifth and eighth in 2021, 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“Obviously, there has been a great foundation of tradition laid here in Bolivar,” Coach McCullah said. “We hope to continue to build on that. We will always pursue excellence and will continue to maintain high expectations and expect our kids to meet those standards.”
Only three returners are on the girls roster this season.
The roster includes junior Brynn Gardner, freshman Masie McCullah, sophomore Ellie Samek, freshmen Scarlett Fugere and Shelby Holm, senior Madie Duncan, juniors Ira Karabyn and Jaylena Baker, freshmen Angelica Moreno and Jaydon Heiserman, junior LaShyla Moore, freshmen Alyssa Mayberry, Taylor Walker and Arial Allen and Junior Sydney Waters.
Additionally, the team includes sophomore Samantha Simpson, junior Anastasia Kirksey, freshman Alexa Aldridge, junior Kaylynn Bearfield, sophomore Destiny Henjna-Pinkston and freshman Sara Glover.
Waters, Baker and Duncan are the returning wrestlers.