While Northland Prep wrestling already pinned down some early-season matches, Coconino, Flagstaff and Page get their 2019-20 seasons underway today.
Flagstaff and Page are looking to build, with each program bringing a young and largely inexperienced squad to the mats this season. Coconino, on the other hand, has a balanced mix of talented youth and seasoned veterans hungry to pile up wins and make noise at the sectional and state tournaments.
Here's a look at the teams as they prepare to grapple the new season:
Panthers head coach Mike Schmieder might need to pinch himself to make sure he's really awake before his team hosts a multi-meet today.
The longtime coach has a wrestling room full of proven seniors who are ready to lead combined with promising young talents that have been busy in the offseason.
"That’s a coach’s dream, right, to have the mix of new kids with veterans?” Schmieder said Tuesday.
One of the key returners coming back for a senior year is Pedro Billups, who won a state title at 106 pounds last season. Schmieder also likes that his team is balanced when it comes to kids in different grades.
But Schmieder is tasked with spreading out the talent as the season unfolds in order to best fill out a weight class sheet.
“We got to make sure we are getting kids into the right weights, and right now we have a lot of kids bunched up in certain areas," he said.
Some key wrestlers, such as seniors Mark Aruguete and heavyweight Ulises Gutierrez, for instance, are still recovering from the football season. Once healthy, they'll bring state tourney experience to the Division III team.
While some are a bit behind heading into the season, others are in great shape for the start after accumulating a lot of offseason match time. Billups and a handful of others, including freshman Cooper French, saw their share of wrestling during the in-state season. In fact, French became a state triple crown winner at the 16U level while competing at 120 pounds, winning titles in folkstyle, Greco-Roman and freestyle in a single year before his varsity career even started.
“Our mat time is up there," Schmieder said. "We have kids who logged 70 to 80, 100 matches in the offseason. That’s a coach’s dream. That level of commitment is awesome, and then when they come into the room, the other kids who are just season wrestlers and have to be around that, they have to up their game. It just brings the whole level of the room up.”
Coconino hosts a multi-meet that includes Flagstaff today.
Head coach Kyran Keisling said the D-IV Sand Devils can't help but look ahead to the end of the season.
“The improvement level is really going to be the most fun part," he said Tuesday of his young team. "The team scores might not be too fun. Watching them improve from here until the end is going to be where it’s all at.”
Last season, Page produced three champs at 113, 195 and 285 pounds, and sent nine total to the state tourney. Three from that group returned for 2019-20.
Part of the development process for the new faces will fall on the experienced wrestlers. A defending champ at 113 pounds for Page, Zachery Ruiz returns for his junior year and will be joined by fellow junior Micah Salazar, a transfer that Keisling said could make a quick impact. And although injury derailed his season a year ago, Kaleb June returns as one of the crew's few seniors.
“We are looking for those guys to step up their leadership, really show the other guys how we do it, and how we do it correctly," Keisling said Tuesday.
For Keisling, when it comes to building up the young guys, it's quality over quantity.
“Getting the kids matches is not always the most productive thing. I think it’s about getting them quality matches and coaching them up in-between,” he said.
In fact, the focus will be on individuals first, with the idea that team progression will begin to pick up pace once the new guys start improving. Keisling wants to make sure he can get the most out of each wrestler.
“We won’t be strong as a team, but we will be respectable. I just don’t see us being really strong as a team, but we have strong individuals and kids that are going to be very strong,” he added.
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By the time sectionals come around, however, "It's win, baby," Keisling said. “We’ll have high goals for each kid. Each kid is going to be expected to perform and compete at a high level.”
Page gets its season started today at home when it hosts a multi-meet.
Eagles head coach Scott Neuburger has what he thinks is the right group of wrestlers to start building back up the program.
“We have a lot of talented wrestlers right there to help us build,” he said Tuesday outside of the Eagles wrestling room.
Neuburger said assistant coach Marshall Meier will also be a big part of getting the program back on its feet after it lost many of its strongest wrestlers to graduation.
Meier has been a key part of running the drills and helping refine technique.
“We got a lot of young guys and zero seniors on the team, but that actually opens the doors for us to gain that experience back that we’ve lost, and creating a brand-new team from the ground up and having them for the next four years," Neuburger said.
So the Eagles will have a busy season as the team looks to gain experience with a challenging schedule full of matches. It's the kind of schedule Neuburger thinks will fit his hungry team.
It will also give key returners such as juniors Zach Collins and Oleksiy Evtimov a chance to prepare for a try at the state tournament, to which Flagstaff sent just one wrestler, graduated senior Easten Skinner, last year.
“Their intensity is far above what we have had the previous years," Neuburger said of this year's squad. "They come out and are passionate and work hard every single day. And even with as new as they are, they are drilling and working harder than some of the teams of the past.”
Flagstaff, which has a majority of its weight classes filled for the season, gets its season started today with a multi-meet at Coconino High School.
Three Spartans have already demonstrated they are ready to try to help D-IV Northland Prep send a record amount of wrestlers to the state tournament this season.
Avery Yazzie, Kobe Yazzie and Liam Cashmore last week opened their seasons for the Spartans with 4-0 records at their respective weight classes in Window Rock.
“I thought they would be my three best wrestlers from the start of the season,” Spartans head coach Ben Stanton said Tuesday.
And once the team gets to full strength, the Spartans will have possibly one of their most competitive wrestling rooms in program history.
Kobe is in his second year with the team, with his freshman brother Avery joining this season. Both bring a good amount of knowledge to the team.
“Kobe had a great freshman year and I believe he has the most wins we’ve ever had by any wrestler -- let alone a freshman," Stanton said.
Stanton said he also has high hopes for Lucas Benton to become a force as the season continues. He added that he's excited for lighter weights Armando Garcia and Anthony Robino to develop.
Staton also is looking forward to taking nearly a full list to meets, as the team should be able to cover nine to 10 of the 14 total weight classes. That's the most the program's ever been able to fill consistently.
The season will be even more of a grind for the Spartans, who will participate in multi-meets that feature up to 10 teams. The D-IV schedule is a bit different than the others, as it is constructed to try to make sure wrestlers get as many matches as possible in a division full of smaller schools that cannot always bring a full team to the mats.
The Spartans continue their season today with a large multi-meet at Winslow High School.