Lawrence High’s wrestling team knows a thing or two about adjusting on the fly — and not just mid-match.
The Lions entered this season with high expectations, ranked No. 4 in Class 6A by the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association. But as the season got started, LHS lost would-be varsity leaders, one by one. Seniors Hunter Haralson and Caden Lynch, junior Ryan Bellinger and sophomore Tristan Star all became unavailable.
Lawrence junior heavyweight Alex Jones said the rest of the team was forced to deal with that unexpected reality.
“It isn’t that we’ve had a severe blow to our numbers,” Jones said, “it’s just that we’ve lost key players.”
An elbow injury and pending surgery knocked out Haralson (ranked No. 1 in 6A at 132 pounds) for the remainder of the season. Lynch (No. 4, 138) suffered a freak accident at work, cutting open a calf, but is expected to return soon. Bellinger (152) tore the meniscus in his left knee for the second straight season and had successful surgery that will allow him to return to the lineup as soon as this weekend. Star (113) had to leave the team for undisclosed reasons, coach Pat Naughton said, and may or may not return.
What LHS — still No. 4 in the most recent Kansas Wrestling Coaches Assocation rankings, released Dec. 19 — missed most about those wrestlers, Jones said, wasn’t just their victories and the team points they could contribute, but also the intangibles they brought.
“They just have that ability to create momentum and spark a fear in the other team,” Jones said.
After missing three months last year due to his torn meniscus, Bellinger is excited to get back in the lineup and help rejuvenate LHS. He went through a different kind of surgery this time, and it eliminated the problem, only keeping him out a couple weeks.
“It was really scary at first, because I’d been out for such a long time and I knew I was rusty and out of shape,” Bellinger said. “And then it happened again and I was worried that this would be a recurring thing and I might not be able to wrestle anymore.”
As Bellinger and his injured teammates watched Lawrence struggle at times in December, it made him even more eager to return.
“It was really hard for the team to get into the mindset they needed to wrestle hard,” he said.
Junior Garrett Girard (No. 6, 120) could attest to that.
“I definitely feel like I need to lead the team a lot more, because we don’t have most of our seniors,” Girard said, adding Bellinger and senior Tim Thongone have taken on more of those duties, too.
Girard said Haralson and Lynch have “been around forever” and LHS has missed their leadership: “It’s a lot quieter in the wrestling room without them.”
Fortunately for the Lions, less experienced wrestlers have stepped up at times in the varsity lineup, either by winning or displaying toughness — Naughton pointed to junior Isaias Rojo, Girard to sophomore Cy Burghart and Jones to freshman Peter Afful.
The most successful newcomer by far has been 170-pound freshman Alan Clothier. With a 12-1 record, he has ascended to the No. 1 spot in 6A.
Said Girard: “We knew since before the season that he was gonna do pretty well, but I’m pretty sure no one thought he was gonna be winning every single match and destroying these seniors.”
Naughton thinks LHS still has a lot of potential, with Lynch and Bellinger returning, younger wrestlers showing promise and veterans such as Andrew Denning (No. 3, 160) carrying the load.
“The key right now is just to finish the season strong. There’s two parts to our season. The first part is getting the kids in and getting them acclimated to what we’re doing and then our real season starts after Christmas break,” the coach said with a smile. “That’s when we’re wrestling every single weekend and wrestling the top competition in the state.”
The Lions, Bellinger added, remain confident.
“I think we should absolutely be a state-placing team,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
Lawrence resumes its season Saturday at the Maize tournament.