The St. James wrestling program is in an interesting spot.
Last year's senior class had been the heart of the program for the last four seasons and now they have to find a way to move on without any of last season's State Qualifiers.
"It's really back to the basics and focusing on what got that group to where they were at," said head coach Beau Moreland about having an offseason without last year's senior class. "Going into the end of last year, I started thinking about what it was going to be like and you picture what your room is going to look like and what it's going to feel like without those guys around, but it was still a big adjustment."
Interestingly enough, the most experienced wrestlers at St. James aren't on the boys squad, as a pair of Lady Tigers come back with a ton of mat time under their belt. This season will be the first in the history of Missouri wrestling with an official girls' season, so the Lady Tigers will wrestle on their own at times this season, while heading to their own separate District and State Tournaments. Kaylynn Crocker and Heather Pankey will be a crucial part of the overall success at St. James, whether they're on a girls team or not. Many of the teams on St. James' schedule do not have girls teams, so Crocker and Pankey will hit the mat with the boys in those matches.
"It's great. I was a little bit unsure of how the guys were going to react to it and how the girls were going to handle it and Kaylynn and Heather both have done a great job of stepping into a leadership position and being the leaders," said coach Moreland. "They've been there before, they have the experience and they're quick to jump in and help the new guys out. On the other hand, the guys are taking it very well. You might think that a male wrestler might not want to listen to a female wrestler because she wrestles girls and he wrestles boys, but it's not at all. That's what's great about St. James is that bond and that camaraderie we have down here."
Coach Moreland thinks both Crocker and Pankey will have a chance to make State runs this season as they prepare for the inaugural girls season in Missouri. They will be joined by Emily Light as the trio of female wrestlers from St. James. Moreland has seen big improvements from both Crocker and Pankey this offseason, which should translate to wins on the mat.
"I definitely think Kaylynn and Heather can both get to State and potentially place very high if not all the way at the top," said Moreland. "I think (the number one hurdle) is going to be probably the same thing that effects most wrestlers at that level and it's the pressure. The stressors of the high level matches. Where Kaylynn is different than what I've seen in the past is that she doesn't ever seem to let the situation bother her. She stays grounded, she stays centered and focused on the task at hand and I hope that continues as we actually go through this first season."
While the girls are the most experienced wrestlers on the team, St. James has some talent coming back on the boys side. Sage Gibson wrestled for the first time last season and made some great strides throughout the season. Now that he has had a season to work on the technical side of things, he's a candidate to make a big leap in his senior season.
"He's one of those guys that there's so much 'go' in his tank. There's no 'off' switch, it's 'on' and that's it," said coach Moreland on Gibson. "That's what I love about him. He gets going and just the look on his opponent's face whenever he gets into that mode and they don't even know what to do, because they're not wrestling, they're defending themselves. He came on last year and got to go with some of those guys, the Drake (Ortiz) and Cole (Petty) and Nick (Wilson) and Mikey (Crocker) and even talking with him, he never cared about the wins and losses. He cared about being there with the group. When you're there to be there for other people and to enjoy that atmosphere and the camaraderie and the team, that's when great things start to happen."
St. James will unfortunately be dealing with some injuries which leaves them with a few question marks. Logan Saxbury is one of their top returners, but he'll be missing some time with an ankle injury he suffered during football season. Just how much time he'll be forced to miss is still up in the air, but the Tigers are hoping to have him back in time to compete at Districts. Zach Woodson also got hurt this offseason and will not wrestle for the Tigers this season, which was another tough blow as he turned a lot of heads last season as a freshman. Broc Chitwood also got banged up a bit during football season and won't be wrestling this season. St. James will work to fill those holes throughout the season and hope to get Saxbury back in time for Districts.
St. James does have some other names coming back, though. Zach Achterberg returns to the lineup for the Tigers and Nick Halbrook returns to the team after taking last season off. Donnie Martinez and Donnie Grouns both spent some of the year with the team last season and will come back this year. All four will likely be key pieces for St. James this season.
On top of those returners, St. James has a number of new faces that will look to make an impact on the varsity lineup right away. Elijah Wilcox, Chandler Tinsley, Donnie Wehmeier, Thomas Corliss, Gavin Jewell, Justin Craft, Lance Ybarra, James Poelling and Dustin Davies all could have a chance to break into the varsity rotation this season.
This season is going to be a learning experience for St. James, but coach Moreland thinks that he has the right group of older wrestlers to help out this young team.
"The ones that do have the experience are very selfless and help other people learn," said coach Moreland. "It's more of a learning environment this year and that's what's nice. It's more enjoyable and less stressful."
While the expectations of this group aren't as high as the teams in the past, coach Moreland thinks he has some players that will be able to surprise some people this season and make a run at qualifying for State.
"I definitely think all three girls could be State placers, they have that potential for sure," said the St. James head coach. "With the guys, Sage Gibson definitely has a shot, Nick Halbrook definitely has a shot, Zach Achterberg definitely has a shot and then with the lighter guys, pretty much any of the guys in the lower weight classes, whoever can pick up the technique the fastest, could have shot as well. I think we could have four or five potential shots at making a State run this year. Elijah Wilcox is full of potential."
St. James opens their season on Monday with a trip to Osage.