By Jake Thompson and Justin Whitaker
— With a load of talent returning in the local wrestling rooms, many county schools are preparing for solid 2012 seasons. Many of the area’s top wrestlers return from last year and could propel their teams to new heights.
For several years the Avon Orioles’ wrestling program has set at the head of the Hendricks County wrestling table. That position of power did not come easily. The Orioles rely on a top-notch youth program overseen by its high school coaching staff and many others that tirelessly try to improve the skill of Avon’s youth grapplers.
The effort has paid off.
Avon fended off a strong Danville team for its eighth consecutive county championship last season, and finished as the sectional runner-up.
“The work put forth by our middle school and club coaches has allowed us to maintain success over the years,” Avon coach Israel Blevins said. “Their long hours sometimes go unnoticed, but the abundance of young wrestlers ready to take the next step is a tribute to their hard work.
“The goal for Avon wrestling this season is to improve each day and be peaking in performance at the time of the state tournament. We make it our goal to win the local tournaments each year.”
Helping the Orioles achieve those goals this season are seniors Dylan Jones and Jonah Zorniger, both of who advanced to the state finals last year. Jones placed sixth and Zorniger finished as a qualifier. Joining those two are another pair of seniors in Gabe Dunham and Matt Syorinic.
“The entire senior class has been providing valuable leadership through their words and actions this preseason,” Blevins said.
Juniors Nick Etienne, a semistate qualifier, and Brian Rassbach are two-time returning letterman and they’re joined this year by returning lettermen TJ French and John Boffo.
Sophomore returning letter winners include Quinn Harris, Caleb Loman, Brendon Helm, Marcus Miranda, Evan Elmore, Tanner Brandt, David Frank, Shane Burgoon, and Austin Woiteshek.
“Our talented sophomore class is poised for a breakout season after gaining experience as freshmen,” Blevins said. “The success of our team will depend on the development of our young talent and the continued success of our returning upperclassmen.”
A strong group of upperclassmen will look to lead Tri-West into the 2012 wrestling season.
Coach Nick Sullivan is expecting big things out of seniors Jon Staton (285), Holden Ottinger (138), and Adam Boles (132) and juniors Carlos Branson (195) and Rick Perry (145).
“The upperclassmen bring a strong, collective leadership to the team,” Sullivan said. “They all have their strengths as leaders and they work well together, to help what is really a young team grow and improve each practice.”
Sophomore Justin Wright returns as a sectional champion in the 120-pound weight class and fellow sophomore Cole Purdy will also be a main contributor this season.
“(They) bring tremendous amounts of energy, but also expectations for themselves and the team,” Sullivan said.
The Bruins will also have some freshman to count on this season in Justin Graham (106) and twins in the 125 class Aaron and Kyle Rose. Freshman Drake Stahl (170) will “bring in some much needed size to the lineup,” Sullivan said.
Because of a low number on the roster, the Bruins won’t be able to fill the upper weight classes.
“Our team is small in number, but various in types of wrestlers,” Sullivan said.
As a result, he said Tri-West will look at individual advancement because of the lack of numbers.
“Without a full lineup, it’ll be hard to compete in the team tournaments, but as individuals, I believe we have several that can make a deeper run into the state tournament,” Sullivan said.
He said he’ll rely on the three seniors — Staton, Boles, and Ottinger — but he’s also excited about the younger team members.
“The team has a nice balance of veterans, but also an influx of youth that looks promising for the future,” Sullivan said.
The Danville wrestling program is firing on all cylinders, coming on the heels of a first-ever team sectional title and third straight state appearance for one of the wrestlers.
In Danville coach Steve Pugliese’s 19 years, he said he doesn’t believe he’s coached a better wrestler than senior Neal Molloy.
Molloy has complied a 135-5 record, three state finals appearances, and a 2011 state championship in his three seasons of wrestling at Danville.
The only wrestling champion in Warrior history will likely jump to the 145 weight class after competing at 130 last year.
“Neal is a special talent,” Pugliese said. “However, he doesn’t do it on talent alone. His success is a direct result of how hard he works and how much time he puts into wrestling; whether it’s drilling, running, or lifting.”
Danville also returns seniors Brayden Montgomery and Kyle Reeves for a core veteran group.
“These seniors bring attitude and leadership to the program,” Pugliese said. “They lead by example.”
Freshmen Brock Hudkins and Elliott Molloy will look to contribute immediately this season.
The Warriors experienced a record number of wrestlers out for the team and will field a full lineup. Danville has high expectations for the season, and deservingly so.
“Expectations are the same: win county, conference, and sectionals, as well as the Class 2A team state dual meet championship,” Pugliese said. “Avon and Brownsburg are the most likely favorites for county and sectionals. North Montgomery and Southmont are the favorites for the conference. We think we can compete for championships, but we don’t think we’re considered the favorites.”
The Warriors are looking for their first county title since the early 1970s and their third conference title in four years.
A balanced group of veterans look to lead Brownsburg into the 2012 wrestling season.
Coach Jason Catellier is expecting seniors Austen Arnold (126), Connor Ludwig (182), and Tyler Harlan (220) and junior Johnny Cimmerman (138) to pace the Bulldogs.
“I have a high expectation for this year’s team,” he said. “We have a pretty solid group of seniors and a really good core of juniors and sophomores.”
He said Brownsburg should be particularly strong in certain areas.
“Right now our biggest strengths are down low from 126 to 145 and up high from 170 to heavyweight,” he said. “We’re pretty solid. We’ve always been solid in the upper weight classes and we’re going to continue that for the next couple of years.”
After finishing second in 2010 and third in ‘11, the Bulldogs have one focus: to win the county championship.
“All the teams in our county are getting a lot better but our No. 1 goal at the start of the season is to win county and I think we have a team that can do it,” Catellier said.
Junior Paul Thomas (145) will return. Thomas suffered a knee injury before county last season but was 20-2 to that point.
“He’s working hard and doing what he can do to come back,” Catellier said.
Freshman C.J. Damler (152) and Nick Weaver (106) are newcomers looking to make an impact immediately.
“Both of those kids were county champions in middle school so I expect them to contribute pretty well,” Catellier said.
The Bulldogs will kick off the season Saturday with a Brownsburg Invite. Other teams competing will be Plainfield, North Putnam, South Putnam, and Crawfordsville.
Following a fourth at county last season and fifth-place finishes in the Mid-State Conference and at sectional, the Plainfield Quakers’ wrestling team returns with more confidence and a renewed effort this year in hopes of bettering those finishes.
“Our goal is to improve throughout the year,” Plainfield coach Paul Nicodemus said. “We want to be competitive every time we step on the mat. We hope to make a run for a county championship. We’ll be a long shot, but we might surprise some people. In the conference we hope to finish in the top half, which will be tough to do in the Mid State. In the postseason we hope to advance as many kids as possible in every round of the tournament.”
Leading that charge for Plainfield this season are returning grapplers Corin McKee, Ben Macri, Peyton Jones, Dean Weaver, and Caleb Sheets.
Each of those wrestlers brings back a wealth of experience and championship hardware. McKee returns as a county champion. Macri won a county and regional championship and was one win away from advancing to the state finals. Jones finished up the year as a semistate qualifier. Weaver advanced to the regional last season. Sheets won a sectional title and advanced as far as semistate.
Nicodemus also pointed to Isaac Gomez, Dayton Clements, and Triston Southwood as a few wrestlers that may have a breakout season for the Quakers.
“(Gomez) is an extremely hard worker who spends a lot of time training in the off season,” Nicodemus said. “Clements is a move in from Monrovia that’s looking tough in the preseason. Southwood is a sophomore returning letterman who turned a lot of heads last year with his size and toughness. He’ll wrestle 195 or 220 this season.”
But all of the preseason optimism could go out the window if the injury bug crops up. Plainfield’s turnout this year is 25 wrestlers and leaves little room for error if one or more grapplers go down for an extended time period during the season.
“We need everyone to stay healthy in order to have the success we think we could have,” Nicodemus said.
While the Quakers lack in total numbers, leaders have popped up to help direct Plainfield to its goals.
“Macri is our senior with the most experience ... is a returning team captain and has done an excellent job leading in the preseason,” Nicodemus said. “Weaver is very quiet, one of those guys that doesn’t say much but works hard every time he steps in the room. Weddle is a returning letterman that unfortunately broke his leg during football and will be out for the first half of the season. McKee is a junior who is absolutely the vocal leader of the team. He’s such an outstanding leader that he was a team captain as a sophomore last season.”
With such an abundance of grapplers that care in his room, Nicodemus said he’s pleased with what he’s seen so far and likes the direction the team is moving.
“Unfortunately, our program has been down for the past few years,” he said. “Our kids have persevered through these times and are working hard to build the program back up to where it should be.
“The intensity in our practice room is at a level that I haven’t seen in a long time. We don’t have any prima donnas. Everyone comes in the room ready to work hard and get better every day. As a coach, you can’t ask for more than that.”
Cascade sent Hunter Fox to the state finals last season and Zach Batts went to semistate as three others advanced into regional competition. The Cadets finished third in the West Central Conference, fifth at county, and sixth at sectional.
The team has upped its goals this season and coach Josh Hagenow said they have aspirations to win the WCC, place in the top four in county, and try to qualify more wrestlers for each round of the postseason tournament.
But like most coaches, Hagenow said he just wants his “wrestlers to compete to the best of his or her ability.”
Batts, Hunter Fox, and Casey Fox each won WCC titles last season. Batts and Hunter Fox were also sectional champions. Casey Fox advanced to regionals, along with WCC runner-up Lukas Stoutenour.
“Our stronger and more experienced wrestlers will have to lead us in the wrestling room and on the scoreboard,” Hagenow said.
Along with that core group of grapplers, Hagenow said he was very excited about the couple of freshmen and new faces to the program.
“They’ll complete our line-up and will gain valuable varsity experience this year,” he said.
The two groups will work together to forge a strong team and must accomplish that without senior leadership, because not a single senior is on the team this season.
“We have no seniors in the program, but our juniors have taken up the burden of leadership and have done a fine job,” Hagenow said. “This group has a lot of experience and is hungry to compete this season. Many of them wrestle with a chip on their shoulder because small schools don’t get the respect they deserve.”