Wichita — After a slow start to the state tournament Friday, Lawrence High’s wrestling team knew its chances at finishing in the top three on Saturday were slim to none.
But the gritty performances that helped the team finish in a three-way tie for sixth certainly left a mark on LHS coach Pat Naughton.
Undefeated junior Reece Wright-Conklin trailed Shawnee Mission East’s Blaine Hill in the second period of the 171-pound championship. Naughton’s confidence never wavered.
“Reece had to step it up, and that’s what he did,” Naughton said. “We knew we could take him down."
Wright-Conklin, who had the team’s catchphrase “Juice It” shaved into his head, took the lead late in the second period. He didn’t give it back, earning the state championship by decision, 8-6.
Wright-Conklin finished the season 37-0.
And though sophomore Andrew Denning couldn’t pull out a state title at 145 pounds, Naughton was proud of the way Denning fought back from an early deficit.
Hutchinson senior JR Roman scored a takedown in the first 10 seconds, taking an early 2-0 lead.
But Denning didn’t quit, even managing to put Roman on his back in the final few seconds of the match before he slipped away.
If Denning could have scored a near-fall, he would’ve been state champion.
“That kid has come a long way,” Naughton said. “You can’t fault any of that. That was just great emotion, great wrestling. He’s a sophomore.”
Denning finished the season with a 30-6 record.
Free State was also represented in Saturday’s championship round. Sophomore Spencer Wilson, wrestling in the 160-pound championship, got caught in a move he didn’t even recognize and was pinned early in the second period.
“Once you get caught in it, apparently you really can’t get out,” Wilson said.
FSHS coach Mike Gillman said he knows Wilson will make it back to the finals.
“The great part about him is he just builds on what he messes up,” Gillman said.
The Firebirds finished 30th just a year ago, but ended Saturday in a tie for 21st place.
Naughton was named Kansas 6A Coach of the Year in a ceremony before the championship round.
“That’s just a reflection on our whole program: parents, our wrestlers, our coaching staff. On the mat, off the mat, in the stands,” Naughton said. “That award isn’t just for me. It’s for everybody else.
“I’m the guy that fills out the paperwork and drives the bus.”
Though the Lions will lose a couple of key seniors — Ben Seybert took fifth at 189 pounds after losing his first match — Naughton expects his team to place even better next season.
Seybert, who will play football at Baker University next fall, was proud at the way he finished the state tournament, defeating Garden City’s Aaron DeLeon by decision.
“I went out with a bang,” Seybert said. “It was easy to get motivated. I wrestled every match like it was my last.”