Free State wrestling enjoys banner season

Free State High wrestlers have put together one of their strongest seasons in the past decade. They’re not done yet.

The Firebirds took second in the Sunflower League and won a regional championship, their best finishes since 2005. Now they’re focused on doing well at the Class 6A state tournament, beginning at 10 a.m. Friday at Hartman Arena in Park City.

Free State is taking 11 wrestlers to the state tournament, led by regional champions freshman Tate Steele (106 pounds), senior Shayn Morris (113), junior Cameron Shanks (120) and freshman Isaiah Jacobs (126).

“That was probably the best feeling, knowing that we had 12 (wrestlers) and we’re sending 11,” said FSHS coach Mike Gillman, who was selected as the Coach of the Year at regionals. “In our program, for me as a head coach, that’s the most I’ve ever taken. So that’s a big thing for us in our program.”

Free State’s goal is placing within the top-10 in the team standings. Many of the Firebirds are hoping to earn a spot in the top-eight of their respective weight classes, and have plenty of confidence after doing well at their regional.

“First time at state, I’m really excited,” Shanks said. “I really just want to do well and place (in the top eight). That’s my goal.”

With so many state qualifiers, one of the positives is how much the Firebirds improve in practice, wrestling daily against top talent.

“That’s huge,” Gillman said. “Not only are they friends but they push each other. I think they’re all competitors so they don’t take it easy on each other. There’s a lot of animosity between somebody getting a takedown, and ‘Oh, I’m going to get you back.’ That sort of thing. That is huge for us.”

Lawrence High’s wrestling team is sending eight wrestlers to state after taking third place at regionals. Junior Alan Clothier, the defending state champion at 182 pounds, and sophomore Tucker Wilson (160 pounds) won regional titles.

“I would say right now, he is more focused than he ever has been,” LHS coach Pat Naughton said of Clothier, who owns a 38-0 record this year. “That’s good. The one thing about it is he’s not looking ahead or past anybody. He takes it one match at a time, one period at a time. That’s how he goes about his business.”

The Lions qualified four freshmen and one sophomore for state, who were essentially “thrown to the fire” at the varsity level. Though they were inexperienced at the beginning of the season, their coaches kept them focused on learning skills for the long run.

“We don’t really have a lot of expectations on them,” Naughton said. “That comes next year because then they see what it’s about and they can get fired up for it. So that next year, they’re like, ‘Now I really want to do something.’ A good goal for them is to win one match. Anything after that is a bonus.”

For the Lions who have been to state before, they hope to use their previous experience to their advantage.

“It’s nice because I’ve seen some of the competition,” senior 152-pounder Cy Burghart said. “I’ve seen most of them and the upsets (from last year), and I see that anything can happen. Getting that experience last year was pretty nice.”