The Cleveland Blue Raiders were singing a happy tune after the Tennessee state duals championships two weeks ago, repeated the chorus Saturday at the Region 3 traditionals tournament and are set to hit an even higher note this week at the state traditionals in Franklin.
Cleveland leads the way to the tournament with 14 wrestlers qualified out of the 30 grapplers from Bradley County including Bradley Central and Walker Valley. The Mustangs of Walker Valley are sending nine to the tournament and Bradley Central will be fielding seven entries.
The full complement of wrestlers is not that uncommon according to Blue Raiders head coach Jake Yost, although the last time anyone can remember 14 headed to the state tournament from the Cleveland facility was in 2003.
"That happens kind of often. Science Hill sends a lot and Bradley has sent 14 several times. I think Soddy-Daisy might have sent 14 last year,” said Yost.
The nine wrestlers coming from the Mustangs’ stable is the most in the history of the program. Head Coach Al Morris said it is another brick in the building of a program that has already made a name for itself in the wrestling community.
“The saying is, in wrestling you wrestle for February. Well, we've got nine guys who are continuing on because they have worked hard,” said Morris after the Mustangs wrapped up a runner-up finish in the Region 3 tournament. “My heart breaks for a couple of the guys who really worked hard this season, but came up a little short. But, that's just the way this sport is. Sometimes you get some bad breaks, sometimes you cause your own bad breaks. We had a little of both of those. I hate it for those guys, but we are going to get ready for next week and hopefully come back with some medals."
Although they are again the consensus team to beat, Yost knows it is too early to be clearing a spot in the already packed wrestling trophy case
"There is always stuff to work on. There are things we can improve on, but we feel really good about where we're at, and really good about what we need to do and how much we need to do before we can get there. We're almost there," he said.
The Bradley Central Bears are this year in the unusual spot of looking up at the Mustangs and Blue Raiders as far as numbers go. Still, the Ben Smith coached team will be a formidable force to be reckoned with if all are healthy physically and mentally.
“I would have been happier with nine or 10, but with the seven we are sending we can make quite a bit of noise at the state tournament," said the second-year head coach. “"We've got four more days to kind of build a base. Maybe I pushed them a little too hard trying to make up for lost time. But, all in all, it comes down to effort and heart and fight, when it comes to this time of the year. We had some lapses there where I didn't expect us to (in the region tournament).”
Chris DeBien (113), Austin Stevison (120), Austin Oliver (126), Haden Hamilton (132), Joel Simpkins (145), Josh Hamilton (152), Aaron Lopez (160), Ethan West (182) and Koran Kennedy (285) all received championship medals in Maryville last weekend. The group will be joined by Tristan Blansit (106), Ezra Taylor (138), Sean VonPotts, (170), Oleg Stukanov (195) and John Gaither (220).
Walker Valley's Caleb Langford (138) and Billy Raulston (195) wrestled their way to gold medals for the Mustangs. Traveling with the Herd will be Braxton Brewer (120), Tyrus Hamrick (132), Ryan Hager (152), Micah langford (160), Chase Gregory (170), Chazz Fulford (182) and Zach Miller (220).
"Overall, this has been the best year we've ever had at Walker Valley, but we’re not done. We've got another week with the state tournament and we want to come home with some state medals," said a hopeful Morris.
The seven Bears in the tournament have their work cut out for them and Smith is hoping they will be up for the challenge. Bradley Central has a long and storied wrestling history inside the circle and has no intentions of letting things change simply because of an anomaly with the unusually small number.
"We got seven through and that is probably about realistic. I was hoping for nine to 10,” Smith said as the region finals were wrapping up. “I'm not used to sending less than 12 to 14.”
Bradley Central's Toribio Navarro earned a championship for the Bears at 106 pounds and will be joined by Dyer Rose (113), Dakota Bromley (120), Dakota Ream (126), Taylor Kazy (132), Colter McConnel (145) and Robbie Clark (160).
It is no surprise with the red-hot Raiders are loaded not only with a full ammo box the group also is confident of success in Franklin. Barring any unforeseeable catastrophes, Cleveland stands the best chance of all teams at the tournament to bring home another wrestling championship.
"Everybody is feeling good going into the final tournament of the year which is a good thing. Of course it's a good thing to win the region and that's a goal, but our end goal right now is to win the state tournament and have as many state champions as we can. I think we set ourselves up to have the most people on the podium we can have,” said Yost.