Lawrence High’s wrestling program certainly has earned the respect of its peers.
A quick perusal of the Class 6A state wrestling rankings paints a clear picture of just how highly regarded the Lions are. For starters, LHS is the No. 1 team in the state, according to the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association.
Then there are the individual rankings. Impressively, LHS has top-five grapplers in seven of the 14 weight classes — senior Reece Wright-Conklin (182 pounds) is No. 1, junior Hunter Haralson (126) and freshman Tristan Star (106) are both ranked No. 2, and juniors Andrew Denning (152) and Caden Lynch (132) as well as seniors Nick Pursel (170) and Brad Wilson (220) are all ranked third.
So, what has made Lawrence so successful?
Coach Pat Naughton said a lot of the team’s accolades are the result of having six of the Lions’ ranked wrestlers come up through the local Sunflower Kids Wrestling club (Wilson took part in Lawrence Elite Wrestling).
Without a strong youth wrestling program, Naughton said, “your high school program’s gonna suffer.” The Lawrence head coach said the Sunflower club, headed by LHS assistant coach Randy Streeter, not only served as a great introduction to wrestling for the future Lions, but also kept them interested while nurturing their development as grapplers.
Streeter, who also serves as head coach at South Middle School, still has old photos from when Haralson, Lynch, Wright-Conklin and Pursel were barely big enough to fill out their singlets. The guys who are now considered among the best in the state got started with Sunflower when they were 5 or 6 years old — or younger.
The club brought the wrestlers along, Streeter said, with aspirations they would some day comprise a state championship high school team.
“When you look at state-ranked teams, and you look at the upper echelon teams, they all have feeder kids programs,” the Lions assistant said. “You can’t survive without them.”
By the time the wrestlers arrive at LHS, Naughton said, they have all the fundamentals and experience they need.
As he put it: “It’s go time now.”
Between Lawrence’s seven ranked wrestlers and teammates Ryan Bellinger, Macon Ezell, Garrett Girard, Alex Jones, Austin Magdaleno, Ryan Schulteis, Tim Thongone, Jacob Von Feldt and Ryan Walter, the Lions have combined to win 103 matches so far this season, with 60 losses.
Even though years of preparation got them to this point, Naughton said being the top-rated team in the state with seven top-five wrestlers isn’t something he or the Lions talk about that often.
“We try not to focus on them (rankings). It’s so subjective,” Naughton said. “It’s just like any other statistic — you can break everything down and make it say whatever you want to.”
Denning, who holds an 11-2 record at the winter break, said if the rankings hold any importance for the wrestlers, it is in the numbers’ ability to motivate.
“If we’re up there, we’re up there,” Denning said. “If not, that’s gonna make us work harder to get up there.”
Wilson (11-2) agreed the rankings can be motivating, but said “it really doesn’t matter until February rolls around,” referring to the state tournament, where matches and state medals determine the top wrestlers.
Besides, rankings can be fleeting.
“One day you could be ranked third, and one day you could not be ranked,” Wilson said.
It doesn’t do wrestlers much good, he added, to get wrapped up in the top five when there are matches to worry about.
“Anybody can beat you. Unless you’re Reece or something,” Wilson said, sporting a huge grin.
Wright-Conklin, a two-time state champion, hasn’t lost a match since his sophomore year. He’s plenty familiar with rankings and how they can impact a wrestler’s approach.
The Lions had great success in their season debut at Leavenworth, dominated Olathe South in a dual and won the Eudora Tournament of Champions before losing a dual at Gardner-Edgerton, 39-27, to close out the December schedule.
As far as Wright-Conklin is concerned, LHS lost to the Trailblazers (ranked No. 5) because of the negative side effects that come with being ranked at the top.
“Number one, I feel like some of the guys had a little cockiness with it,” the 11-0 senior captain said. “I think that’s what happened at Gardner-Edgerton. We came in with a big head, thinking we’re number one, and some guys didn’t come to wrestle.”
Lynch was out for the dual loss, but Wright-Conklin said that was no excuse and the Lions should learn a lesson from the setback and be better prepared because of it.
Following the setback, Denning said, the Lions responded by working harder at practice. He said they will further “kick it up a notch” once practice resumes after the holiday break.
From there, Naughton said, Lawrence needs to get back to its schedule with renewed focus — “Our expectations are we want to win everything that we’re entered in,” he said.
With so many highly regarded wrestlers, LHS might have the pieces to eventually contend for a state title.
Said Wilson: “We got the lineup that coaches would die for.”