Whether you call them the defending champs, a tradition-rich program or the No. 1-ranked team in the state – any way you spin it, the Oak Grove wrestling team is good. Really good.
Just ask the other six teams that watched them hoist the first-place hardware after capturing its second straight Oak Grove Panther Classic tournament title Saturday.
“I told the guys before it started that I don't think we've won this tournament back-to-back in a very long time,” Oak Grove coach Bobbe Lowe said. “We'd have to go back quite a few years to find the last time we won back-to-back.”
With 204.5 points, the Class 2 Panthers topped a field which featured a 6A team from Kansas and five Class 4 schools from Missouri, including top-10 teams in second-place Park Hill (141.5 points) and Blue Springs (137).
Lee's Summit North came in fourth (93.5), followed by William Chrisman (89.5), Fort Osage (88) and Blue Valley West (63.5).
Even when facing these bigger schools, intimidation was never a factor for the defending Class 2 state champions. In fact, they thrived in going against tougher competition, and it showed on the mat.
“Having tradition is a lot of it,” Lowe said. “It helps carry the ego. We talk about how we want to compete with anyone. It doesn't matter who it is. That's our ultimate goal.”
One Panther showing no fear was 120-pounder Brock Mercer. After falling to Fort Osage's Collen Divers earlier in the day, he had one thing on his mind – revenge. Mercer got it when he got four points off a pair of near falls in the third period to earn a 10-6 decision over Divers in the championship match.
“In the first match, I was winning and he caught me,” Mercer said, “so when I was getting ready for the finals I was thinking, ‘I am going to beat this kid now.’”
Other champions for Oak Grove were Connor Brown (106 pounds), defending state champion Landon Cairer (152) and Dalton Brinegar (170). Shawn Kavadas (126), Tyler Brown (132), Bryce Mercer (145) and Preston Airington (195) fell in their title matches, while Jet Tryon (113) and Petter Henrikssen (182) took third.
Connor Brown scored an 11-7 decision Blue Springs' Gage Harmon in his title match, and Cairer went up 5-1 against Lee Summit North's Ian Lindsey before scoring his fourth pin of the day at the 2:49 mark. Brinegar turned a slim 5-4 lead after one period into a decisive 12-6 victory over North’s Evan Weidner by scoring three takedowns in the final four minutes.
Championship wins like those, combined with strong showings from the rest of the Panthers should give them plenty of confidence heading into districts later this week. The tournament provided a fairly accurate measuring stick for what they will be up against in the postseason.
“This is why we have this tournament,” Lowe said. “It's good to wrestle top Class 4 teams in the state. I don't think there really is any other way you can better prepare yourself for districts. We have a good idea where we are at.”
Blue Springs, on the other hand, still has some work to do, coach Mike Hagerty said. After falling short of a tournament title, he preached to his team about giving better effort once it was over. The Wildcats will need it come district time.
“Our message was we made some progress with certain guys, but some others haven't broken through competitively to where they need to be,” Hagerty said. “Frankly, we may not take a full team to districts. We will take the guys who we feel like can get through and win some matches. We don't want to take anyone who's just going to go through the motions.”
He got a clutch performance out of 132-pounder Joe King, who scored a takedown with two seconds left in the third to defeat Tyler Brown 5-4 in the first-place match. Hagerty said King had fallen a little short this season, but hopes the victory will serve as a catapult for bigger things.
“I’ll be honest, Joe has been a struggle for us,” Hagerty said. “He hasn’t lived up to his or our expectations. I am hoping this is a breakthrough moment for him. We saw some signs of life today we haven't seen yet.”
Two guys Hagerty does not worry about is Michael Pixley (195) and Daniel Lewis (160), who rank second and eighth in the country, respectively, according to intermatwrestle.com. Pixley dominated Airington by pinning him at 1:02 in the championship match. Lewis won his weight class by using his trademark crossface cradle to pin North's Ryan Conrad in 45 seconds, capping a day he spent just 2 minutes, 33 seconds on the mat in four matches.
Lewis' finish was a familiar sight to those to those who've seen him wrestle. The senior three-time state champion could do nothing but chuckle when discussing his signature move.
“The past three and a half years, I have been known to cradle people,” said Lewis, who is headed to Missouri following his final high school season. “People make jokes about it. Sometimes even the refs are in on it. They say, 'Oh, here comes Daniel and his cradle.' Some people try to challenge me not to use it during my matches, but it's my bread and butter.”
Collyn Allen took second at 182 for the Wildcats and Jeremy King was third at 120.
Champions for other local schools included Fort Osage's Jesse Jeffries (138), North's Austin Hanson (113) and William Chrisman's Josh Wallace (182).