This year, Chappel is aiming for the Lions to finish at least in the top three. With nearly the same team coming back from last year, defending Bay Valley Athletic League champ Liberty looks ready to make a run at an NCS title.
Chappel is excited to see how a new group of seniors can build off last year’s run. He noted that Nico Serrano, in the 140-pound class, and Cody Krimm, in the 135-pound class, will be major contributors. Senior Jesse Baldazo, in the 145-pound class, will be one of the team’s top wrestlers. Baldazo finished eighth at the state meet last year as a junior.
“He’ll have a target on his back, but I think he’s going to be able to do some really good things,” Chappel said of Baldazo.
The coach is also looking for a bounce-back year from senior Shawn Whalen, who competes in the 171-pound class. Chappel said Whalen showed great potential in his sophomore year, but a shoulder injury bothered him last season.
The Lions will be without the services of senior Anthony Boler, however, who injured his shoulder during football season and underwent surgery.
Antioch, which finished eighth overall at NCS, will also return a strong core of athletes. Head coach Brett McNamar feels confident in his team’s talent this year. Among the 10 returning athletes, the Panthers feature two key seniors – Lucas Hudson in the 171-pound class, and Joe Baynes in the 140-pound class – who were medalists at NCS last season. Junior Kyle Clark (215-pound class) will also return after a strong season that ended in an injury. McNamar believes that senior heavyweight Aaron Spivey could also be a factor.
While Liberty won the league title last year, Antioch placed first in the league tournament and hopes to challenge the Lions for outright supremacy.
“It’ll be a battle, but I think we’re definitely in the top five (in NCS),” McNamar said.
Fresh off a win in its home Falcon Shootout, Freedom hopes to realize its potential. The Falcons have only five seniors on the team, but many of its athletes are battle-tested. State qualifiers Roman Garcia, a junior in the 125-pound class, and Zack Wiley, a senior in the 132-pound class, will be important members of this year’s squad. Head coach John Parsons said 171-pound junior Gabe Pulchinsky could be a medalist at the state level this year.
Parsons is also looking for big things from a freshman, 114-pound Ricky Coster, who performed well at the junior level. “We’ve got kids with a lot of experience,” Parsons said. “We’ll be right in the hunt.”
Experience is something Heritage will need to become a contender this year. First-year head coach Mark Barnes is in charge of a team of 30 wrestlers, 15 of whom are new to the sport. The newcomers will have some senior leadership to look up to, though, as team leaders Clayton Hambrick (160-pound) and Reggie Smith (171) take the reins for the Patriots.
Barnes feels that juniors Kevin Puppo (152) and Dalton Barnes (189) could also make a serious impact on this year’s squad.
Some of the younger Heritage wrestlers have been gaining mat time through novice tournaments, and in time, could become major players for the varsity team. “We’re just really young,” Barnes said. “I don’t want to throw them to the lions right away.”
Heritage isn’t the only team with plenty of youth. Deer Valley saw many key seniors graduate and will count on some sophomores this season. Elijah Davis, who will compete in the 125-pound class, is a transfer from the Patriots who could be a difference maker. Elijah Iakopo, another second-year player, has potential in the 215-pound class, Wolverines third-year head coach Rich Madrigal said. Sophomore Austin Morales is another athlete to watch. Xavier Gomez (160) and James Javier (112) will provide Deer Valley’s senior leadership.
“I’m shooting for middle of the pack,” Madrigal said. “If I can hold my own there, I’d feel pretty good.”
First-year Pittsburg head coach Tony Darone is hoping to bring more excitement to the Pirate wrestling program. Darone, a Liberty alumnus who played for Chappel, likes how things are going so far. More mat experience could make 215-pound junior Dhari Webster a factor, said Darone, who added that returning seniors such as Sergio Cruz (145), Caesar Garcia (heavyweight), Naemon Taylor (150), Victor Tiscareno (135) and Sadig Mir (215) could help the team move up in the BVAL standings.
“All five of these guys are early to practice and last to leave – that’s five hardworking kids right there,” Darone said. “If they continue with their work habits, I expect great things.”