No. 5 Hornets plan to be part of race for Class 2 title

Ryan Boland/FULTON SUN photo: The Fulton Hornets have qualified nine wrestlers for the Class 2 state championships, starting at 10 this morning at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Fulton’s qualifiers are (left to right): front row — sophomore Cody Pae at 125 pounds, sophomore Kelcey Nunley at 135, freshman John Kingsley at 152 and freshman Jarred Keiser at 103, and back row — Drew Benner at 145, senior Josh Curtis at 140, senior Ryan Fritz at 171, senior Sean Luetkemeyer at 189 and junior Zack McClure at 130.

Ryan Boland/FULTON SUN photo: The Fulton Hornets have qualified nine wrestlers for the Class 2 state championships, starting at 10 this morning at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Fulton’s qualifiers are (left to right): front row — sophomore Cody Pae at 125 pounds, sophomore Kelcey Nunley at 135, freshman John Kingsley at 152 and freshman Jarred Keiser at 103, and back row — Drew Benner at 145, senior Josh Curtis at 140, senior Ryan Fritz at 171, senior Sean Luetkemeyer at 189 and junior Zack McClure at 130.

Jim Wallace should know, and now Eric Hudson has possession of that wisdom.

Wallace — the longtime Fulton coach — steered the Hornets to a Class 1A-3A state wrestling championship in 1981. Marking the 30th anniversary of the feat, Wallace and the team were inducted into the Fulton High School athletic Wall of Fame in January.

Hudson eventually wrestled for Wallace and was a member of his last Fulton squad, as a sophomore in 1993, that finished third in 1A-2A.

This morning, Hudson will take nine wrestlers — the most in his five years as head coach of the Hornets — to the 81st MSHSAA state championships at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. First-round matches and first-round wrestlebacks in Class 2 start at 10.

The past and present Fulton coaches shared a conversation in which Wallace detailed the necessary formula to procure a state championship.

“Coach Wallace told me — I think it was last year — that in order to win a state title, you’ve basically got to have three things,” Hudson said during Tuesday afternoon’s practice in the wrestling room that overlooks Roger D. Davis Gymnasium. “You’ve got to be pretty good, you’ve got to stay healthy and you’ve got to get a little lucky.”

The Hornets, ranked fifth in Class 2 by MissouriWrestling.com, certainly have the numbers — and talent — to be considered among the group of viable contenders for top team honors in the state.

Top-ranked Oak Grove qualified eight wrestlers for the state championships, while No. 2 Kirksville — which fended off Fulton for the District 2 title last weekend — will bring 12. No. 3 Reeds Spring and No. 4 Mexico both qualified six wrestlers.

“If we can get those things (that Wallace mentioned) to come together, we’re going to do pretty well,” said Hudson, who directed the Hornets to a sixth-place finish in Class 2 last year. “As much as you hate to say it, luck’s a little bit involved in this thing.

“A wrong draw or a wrong injury can derail the whole thing.”

Fulton’s contingent of qualifiers is led by sophomore Drew Benner at 145 pounds and senior Ryan Fritz at 171. Benner is a returning state champion at 135 pounds from 2010, while Fritz finished third at 160.

However, recent injuries to both Benner and Fritz — a three-time qualifier — have cast a pall over their respective chases for state titles.

Fulton’s remaining qualifiers include junior Zack McClure at 130 pounds, sophomore Cody Pae at 125, senior Josh Curtis at 140, sophomore Kelcey Nunley at 135, senior Sean Luetkemeyer at 189, freshman Jarred Keiser at 103 and freshman John Kingsley at 152.

McClure and Curtis are also three-time qualifiers, while Pae and Nunley — like Benner — are back at the state championships for a second straight year. Luetkemeyer, Keiser and Kingsley will be making their first appearances.

McClure and Pae turned in sixth-place finishes — at 112 and 119 pounds, respectively — at the 2010 state championships.

The Hornets, while coveting a team title, will also be looking to extend a streak in which they have featured at least one state medalist for six straight years.

“Every year we talk about going over there and how it’s a wrestling tournament and, yes, it’s in a big venue, and — yes — you can become a state placer and be an all-state wrestler,” Hudson said. “My challenge to them is to treat it like we have every other tournament that we’ve gone to.

“We’ve gone with the intention of bringing home a trophy, whether it was first place. Usually that’s the goal, first place. … I think our goal as a team is to go over and score points, treat each match as an opportunity for not only themselves but for the team.”

• • • • •

Benner and Fritz have suddenly found their strong seasons ambushed by ailments.

At Fulton’s own Jim Wallace Classic on Jan. 22, Benner hurt his lower back while turning Winfield’s Tyler Sorter into a cradle position during his title win at 145 pounds.

Benner remained sidelined before returning for last weekend’s District 2 championships at John Burroughs High School in St. Louis. However, he tweaked the injury and then suffered his first loss of the season in the semifinals, a 6-2 decision to Kirksville junior Chris Hooper.

Benner was able to bounce back, stopping Sorter again with a 9-2 decision in the third-place match.

Fritz injured the lateral collateral ligament in his left knee during warmups last Saturday morning. He eventually reached the district finals at 171 pounds, but was forced to injury default against Moberly senior Davis Keleher.

Fritz underwent an MRI exam on his knee Tuesday, but wasn’t going to learn the results until late Wednesday afternoon. He did say that doctors told him there was a slight tear in the ligament.

“It’s pretty sore,” Fritz said. “… I definitely have a tougher draw now, but I think that if it’s not bothering me too bad, I still feel like I can do well.”

Meanwhile, Benner has been taking treatment on his back.

“It’s feeling better,” Benner said. “… I knew that I would be able to come back from (the injury), but it was going to take a little bit. It was kind of discouraging to have that happen because you’re getting towards the end of the season, but I’m feeling better now, so it’s all good.”

Hudson pointed out that both Benner and Fritz can’t allow the injuries to distract them from their mission on the mat.

“That’s really difficult because instead of thinking about who your opponent is and what you want to do, you’re thinking more about, ‘Well, how can I avoid getting injured again? How can I avoid him attacking that side or putting me in a position where I have to get injured again?” Hudson said.

“You just have to focus on what’s in front of you. We can’t change what happened, all we can do is go out and compete, and do the best we can with what we’ve got. You just try to put that injury out of your head and get to work.”

Benner (33-1) will meet Miller Career Academy junior Deshaun Isaiah (16-9) in the first round this morning. Benner dropped down a weight class after being ranked No. 1 at 152 pounds for the better part of the season.

“I felt 145 was probably a better fit for me, because at 152 I felt I would have been undersized,” Benner said. “… I have to still wrestle the way I think I need to, but still be cautious of my back and not push it too hard.”

Fritz (29-1) — the top-ranked wrestler at 171 pounds — faces Chillicothe senior Claude Matthews (28-15) in their first-round match.

“I’m going to try to pretend (the injury) is not even there and do my best with what I can do,” Fritz said. “… You have to be tough and aggressive. You can’t hold anything back.”

• • • • •

Ranked No. 5 at 130 pounds, McClure (32-5) will clash with Bolivar junior Jesse Sherman (34-8) in this morning’s first round. McClure logged a second-place finish at the district championships.

“Zack’s wrestling style changed a lot over the summer,” Hudson said. “He’s been much more in the attack mode. … He’s really made quite an improvement. He’s gone from kind of waiting for his opponent to get himself out of position, into the mode of creating his own position, his own takedown, his own offense.”

Pae (35-5), ranked No. 5 at 125 pounds, goes up against Marshall junior Brandon Standley (20-9) in the first round. Pae — who also took second at district — already owns a pair of victories over Standley this season.

“Cody has been a lot more aggressive this year and really trying to take the match to people,” Hudson said. “I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Cody this year. When he’s aggressive and goes after people and starts getting takedowns, he’s tremendously difficult to beat.”

Curtis (22-2) — who comes in at No. 4 in the state at 140 pounds — meets Cape Girardeau Notre Dame senior Jacob Murphy (24-9) in their first-round match. Curtis claimed a second-place district finish.

“This year, Josh has really competed well,” Hudson said. “He’s kept kind of a flat affect about it — he hasn’t gotten too high or too low. He’s also kind of transformed what he does; he looks to be a little more aggressive now and he looks for his offense and his own takedowns, rather than trying to generate it off of his opponents.”

Meanwhile, Nunley (18-6) faces Savannah senior Skylar Moran (41-11) at 135 pounds in the first round. Nunley took second at the district championships.

“Kelcey’s been more competitive this year,” Hudson said. “… I hope that Kelcey goes in this year with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to go and I’m going to place, I’m going to score points for my team and I’m going to show that I’m one of the best wrestlers in the state.

“When he sets his mind and gets to moving like we ask him to move and he’s aggressive, he’s very difficult to stop. The kid is incredibly fast when he makes up his mind that’s what he’s going to do. But he’s got to make up his mind to do that.”

• • • • •

Luetkemeyer heads up the Hornets’ threesome — including Keiser and Kingsley — that will get their first taste this morning of wrestling at the state championships.

Ranked No. 4 in the state at 189 pounds, Luetkemeyer (21-6) will square off against Smithville senior Shane Cullen (35-12) in the first round. Luetkemeyer is coming off a second-place showing at the district championships.

“I think if Sean goes in with that same kind of conviction that he’s had, where he really wants to win and he really feels like he can compete and do great things, I think he’s going to have a very good tournament,” Hudson said.

Keiser (22-13) will meet Sullivan junior Andrew Wyatt (27-5) at 103 pounds in the first round. Keiser also posted a second-place district finish.

Hudson explained that Keiser has found his comfort level at 103 pounds after competing at 112 earlier in the season.

“I think that through discussions, Jarred finally figured out that he could compete best — and had the best chance of really helping the team late in the year — at 103,” Hudson said. “We’re happy with what Jarred’s been able to accomplish this year.”

Kingsley (25-11) will tangle with Seneca sophomore Jalen Skaggs (34-11), ranked No. 7, in their first-round match at 152 pounds. Kingsley — who took third place at the district championionships — moved down from 160 pounds, where he was ranked 10th in the state.

“For a freshman to go and compete, like he has, at 160 and then 152 pounds, that’s tough,” Hudson said. “That’s not little-guy weight. Generally, you meet kids that have grown into those weight classes, have had a couple extra years of weight training and all that experience.

“John has really competed pretty well. He makes freshman mistakes every now and then, and we do our best to try to get him to understand that and correct that.”

As newcomers to the state championships, Hudson stressed that both Keiser and Kingsley can’t simply be satisfied with the status of just being qualifiers.

“There’s a lot of freshmen that do that,” Hudson said. “We’ve got to get our guys to understand that’s really not what we’re trying to do here. We’re glad you made it, but let’s continue the success.”

• • • • •

Playing the percentages, Hudson has to like the cumulative prospects for the Hornets’ collection of nine qualifiers and their pursuit of a Class 2 state title.

“In some cases our draws are pretty good, and in other cases they’re not as good as I would like,” Hudson said. “I’m pretty happy where we are with our training, for the most part. … Other than the injuries, I like where we are with our conditioning and our training.

“… I think we’re as ready as we can be to go and compete. At this point, I think it’s just going to be kind of a mindset for our kids to understand what they have a chance to do — and that’s a chance to bring home a state trophy to this school, if they’ll go and compete well.”

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