MURRAY — Last year’s Calloway County wrestling team had an abundance of seniors seasoned with experience. Out of the five 2019 graduates, three qualified to travel to the state tournament, two placed in the top-four, three received scholarship offers, and two are currently wrestling at the college level.
“With Dylan Bell, Tristan Ives, Hailey Watson, and Jenny and Tori Doughty, we had a lot of leadership and experience coming up through the program that we lost,” Head Coach Chris McWherter said.
This year, the program has zero seniors.
“There’s a definite void of leadership at the top of the team right now,” McWherter said. “Nobody has risen up yet to be the leader. We still get everything done that we need to get done, but nobody has taken it upon themself to put the team on their back and say, ‘I’m going to lead this team,’ like we had last year. It’s a little different vibe-wise.”
Despite the lack of leadership, there is no lack of talent in the Laker wrestling program. There are still several athletes returning that McWherter is excited to watch throughout the season.
Juniors Keaton Elliot and Nick Watters are both returning state qualifiers that are expected to make big performances this season. Sophomore Luke Cullop is also a returning athlete. He did not make the state tournament as a first-year wrestler last season, but McWherter suggested that a state-run is in reach for Cullop this season.
Another addition was unexpected but delightfully welcomed in junior Ethan Futrell. Futrell transferred to Calloway from Trigg County in August. Before this season, Futrell was an opponent that was high up on the Lakers’ radar.
“He’s a two-time state qualifier at the high school level, and he’s now wrestling for us, so that’s an immediate impact for us as he looks to podium,” McWherter said.
Additional newcomers were welcomed from the Laker football team. Since Chris Champion become the head coach for the Laker football program, he has encouraged his players to join the wrestling team as a way to better their performance in football. This tactic was proven successful last season through athletes like Watters and Cullop.
“With the partnership that we’ve kind of struck with the football team, we’re pushing more of our athletes to play more sports than just wresting, and they’re pushing more of their athletes to come out,” McWherter said.
Instead of a group of seniors that are knowledgable about moves and techniques, McWherter’s 2019-2020 team consists of younger athletes that may not know that much about technique, but they are willing to work hard. Therefore, McWherter has had to switch up his coaching methods.
“I’ve actually changed practice a little bit this year,” McWherter said. “I’ve focused a lot more on natural instincts instead of breaking down volumes and encyclopedias worth of technique. We’re gravitating more towards the natural athlete, the natural athleticism that most of these kids have, but we’re going to continue to come in every day with a workmanship attitude and put in an honest effort and get better as we go.”
Something that won’t change is the Lakers’ tough schedule from last year.
“With our schedule, we get 40-50 matches a year, which is plenty enough for us to get to where we need to go,” McWherter said. “Competition-wise, we see the best teams in Kentucky. We see top teams in Illinois. We see top teams in Tennessee. I like our schedule, and I’ve kept it the same for the past four years because it does work for us. It seems like we always peak at the right time: at the end of the season. We always overachieve at the end of the season, which is a good thing to have.”
Peaking at the end of the season during preparation for the regional tournament is essential for any wrestler in this region.
“Our region is phenomenally tough,” McWherter said. “If you put stock in state rankings, we’ve got three of the top teams in the state in our region, and you have to place top-four to go to the state tournament.”
As the returning state champs, Union County is ranked number one in Kentucky and will likely be battling for another state title this season. Then with Christian County ranked second and Paducah on track to place top-five at the state level, that leaves little room for other teams in the region to move up.
That is especially true for a team like Calloway that is struggling with depth in the lower weight classes. Watson wrestled varsity 113 and 120 for three straight years, but since she graduated, the team has yet to find a replacement. The team also is lacking a 106 and 126, meaning they will have to forfeit four matches during team competitions.
“We are still looking to fill the lower weight-classes, but once we get up to 132, we’re at least one deep in all of those weight classes. Several of them are two deep,” McWherter said. “We’re still looking to pick up some of the smaller kids walking the halls of the school that have yet to find a sport. Those are obviously glaring holes for us, but we’re going to try to fill them.”
McWherter still expects his athletes to perform well individually and predicts that as many as five Laker athletes could be competing for a regional title, but as a team, Calloway just does not have the numbers.
“We look to compete as strongly and fiercely as possible with those teams, but right now our current state is that we don’t have the bodies,” McWherter said. “It’s not that we don’t have the talent, it’s just that we don’t have enough bodies. We look to fill the holes and by the end of the year get our guys to where they need to be. As long as we get better every day, by the end of the season we’ll be right where we need to be.”