It was a high-five kind of day for the Fulton Hornets wrestling team.
Fulton moved five of its nine qualifiers into this morning's Class 2 quarterfinals of the 81st MSHSAA Wrestling Championships at Mizzou Arena. After Thursday's first-round and first-round wrestlebacks, the Hornets were positioned in fifth place in Class 2 with 22.5 points.
Just 8.5 points separated the top five teams in the Class 2 standings. Ste. Genevieve held down first place with 31 points, while Oak Grove, Cameron and Kirksville were crowded into a second-place deadlock with 28.5 apiece.
Meanwhile, Fulton sat within striking distance of the summit.
"It's really too early to jump out to a big lead, or really say who's going to walk away with the trophy at this point," Fulton head coach Eric Hudson said.
Advancing to the quarterfinals for the Hornets were sophomore Drew Benner at 145 pounds, senior Ryan Fritz at 171, junior Zack McClure at 130, sophomore Cody Pae at 125 and senior Josh Curtis at 140.
"I think our kids understand that (this morning) is going to be tough," Hudson said. "But you come in there and you compete, and you do the best you can do. If it doesn't work out, not all is lost.
"You can battle all the way back through to third (place). I really respect that a lot about a kid who will battle back through for third after they've lost once. Hopefully, nobody loses. Hopefully we show up (this morning), things go well, we compete well and win. I feel good about our chances even if we don't."
Two of Fulton's other qualifiers - senior Sean Luetkemeyer at 189 pounds and freshman John Kingsley at 152 - made it to this morning's second-round wrestlebacks after recovering from first-round losses Thursday.
The Hornets' remaining two qualifiers, sophomore Kelcey Nunley at 135 pounds and freshman Jarred Keiser at 103, were eliminated Thursday.
Quarterfinal matches and second-round wrestlebacks in Class 2 are set for 9:30 this morning.
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Arguably the most pressing story line for Fulton entering the state championships was the health status of both Benner and Fritz.
Benner - a state champion last year at 135 pounds - suffered a lower back injury in late January and then tweaked it again at the District 2 championships, while Fritz suffered a slight tear in the lateral collateral ligament in his left knee last weekend.
Judging by their respective showings in Thursday's first round, Benner and Fritz didn't appear to be slowed by their injuries.
Benner (34-1) pinned Miller Career Academy junior Deshaun Isaiah in 4 minutes, 20 seconds. Fritz (30-1) posted a pinfall victory over Chillicothe senior Claude Matthews in 1:59.
"It (back) held up pretty good, so we're in good shape for (this morning)," said Benner, a two-time qualifier. "I feel a lot better after wrestling and not being in pain."
Fritz noted that his knee didn't give him any trouble.
"I was quick, I was light on my feet and my knee didn't bother me at all," said Fritz, a three-time qualifier who took third at 160 pounds last year. "I'm pretty excited. ... It made me feel a lot better after that match."
Benner will now lock up with unbeaten Monett senior Ethan Davis in a quarterfinal showdown. Davis (36-0) - who captured a state title at 140 pounds in 2010 - pinned Benton junior Jake Chellew in 1:11 in Thursday's first round.
Had the bracket broken differently, Benner and Davis might have ended up in a marquee duel for a state championship Saturday night.
"It could have been, maybe should have been," Hudson said. "But you have no guarantees."
Benner is eager to match strategies against Davis.
"I think have a pretty good shot at wrestling well against him," Benner said. "I'm excited to wrestle him. I need to wrestle well on my feet and protect my legs, and try to get off the bottom."
Fritz's quarterfinal opponent will be St. Clair senior Ryan Beltz (54-1). Beltz - a second-place finisher at 152 pounds last year - advanced by pinning Buffalo senior Jeffrey Fletcher in 2:24 in Thursday's first round.
"I've just got to go in there and give it everything I've got, and do the best that I can do," Fritz said. "I can't hold anything back. I need to beat him on my feet with my takedowns and my shots."
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McClure (33-5) manufactured a convincing 12-3 major decision over Bolivar junior Jesse Sherman in a first-round romp. McClure now prepares for a quarterfinal encounter against Cameron junior Adam McMain (36-2).
McMain - who took fourth place at 112 pounds in 2010 - moved on Thursday after pinning Affton freshman Jacob Lewis in 1:21 in first round.
"I have to do pretty much what I did (Thursday) - ride him out, get off the bottom, get the first takedown or don't let him get the takedown," said McClure, a three-time qualifier who placed sixth at 112 pounds last year. "I should be fine."
Pae (36-5) powered his way past Marshall junior Brandon Standley in the first round, scoring a pinfall win in 1:52. It was Pae's third victory over Standley this season.
Pae will square off against Excelsior Springs junior Cooper Gardner in the the quarterfinals. Gardner (30-12) - who came in third at 112 pounds last year - dismissed Thursday's first-round opponent, Sumner sophomore Corry Morgan, with a pinfall in just :53.
"I have to try to be dominant and not let (Gardner) get on top," said Pae, who placed sixth at 119 pounds in 2010."
Curtis (23-2) crafted a pinfall victory in the first round, needing only 1:59 to conquer Cape Girardeau Notre Dame senior Jacob Murphy. Next up for Curtis in the quarterfinals will be a matchup against Oak Grove sophomore Taylor Brinegar.
Brinegar (40-7) pinned Seneca junior Trevor Sill in 3:49 in Thursday's first round.
A three-time qualifier, Curtis was not available for comment after his first-round win.
"He had a kid (Murphy) that really wanted to compete and was tough, but Josh went out there and really looked to score," Hudson said. "Josh looked pretty good and stayed relatively flat still as far as his emotions."
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Luetkemeyer (22-7), a newcomer to the state championships, kept his high school career alive by assembling an impressive 16-0 technical fall over Cape Girardeau Notre Dame senior Ryan Harter (20-15) in first-round wrestlebacks.
In this morning's second-round wrestlebacks, Luetkemeyer faces John Burroughs senior Winston Boldt (36-10).
Luetkemeyer regrouped after falling to Smithville senior Shane Cullen (36-12) by a 5-2 decision in the first round.
"Sean didn't want to go home on the first day," Hudson said. "We're just hopeful that he'll keep his head in it, keep competing and picking up team points, and trying to get a state medal."
Kingsley - also a first-time qualifier - was able to extend his stay at the state championships by scoring a 5-2 decision over Center junior Rudy Slaughter (21-30) in first-round wrestlebacks. Kingsley (26-12) will meet Monett junior Carter Huffmaster (30-11) in second-round wrestlebacks.
Kingsley got himself back on track after being pinned by Seneca sophomore Jalen Skaggs (35-11) in 5:42 in the first round.
"We think that John is the type of kid that really can compete, likes to compete," Hudson said. "We're happy with him coming back for the second day. I'd like to go back and re-wrestle that first match, but we don't get to - maybe later, if we keep winning."
Meanwhile, Nunley's season reached a devastating conclusion when he was forced to injury default against Boonville senior Trevor Ditto (35-8) in first-round wrestlebacks. According to Hudson, Nunley suffered a high ankle sprain and most likely tore both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.
Nunley was scheduled to undergo X-rays later Thursday.
"That's a tough way to end it. ... That's not how you want to go out," Hudson said. "Now we're going to have weeks upon weeks of rehabilitation. He's upset that he lost, but he's more upset that he's not going to be around to compete.
"He's upset thinking about next year. He was already going to get started training for next year. It's tough."
Nunley was pinned by Savannah senior Skylar Moran (42-11) in 2:11 in the first round. A two-time qualifier, Nunley finished the season with an 18-8 record.
Keiser's season came to an end when he dropped an 11-5 decision to Seneca sophomore Cole Lankford (26-18) in their wrestleback match. Earlier in the first round, Keiser suffered a close 9-6 loss to Sullivan junior Andrew Witt (28-5).
Making his first trip to the state championships, Keiser finished with a 22-15 record.
"(Jarred) did compete, but I think he knows that maybe those two matches that he lost are matches that he could have won," Hudson said. "I think it was a pretty good learning experience for him.
"Hopefully over the summer he'll do some conditioning (work), do some weightlifting, do some additional wrestling, picking up some new techniques that will help him next year."
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After this morning's quarterfinals and second-round wrestlebacks, semifinal matches and third-round wrestlebacks in all classes start at 6 tonight.
Fourth-round wrestlebacks begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by third- and fifth-place matches at noon. The state championship matches then kick off at 4:30 p.m.