All three area teams competing in this weekend’s state wrestling duals championships seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
Norfolk, Battle Creek and Pierce all will see action Saturday at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds in Kearney, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that all three teams have a good chance to bring home team hardware.
The Panthers are seeded third and are hoping to improve on last year’s third-place finish when they open against first-timer Elkhorn South in Class A competition.
Battle Creek, last year’s runner-up in Class C, comes in as the fourth seed with a first-round matchup against Raymond Central, while Pierce, back in the tournament after a runner-up finish in Class B in 2019, is in the Class C field as the sixth seed with a matchup against third-seed Fillmore Central.
The season has been a fantastic one for the third-ranked Panthers, who have won all but one tournament this season and whose only dual losses are to the top two seeds in the Class A bracket, No. 2 Lincoln East and top seed and four-time defending champion Millard South.
Norfolk High coach Justin Grey said the Panthers are worthy of their No. 3 ranking in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association listings.
“We’re wrestling well right now. We have won every tournament except the (Flatwater) Fracas, and our two dual losses are to Millard South and in the finals of the Fracas to Lincoln East,” he said. “I think we have one of the most complete teams in the state, and it just comes down to how we match up with other teams.”
The Panthers are led by two returning state medalists in seniors Jacob Licking (160 pounds) and Dylan Busch (152). Both were fifth-place finishers at state a year ago and are ranked third and fourth, respectively, by the NSWSCA.
Licking is 32-2 on the season and fresh off an upset of second-ranked Michael Meyers of Omaha Westside, while Busch comes in with a 30-7 record and has helped to anchor a solid middle for Norfolk.
Licking and Busch are among eight ranked Panthers in the lineup, along with Calvin Empkey (132, fifth), Gavin Van Driel (138, sixth), Hudson Waldow (170, sixth), Kayden Kettler (195, second), Rylee Hammer (220, fifth) and fourth-ranked heavyweight Jackson Bos.
“Our ranked kids are wrestling well, and we have kids like Rylee who weighs 198 but can move up to heavyweight, and we can move him and Jackson around and probably will at some point this weekend,” Grey said.
The Panthers will be favored to advance to the semifinals, where they could potentially face Lincoln East in a rematch of the finals at the Fracas duals in Grand Island in December, a match that was won by the Spartans 37-33. Grey said a rematch with the Spartans would be entertaining, with the outcome decided by which team can pick up the most bonus points.
As for knocking off the Patriots — winners of six of the past seven duals titles — Grey said it’s possible but will take an outstanding effort to make it happen.
“They’re nationally ranked, have four or five champions on their team and they’re a great quality team,” he said. “I don’t know if we have the firepower to get them in the finals, but we’re going to give it a heck of a run if we do.”
BOTH THE BRAVES and Bluejays bring experienced lineups into what should be an entertaining Class C bracket that includes undefeated and top-seed Wilber-Clatonia and top-ranked Broken Bow in the field.
The Braves are no strangers to the dual state tournament, making their eighth appearance and coming off a runner-up finish a year ago.
“We’re always excited to take part in this,” coach Cody Wintz said. “There is a true team atmosphere that duals have where every weight class matters. We like where we’re sitting right now, but these are evenly matched so they could go either way.”
The Braves are solid at the top and bottom of the weight ladder with four NSWCA-rated wrestlers leading the charge. Both Ryan Stusse Jr. and Ayden Wintz are rated second at 106 and 113 pounds, respectively, while Brek Thompson is sixth at 182 and Elijah Hintz sits fourth at heavyweight.
Wintz said the team has come together well, mixing its experience with a bunch of younger talent that is doing a good job of accepting the challenge.
“Our sophomores continue to get better and our seniors have done a great job setting the tone, and the younger kids have accepted stepping into those big spots and embrace that challenge,” he said.
As the fourth seed, Battle Creek’s first-round matchup against Raymond Central will be a strong test for Wintz’s troops.
“They’ve always been pretty solid over the years, and if they have a healthy lineup, they’ll be tough to beat, especially from 145 on up,” he said. ‘I’m hoping we can get our good kids matched up and we’ll have to be ready to make things happen, because they could easily take us out of the tournament.”
A win would move them into the semifinals with a potential battle against the top-seeded Wolverines, and one of the best head-to-head battles in the state could happen if Stusse faces undefeated and top-ranked Zaiyahn Ornelas, who has handed Stusse two of his three losses.
“(Ornelas) has handled us in both matches there, so it would be exciting to get another shot and see if we’ve closed that gap there,” Wintz said. “They’re strong at the lighter weights and haven’t lost all year, so it would be a formidable challenge for us.”
Wintz said top-ranked Broken Bow is probably the team to watch on the other half, adding that he feels his team might have good matchups that would make a finals matchup interesting.
Getting there, though — that’s the top priority right now.
“I’d love to say that we can, but you have to take it one dual at a time and that’s how we’ll look at things going into Saturday,” he said.
PEAKING LATE has become standard operating procedure for the Pierce grapplers, and they are coming in with momentum after beating Battle Creek and O’Neill to punch their ticket for a second trip to the state duals tournament.
For several years, Pierce’s wrestling team has gotten a late start because of the school’s traditional success as a football powerhouse, but the Bluejays are hitting their stride at the right time and coach Tyler Legate is hoping they can keep that momentum going.
“It’s a good problem (to start late) and it’s what you want for football, but it does hinder the wrestling season, especially when 20 of your 30 kids are football players,” he said. “We’re bringing 20 kids this weekend and 14 are freshmen and sophomores, so we have some hammers and some younger kids who are getting better and getting to be more competitive.”
Rated seniors Jayden Coulter (152) and Blake Bolling (170) will lead a young and improving Bluejay lineup. Coulter is ranked first and is 33-1 on the year, while Bolling comes in ranked No. 2 with a 33-1 resume.
“They’re both great leaders in the room. They work super hard and they’ve been with me since they were in seventh grade, so we’ve grown up together and they know what they want,” Legate said. “We teach our kids to aim for the top and they’re showing our young guys what it takes to get there.”
Pierce’s 7-5 dual record may not seem daunting, but all five losses are to top-tier teams in Class B and C, and it picked up a pair of impressive wins in a triangular at O’Neill last week, beating the host Eagles and Battle Creek to earn a No. 6 seed for the state tournament.
“Those wins were huge,” Legate said. “They’re both conference teams that have had a lot of success and we’ve been able to build the program up to where we’ve been able to compete with them the last few years, so those were big wins that our heavyweight (Dawson Raabe) was able to finish for us.”
Pierce draws a tough first-round opponent in third-seeded Fillmore Central, which is ranked No. 5 by the NSWCA and has five ranked wrestlers, led by undefeated and top-ranked 138-pounder Alex Schademann.
“Looking at their records, they’re pretty good up and down the lineup so it will be exciting to go and wrestle them,” Legate said.
After that, either Logan View or top-ranked Broken Bow awaits, and whether it’s in the semifinals or the consolation, Legate said his team would have its work cut out for it.
“Broken Bow is the team to beat in Class C right now, and Logan View is always scrappy,” he said. “We’re looking forward to that, and it will be another tough dual to follow that first one.”
Legate said he enjoys the underdog role that Pierce will play on Saturday.
“I don’t care if we’re favored. I just want them to go out and fight for six, seven or eight minutes,” he said. “This is kind of a bonus weekend to get us ready for districts, so we’ll go down and battle at all 14 weight classes and see where it shakes out.”