The West Holmes Knights battled back and forth all weekend with the Norton Panthers to see who would reign supreme at the Wayne Invitational Tournament wrestling meet at Smithville High School on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9.
A talented and experienced group of Panthers would overtake the young and upcoming Knights with a series of victories in the semifinals, but West Holmes’ runner-up performance proved the Knights are going to be a handful this year as they proved to be better than all but one opponent in the 21-team field.
“The finish was a little disappointing because we had bounced back and forth with them all weekend trying to get a win,” West Holmes varsity rookie head coach Scott Vaughn said. “We were right there all weekend until they got some key wins in the semifinals, where we fell off, but it was a really nice effort from our guys from top to bottom. We looked at the brackets coming in, and we felt Norton was going to be the team to beat.”
West Holmes had a great deal of success in the lower weight classes, earning plenty of points from the lightest six weight classes.
Capturing championships for West Holmes were a pair of 2017 state qualifiers. Sophomore Cael Woods wrestled his way to the top at 113 pounds while senior Thane Kaufman pounded his way to victory at 120 pounds. Overall, the Knights placed 10 wrestlers in the tournament’s top six in their respective weight classes.
“Cael and Thane just went out and wrestled hard and do what they do best,” Vaughn said of his two champions. “Those two and Tyler Masters go at it every day, and they make each other better. Having this kind of talent wrestling each other every day in practice is great because there isn’t any quit in any of those kids.”
The champions were not alone in providing plenty of great weekend performances.
Junior Josh Baldridge battled his way to a runner-up finish, falling just shy of a title despite wrestling a number of opponents who outweighed him. While they lost their semifinal match and didn’t reach the finals, Jack Welsh (106 pounds), Masters (126), Walker Uhl (132) and Cruz Alexander (160) all fought back to claim third-place finishes in the consys.
Placing fourth was Hunter Bowling (138) while freshman Stephen Baldridge (195) placed sixth, despite also facing a number of heavier wrestlers.
Vaughn said several of the Knights are currently wrestlers under weight, meaning they are giving up some pounds to opponents. He said Welsh, wrestling at 106 pounds, only weighs in at 95 pounds, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a factor.
“Jack is giving up a lot of weight, but seeing him finish that high is no surprise,” Vaughn said. “He has a load of talent.”
He also said Masters is coming into his own after he finally has found a more comfortable home at 126 pounds after wrestling on the small side all of last year because he was behind both Kaufman and Woods.
“Our smaller guys have been beating each other up for a long time now, so it is nice to see them starting to find their place,” Vaughn said.
What was just as exciting as the big finish for the Knights was seeing his seven wrestlers who weren’t varsity wrestlers being able to get their chance to shine by assuming B-team roles and filling in as extras in weight classes where there wasn’t a full slate.
That was where Kendel Weber found himself, and he made the most of his chance, placing sixth at 120 pounds, although his points didn’t go toward the Knights final total.
“He was outstanding,” Vaughn said of Weber. “Out of the seven kids we took who went as extras, every single one of them won at least one match, and two of them came within one match of earning a spot in the final bracket.”
Seeing that kind of depth is exciting for Vaughn, and he said that while there is an idea that taking extras and having them wrestle and lose only gives the opposing teams they are facing more points, the knowledge that he is helping his young wrestlers earn valuable experience at a higher level is only going to help them in the long run.
“What we have been preaching is that everything is practice for sectionals, districts and state, so if I can get them some good experience wrestling at the varsity level, I’m going to do it,” Vaughn said. “That way if something happens to someone, they are ready to step in.”
Vaughn, who took over for Jeff Woods this year after Woods guided the Knights for 26 seasons, said the former head coach did not leave the cupboards bare, noting that along with the talent comes a desire to work extremely hard.
That drive has paid off, even from the short span of one week from the Cambridge Invitational, where the Knights placed fourth, to this weekend.
“We’ve seen some big improvements already,” Vaughn said of his team. “We are all working hard to prepare for when it matters the most at the end of the year, and these kids have shown that they aren’t going to quit.”