Coming off its first conference championship since winning back-to-back conference titles in 1999 and 2000, the Smith-Cotton wrestling team has a little extra boost in confidence.
“When you know you’re good, you perform a lot better because you’re not scared or worried,” said senior Wade Hagebusch.
The Tigers carry the banner of a West Central Conference title forward, looking ahead to a scheduled Wednesday match against Hickman before the Belton Hall of Fame Invitational. Since clinching the WCC crown, Hagebusch has seen
harder work in the practice room.
“That’s a huge boost in confidence right there,” said Tanner Proctor. “After winning over Warrensburg and going to Clinton, I think everybody’s effort boosted, and everybody worked 10 times harder than they did.”
Four Tigers — Luke Archibeque, Noah Aziere, Proctor and Jacob Weeks — have already reached the 20-win mark this season with two others, Logan Parham and Hagebusch, closing in fast.
“I think this has been the best team of the four years I’ve been here,” Hagebusch said.
On the other side of the Belton tournament is the district tournament, and the chance to send a Tiger wrestler to state.
“Several of our guys are right there; they’re knocking on the door,” said coach Joel Sherman. “You’ve got to have a good tournament. It’s not just a dual where you have one match, you’ve got to put three matches together in a two-day span.”
One wrestler looking to move on to state is Parham, currently 19-9 and building on a freshman year, which saw him win a district match before being eliminated in the 113-pound weight class.
“He’s one of the best technically on the team, by far,” Hagebusch said. “The stuff he knows, I wish I did.”
Parham is currently riding an eight-match winning streak since falling to Lee’s Summit’s Trey Broker at the Branson Invitational on Jan. 18. Of those eight wins, four have come on first-period pinfalls and two others were pins in the second period. The other two wins were via tech-fall.
“He’s hungry,” Sherman said. “It’s fun when kids get hungry and they come into practice and they want to work because they know they have an opportunity to make it to state. That’s what we’re working for.”
Proctor is currently riding a three-match winning streak, but earlier in the year had streaks of five and six matches. He said he’s been keeping it simple this year in compiling a 25-7 record.
“This year, it’s usually been shots between the legs, just coming up from behind them,” he said.
His toughest tests often come in practice against Archibeque.
“It’s about 50/50,” Proctor said. “He beats me, I beat him. It’s on and off.”
The district tournament will be Feb. 14-15 at Staley High School in North Kansas City. The tournament will include teams like defending state champion Kearney as well as Staley, Warrensburg and Platte County, who all finished in the top five at the 2013 state meet. In the practice room, the Tigers are preparing.
“We’re working more with the individuals but still drilling our basics, still drilling on our feet, working on takedowns,” Sherman said. “We’re just giving them more situational-type stuff. We’re going 30 second goes and one guy is offensive, one guy is defensive, and the offensive guy has to score. So when they get in those close matches, they’re prepared if they have to score to win. They’ve already been there 100 times in practice. Hopefully, it will just come naturally.”
Entering this season, the Tigers had not won a conference title in 14 years, but felt they were close.
“We broke it down into three steps,” Sherman said. “We knew there were four teams in the conference that had a shot at winning it and three teams beat us last year. The fourth team was us.”
Step one was beating O’Hara, which they did 49-29. Up next was Warrensburg and another home win. That gave the Tigers a chance to clinch the West Central Conference crown at Clinton.
“We got the ball rolling and got some big wins,” Sherman said. “Michael Laster, our freshman heavyweight, got a big pin for us. Kyle Perez got a big pin, was losing the match and reversed the guy, put him on his back, and those were big wins for us.”
Perez, the 113-pound sophomore lost three matches by pinfall early in the season but has rallied to an 11-14 record, including a pinfall victory in the dual with Warrensburg and a third-period pinfall win at Clinton.
“The next time he goes out there, he knows anything can happen here,” Sherman said. “At the beginning of the year, he was wrestling good and having close matches with tough kids, but just was on the losing end of a lot of those. Now he’s on the winning side of a lot of those.”
That momentum is not only giving Perez extra confidence, it’s carrying over to his teammates as well.
“When one kid starts winning, the next guy realizes he can win, too,” Sherman said. “It snowballs a little bit. We’re trying to keep that going as much as we can.”
“Honestly, I see this team doing pretty well at districts, quite a few state qualifiers hopefully,” Proctor said. “We have a lot of them set up for it. Quite a few of us won the conference title individually. Overall, I think we did a lot better than last year.”