Lions’ Andrew Denning wins big at state wrestling

Lawrence High’s Andrew Denning, right, celebrates after defeating Emilio Fowler of Gardner-Edgerton in their Class 6A, 182-pound championship match in the state wrestling tournament Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Wichita.

Lawrence High’s Andrew Denning, right, celebrates after defeating Emilio Fowler of Gardner-Edgerton in their Class 6A, 182-pound championship match in the state wrestling tournament Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Wichita.

? Just weeks into his senior season, Lawrence High’s Andrew Denning decided wrestling at 160 pounds just wasn’t for him.

Denning needed to trim about 10 to 12 pounds a week to make weight, and the grind lost what little appeal it had. It was then that Lawrence’s coaching staff decided to bump him up to 182.

His first time competing in his new weight class, Denning took second at the Newton Tournament of Champions in January.

“From then on, we just knew he was gonna blow this thing out of the water,” LHS coach Pat Naughton said, “and sure enough, that’s what happened. Nobody could stop him.”

Harnessing his wiry, deceptive strength, Denning pinned Gardner-Edgerton’s Emilio Fowler with 35 seconds left in the third period of the 182-pound Class 6A state title match Saturday at Hartman Arena to finish a perfect 4-0 and end his prep career as a champion. After scoring his third pinfall victory of the tournament, the champ shot off the mat and threw his arms skyward in celebration before nearly tackling LHS assistant coach Randy Streeter.

“Emotions are just huge in the air,” Denning said afterward, at one point fighting back tears as he recalled the outpouring of congratulations that followed. “I love my coaches and all my teammates.”

Lawrence High senior Andrew Denning celebrates after securing a spot in the 182-pound championship match at the 6A state wrestling tournament in Wichita on Saturday, Feb. 22, Denning pinned Topeka junior Austin Tillman 32 seconds into their semifinal match.

A three-time state-qualifier and state runner-up as a sophomore, Denning missed the championship tourney a year ago after suffering a season-ending concussion. He felt the pressure of wrestling for a title two years ago, but didn’t go through the same worries as a senior. Denning said he and his father, Darin, have long shared a goal of his winning a state high school championship.

“I’m pretty proud that I could achieve that,” Denning said.

Freshman Alan Clothier (170 pounds) and senior Caden Lynch (138) joined Denning as LHS state medalists.

Clothier lost Saturday in the semifinals but recovered with two straight wins in the consolation bracket, finishing with a 4-1 record and third-place medal.

“I just really sat by myself,” Clothier said regarding his semifinal loss, “and thought about what I had to do coming back to get third.”

Clothier and Shawnee Mission West’s Jordan Dillard were tied, 9-9, in the third period before Clothier scored a decisive single point with just 10 seconds left.

“He kind of let me up,” Clothier said. “He didn’t hold me down really good, and I shot up fast.”

A consolation semifinal victory over Blue Valley Northwest’s Jeremy Katz gave Clothier some needed momentum before his consolation final: “I knew I needed to get third,” he said. “I’m just not gonna sit here and take fifth or sixth. I wanted third.”

Lynch had to win twice in the consolation bracket Saturday morning to reach the semis and assure himself of a medal.

“They’re really intense, because when you get on the back side, you’re fighting’,” Lynch said. “They’re gonna be throwing everything they’ve got, so you’ve gotta be right there with them. If you get the chance, stay on the front side (championship bracket).”

A four-time state-qualifier, Lynch lost his final two matches and finished sixth.

“It’s better than not placing,” he said.

Three other LHS grapplers remained in medal contention Saturday morning. Junior Alex Jones came one victory away from a top-six finish. The Lions’ heavyweight advanced to the third round of the 285-pound bracket before Blue Valley Northwest’s Don Fowler pinned him, ending his season with a 35-14 record.

LHS junior Xavier Kenney (106) lost his only match of the day, a 7-1 decision, to Wichita Heights’ Desmond Martinez in the second round of the consolation bracket.

Junior Ryan Bellinger (152) also lost in the second consolation round, but it took sudden death for Wichita East’s William Burrows to eliminate him. The match remained tied at 5 after three periods, forcing the extra time, and Burrows scored two points to win.

Lawrence finished tied for eighth with Shawnee Mission West in the team standings (Garden City won the 6A championship), but Naughton said the Lions could have been even higher.

“You’ve gotta come down here to wrestle,” Naughton said. “That’s the bottom line. It’s about the preparation you do before you get here.”

Firebirds go home early

Though Free State High had three of its six state qualifiers still in the running Saturday morning, all three were sent home early with losses in the second consolation round.

The most difficult season-ending setback for the Firebirds to stomach was senior Ben Soukup’s 4-3 loss to Manhattan’s Michael Leeper. As the third-period clock wound down, Soukup (152) was positioned in bounds, leading 3-2, and there appeared to be no way for Leeper to score. As the clock hit zero, though, Leeper maneuvered to score two points, to the disbelief of Free State coach Mike Gillman and large segments of the crowd.

“He was really disappointed,” Gillman said of Soukup, a two-time state-qualifier. “It stinks to go out like that.”

A 160-pound FSHS freshman, Sam Skwarlo suffered an elimination pinfall loss to Gideon Butler-Smith of Olathe Northwest.

The good news for Skwarlo, Gillman said, is he was able to experience the state atmosphere, won a first-round match Friday and accomplished much this season.

“We’re real excited about Sam,” the coach said of his team’s lone 6A regional champion last week. “Everything was gonna be golden after that.”

After staying alive Friday with a first-round consolation victory, FSHS junior Sterling Ozark (285) had his season end when Lawrence’s Jones pinned him.

“He wrestled his best this afternoon, but left a little disappointed,” Gillman said.

The Firebirds only won three state matches, but with such a young team, Gillman deemed it an overall success.

“We only had one senior who qualified,” he said. “That leaves the door open for a lot of kids next year.”