Howlett rises up to earn first state wrestling berth for Blue Springs

By Michael Smith
The Examiner

The 2019-20 season was one to forget for Blue Springs wrestler Dom Howlett.

He struggled all year, only winning five matches.

Since then, the junior has made some major strides, and that was apparent at Saturday’s Class 4 Sectional 4 tournament at Staley High School. In a tournament that many Kansas City area coaches consider the most difficult for wrestlers to place in the top three, Howlett, a 220-pounder, did just that.

He was one of five Wildcats to qualify for state, punching his ticket for the first time after earning a 12-2 major decision against Lee’s Summit North senior Owen Moore in the third-place match.

North qualified four wrestlers and Blue Springs South will have one competitor in the Class 4 Missouri State High School Wrestling Championships March 13 at Cable Dahmer Arena.

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Blue Springs senior Korbin Shepherd tries to pull his leg from the grasp of Liberty's Jude Axsom in their 132-pound championship match in the Class 4 Sectional 4 tournament Saturday at Staley High School. Shepherd, a former state champion and two-time state runner-up, took just 33 seconds to pin Axsom for the title and his fourth straight state berth.

This season, only the top three from each weight class qualified for state due to COVID-19 restrictions at sectionals. In previous years, the top four for each district qualified for state.

Howlett was one of the few lucky ones to advance. He flexed his muscles to the crowd after his match was over and was greeted by his excited teammates, seniors Cayden Dotson and Korbin Shepherd, both of whom also made it to state.

Back in November, Howlett wrote down in a notebook that he would be a 2020-21 state qualifier.

“Last year, I was on and off (junior varsity),” Howlett said. “I really wasn’t that good, to be honest. I put the work in during spring and summer. Even though spring was canceled, I went to the room to practice. When Mo West opened up, in the summer, I went and got my butt kicked every single day.”

While Howlett might have been a surprise qualifier for the Wildcats, his other four teammates were favorites to make it to state since they had been there before.

Shepherd, twice a state runner-up and a state champion as a sophomore who has signed with Mizzou, ran roughshod over his competition Saturday. Shepherd, who is ranked No. 1 in his weight class according to the poll, got a tech fall victory in the quarterfinals before getting two pins in under 1 minute, including a 33-second fall against Liberty junior Jade Axsom in the 132-pound finals.

“I don’t like letting people get to my legs and he got to them,” Shepherd said of his match with Axsom in which he hooked a cradle for a pin. “That’s going to bother me for the rest of the night. It was nice practice.

“Physically I am good to go and I feel good two weeks before I wrestle at Cable Dahmer Arena.”

Blue Springs senior Cayden Dotson tries to get control in his 126-pound third-place match in the Class 4 Sectional 4 tournament Saturday at Staley High School. Dotson won 6-0 to advance to state.

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Dotson (126 pounds), ranked No. 4, is going to state as a No. 3 seed after he dropped a 11-2 decision to No. 1-ranked Easton Hilton of Liberty in the semifinals before winning his last two matches of the consolation bracket.

The Blue Springs senior pinned Lee’s Summit North’s Seth Hooper in the consolation semifinals then earned a 6-0 victory over Oak Park’s Coleton Tunstill in the third-place match.

“It’s not the way I wanted to qualify, I wanted to get to the finals.” Dotson said. “But we are going to the tournament that matters, to wrestle matches that matter. I want to come out with a state title there.”

That’s the same goal for Blue Springs junior Jaxson McIntyre (160) and sophomore Brock Sullivan (285), as well. McIntyre took second after a pin in the quarterfinals and a 17-4 major decision against Liberty’s Jeremiah Halter in the semifinals. McIntyre, ranked No. 5, fell to No. 3-ranked David Brooks of Staley 9-5 in the title bout.

Blue Springs junior Jaxson McIntyre, back, wrangles Staley's David Brooks for a takedown in their 160-pound championship match at Saturday's Class 4 Sectional 4 meet at Staley. McIntyre suffered a 9-5 loss but advanced to state with the runner-up finish.

“I’ve got two weeks to improve for state,” McIntyre said. “I am closing the gap. I am going to keep practicing to get up there with him and other opponents like him.”

Sullivan had a little less stress on him compared to districts last season. In 2020, Sullivan had to win the bubble match in the consolation bracket to make it to state. This time, he got a pin in the quarterfinals and edged out Blue Springs South’s Callen Smithpeter 3-0 in the semifinals to qualify for state. Sullivan, ranked No. 5, was pinned by No. 1-ranked Jeremiah Cubuyaban of Liberty in the finals.

“This year I improved, I got second,” Sullivan said. “Next year it will be first.”

Lee’s Summit North will have three first-time state qualifiers – Javi Gutierrez (145), Trey Robinson (138) and Trevor Taylor (285) at the tournament this year with Aaron Barnhill (195) being the lone returner.

Gutierrez (145) lost by tech fall to No. 1-ranked Kal Miller of Park Hill, but rebounded by getting a pin in the consolation semifinals, then defeating Staley’s Thomas Schrader 6-2 in the third-place match. Gutierrez lost to Schrader earlier in the year at the Suburban Conference Tournament.

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Lee's Summit North's Javi Gutierrez high-fives coach Mick Cronk after defeating Staley's Thomas Schrader 6-2 in the 145-pound third-place match to advance to state.

“One thing I really wanted to do was get the first takedown,” Gutierrez said of his match with Schrader. “I didn’t but I just kept wrestling him and tied it up 2-2. Then I worked his shoulders for the rest of the match. I got a reversal and a takedown to win.”

Like Gutierrez, Robinson (138) had a strong showing. He got a pin in the quarterfinals and took an 8-2 decision over Liberty North’s Dylan Alft in the semifinals. The junior then had a tough matchup against No. 1-ranked Kage Lenger of Liberty in the title bout as he fell 9-4.

“I knew he was going to be a tough match,” Robinson said of Lenger. “We had a match earlier in the year and he won by three points. I knew I could wrestle with him. He came out ready to wrestle.”

Barnhill (195), ranked No. 2, won by fall in the quarterfinals but fell in a tough match in a 3-2 ultimate tiebreaker with No. 5-ranked Christ Bizzle of Park Hill in the semifinals. Barnhill bounced back by taking decisions of 4-2 and 10-7 in the consolation bracket to finish third.

“Aaron did not have his best day,” North coach Mick Cronk said. “But he found a way to get to the tournament. Now Aaron can wrestle his best in two weeks and bring home some good hardware.”

Taylor (285), a junior, will make his first appearance at state in two weeks as he took third. He got a pin in the quarterfinals before getting pinned by Cubuyaban in the semifinals. Taylor earned a 3-1 victory in the semifinals before pinning Smithpeter in the third-place match.

“Big Trev went out and wrestled great,” Cronk said. “He wrestled the Liberty kid, who is really good. We were down 1-0 going into the third period and we just got caught and pinned. Then he came out in the third-place match and was like, ‘Hey, I am taking this match.’”

Blue Springs South sophomore Tommy LaPour, right, tries to turn North Kansas City's Xavier Doolin in their Class 4 Sectional 4 220-pound championship match. LaPour lost but advanced to state.

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Tommy LaPour (220) is another first-time state qualifier and is the first one to make it to state in two years for Blue Springs South. He earned a pin in the quarterfinals and defeated North’s Moore by a 17-2 tech fall in the semifinals. But he then ran into a buzzsaw in the championship match when he was pinned by No. 1-ranked Xavier Doolin of North Kansas City in the first period.

“It feels good, Jaguar pride,” LaPour said. “My coaches have done a really good job of helping me improve. My teammates have been pushing me in practice and helping me get better. I am just blessed that I can be here.”