December might not have been a wildly successful month for Free State High’s wrestling team — the Firebirds’ best showing came with a ninth-place finish at the Shawnee Mission Northwest Invitational — but coach Mike Gillman saw promising signs, which continued as the Firebirds practiced during their winter break.
“The kids are working like 10 times harder at practice,” Gillman said. “Something started clicking in the middle of December, late December, during our winter break.”
The excitement came, in part, with the anticipation of returning to competition. Free State’s January schedule commences Saturday at the Shawnee Mission South Invitational.
“We’ve got some kids who are really focused for the second semester — fresh start in school, fresh start in wrestling,” Gillman said. “That’s a motivation for sure.”
The Firebirds’ most successful wrestlers to date have been 145-pound junior Colton Steele (8-3), 152-pound senior Ben Soukup (8-5), 132-pound junior Maurice Jacobs (5-5) and 106-pound freshman Quailan Fowler (4-5).
Soukup and Nick Vidoli are the only FSHS seniors. With such a young roster, Soukup said the first few weeks of the season were about getting the underclassmen to master the basics.
“Now we’re just trying to drill them every day and start adding on to our core of moves,” he said.
Overall improvement became evident in the past few weeks at practices, Soukup added, after everyone got comfortable and settled in at their respective weight classes.
“You become more confident in where you are and have more control over your body,” Soukup said of the process. “Cutting down to get to that weight can be difficult.”
Seeing so many younger teammates improve of late also has boosted the team’s confidence, and Soukup credited new assistant coach Josh Hanson in helping move that along.
“I think we’re doing a lot better than we did last year at this stage,” Soukup said.
The next step in the progression, Steele said, should be for Free State’s younger wrestlers to start winning more matches. They’re getting better with experience as their stamina improves.
“At the start of the year, it was bad,” Steele said.
The junior leader sees potential in the team as a whole, particularly from the FSHS middleweights and the Firebirds’ heavyweight, junior Sterling Ozark (2-2). Steele, Ozark and other more experienced wrestlers have found they need to keep the youngsters going.
“You have to push them,” Steele said, “and just tell them this is how it is.”
The biggest challenge facing the young Firebirds, Gillman said, might be the mental side of wrestling.
“The kids need to have the idea that they can win,” the coach said. “They’ve got the stuff in their toolbox to use on the mat.”