The 2017-18 wrestling season is the dawn of a new era for the Oak Grove Panthers.
The team just came off its state-record 17th state championship from last season and coach Bobbe Lowe, who won five of those, departed for Blue Springs.
The Panthers are now guided by first-year head coach James Morgan and the expectations and pedigree of the program appears that it hasn’t changed.
It sure seemed that way when Oak Grove jumped out to a 21-0 lead against Missouri River Valley Conference West rival Grain Valley and ended up capturing a 42-30 decision Thursday night at Grain Valley High School.
“Tonight wasn’t bad,” Morgan said. “We had some spots where I thought we could get some wins.”
The Panthers rattled off four straight wins, three by pinfall to take a 21-point advantage. Defending state champion Tyler Curd (285) set the tone with a pin in 2:51 over Donovan McBride. Kaden Scarborough (106) and Anthony Erickson (113) followed with first-period pins.
Curd’s victory put him at 17-0 on the season as he is aiming for back-to-back state titles. In his match, he was caught by surprise when McBride got a hold of his leg and scored a reversal to tie the match at 2. Curd dominated from there as he was too quick and strong for the Grain Valley freshman.
“I’ve done a lot of my training over the summer to work on my folkstyle and my drags,” said Curd, who trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. “The season has been going pretty good.
“(During the match), (McBride) got my leg, but I know how to react to those. I did what I needed to get done.”
Despite the surprise reversal, Morgan didn’t bat an eye.
“Tyler is well versed in this sport,” Morgan said. “It might have looked like (the reversal) surprised him, but he’s not a kid who’s going to panic out there.”
After the Panthers took an 18-point lead, a couple of marquee matchups took place between returning state qualifiers. At 120 pounds, Oak Grove’s Tucker MacWilliam, who finished third in Class 2 last season, defeated Trent Starr 5-2 while overcoming a 2-0 deficit. It was tied at two until the second period, then MacWilliam worked a near fall from the top position using a half-nelson to roll over Starr. He got a reversal in the third period to provide himself a bigger cushion.
Grain Valley picked up its first win of the day at 126 when junior Caleb Benshoof, who placed in the top three at state the past couple of years, defeated Keegan Scarborough 10-4. It was a seesaw battle between the two until Benshoof got a quick takedown and near fall late in the second period to go up 8-4. The win improved his record to 21-0.
“He’s just being consistent in what he does every day,” Grain Valley coach Jesse Whitson said of Benshoof. “He shows up every day and works hard and it shows in his matches. There is no secret pill for him.”
Oak Grove sophomore Evan Hall (132) then raised the eyebrows of Morgan when he got a pin in 1:16.
“He stepped up and found a way to get the pin,” Morgan said. “That’s a strong kid who’s pretty athletic. Evan was working on an area that he had struggled and chain wrestled and found the win.”
After Dennis Scarborough (138) scored yet another pin for the Panthers, Grain Valley was able to rebound with pinfall victories from Trent LeGrotte (145), Taylor Huwar (152), Jacob Gilkey (170) and David Deweese (195), but it wasn’t enough to overcome such a large deficit. Jaden Worthington notched the Eagles’ other win at 220 with an 8-7 victory over Michael Ruth when he was able to milk 1:03 off the clock without allowing a takedown.
“They took it to us, so hats off to them,” Whitson said of Oak Grove. “We have to be better everywhere. Our conditioning has to be better. We got to show some more fight and some more heart. We can’t give up bonus-point wins. We have to fix that.”
Joel Martin (182), a sixth-place medalist at state last year, sealed the win for Oak Grove with a pin of Michael Traynor in 56 seconds, putting his team up 42-21. Martin said he hopes to keep earning victories like that one because he’s set some high goals for his senior campaign.
“I never wrestled him before so I had to get a couple of takedowns to get a feel for the match,” Martin said. “I was able to run the butcher and get a pin out of it.
“I plan on winning (the state title in his weight class). I remember Tristan Stack came back and made the championship one year. That’s what I want to do.”
Added Morgan: “Joel Martin has been steady for us. We can always count on him to provide us some points usually.”
Noah Sears (160) had Oak Grove’s other victory with a 7-2 decision.
“We have a full lineup this year, so I think we’ll compete for another state title,” Curd said. “We have a lot of conditioning to do, but as a team, we took a step forward.”