Last year, a young Herbert Hoover wrestling team battled its way to a 10th-place finish at the state tournament, learning lessons along the way.
A year later, a still young but much more seasoned squad is poised to pay those lessons off.
The Huskies are ranked sixth in the wvmat.com Class AA poll while filling out all 14 weight classes and still featuring just one senior — Ben Kee at 160 pounds.
Hoover’s ranking is the highest among any Kanawha Valley school and the Huskies have already beaten two squads — No. 3 Independence and No. 4 East Fairmont — ranked ahead of them.
“The team is looking pretty good,” coach Richard Harper said. “Up here on the [Elk] River, wrestling is pretty big and the kids buy into it.”
Hoover has certainly faced an early-season gauntlet to start things, having already wrestled Class AA No. 1 Point Pleasant twice and Class AAA No. 1 Parkersburg South once in addition to the aforementioned wins. The Huskies finished third at the Jason Eades Memorial Tournament at Point Pleasant behind the Big Blacks and second-place Riverside, won the Bob Stover Duals at Clay County and finished second at the South Classic Duals at Parkersburg South.
“This year since we’re in the top 10 I figured, ‘Well, let’s find some tough competition,’” Harper said. “You’re only as good as the competition you wrestle.”
Spearheading the effort are three grapplers who placed in the state tournament a year ago.
Junior Tyler Teel finished fourth at 120 pounds a year ago and has bumped up to 126 while sophomore Mason Atkinson will again wrestle at 195 after finishing sixth last year.
Harper also believes Kee is a legitimate state title contender at 160 pounds this year after finishing fourth at 170 a year ago.
Just in filling out all weight classes, Hoover is ahead of the game in terms of most of its Kanawha Valley brethren, though fielding a full team is rarely an issue for the Huskies. Harper credits a good feeder system as well as a community passionate about wrestling for the numbers he consistently sees.
“Since I’ve been up here we might have missed one weight class or so, but for the most part we always have a full team,” Harper said. “We’re going in the right direction. Our middle school program is doing really well and we’ve got some good kids moving up next year too. We’re a team that can be around the top 10 for years to come. We’ve built the foundation, we’ve just got to keep working and see where it goes.”
Just how far the Huskies take it this year remains to be seen with several big-time events coming in the following weeks.
One of those will come on Feb. 1 at The Greenbrier for the West Virginia Dual Team Regional Championships. The event is new and one Harper and the wrestling community hope will grow in the future.
The format pitted the top two teams in each region in Class AAA and Class AA-A against each other with the winners emerging to advance to The Greenbrier. The Huskies pulled out a one-point win over Independence to earn the nod in Class AA-A Region 3.
“Some teams didn’t participate because of scheduling and whatnot, but we’re trying to get this thing to catch on and I think it will,” Harper said.
Before that, Hoover and most teams across the state will participate in the WSAZ Invitational Jan. 24-25 at Huntington, where one of the toughest fields in the history of the event is expected.
But all of that leads to a Class AA-A Region 3 showdown on Feb. 15 with the Huskies getting another look at Independence as well as Greenbrier West — currently ranked No. 1 among Class A schools — among others.
“The kids found a way to pull it out [against Independence], but our region is going to be interesting,” Harper said. “It’s a three-way fight and it’s going to be really tight. Any of the three could win it. The key is going to be keeping everyone healthy. There’s a long way to go.”