Wrestlers: Calling future medalists
Eudora is wrestling with the idea of life after Mike Paxton and Shane Grant. The Cardinals wrestling program lost both state medalists and school record-holders to graduation last year.
Paxton, the team's MVP, set a single-season pin record last year with 29. He ended his career with a silver medal at state. Paxton now wrestles on scholarship for Lindenwood Community College in St. Charles, Mo., the 2002 NAIA national champions.
Grant set the fastest pin mark at seven seconds. He, too, medaled at state, finishing fifth.
The squad will also miss fellow graduates James Barr, Austin Roberts and the team's inspirational leader, Luke Powers.
But hope remains. The Cards return a Frontier League champion in junior Andy Coffman. He was the team's third state qualifier. Also returning is freshman wrestler of the year Miles Cleveland and the wrestler named most-improved, junior Josh Barr.
The X-factor this season could be junior Chris Durkin. The football team standout lost his sophomore wrestling season to injury. His re-entry into the sport is eagerly anticipated and carries high expectations.
The junior class of Barr, Coffman and Durkin will be counted on to carry a very young team. Just six of the 25 student-athletes out for wrestling this year are upperclassmen.
"We lost some big guns, so we're going to have to reload a little bit," said second-year head coach Bill Dewitt. "It's not a rebuilding process -- it's a youth movement. I hate it when people call it rebuilding. That's just an excuse. We will see how good a coach I am this year."
Eudora's youth movement officially began at the opening practice, Nov. 17.
"I'm pretty pleased so far," DeWitt said. "We've had a great week."
That week hasn't been all great though. Eudora has lost nearly half of its wrestlers to the flu during the opening week.
Overcoming lost players, youth and illness are demanding on the coaching staff. But those challenges have had no affect on their goals and expectations.
"Our motto is 'expect victory,' and that's what we do," DeWitt said. "I have the same goals every year -- win the league championship and the state championship. Are those goals realistic? No. But that's the only way you can think."
The loss of such dominant seniors renders those objectives even less realistic. There is still a lot of talent to inspire optimism. But the new-look Cardinals will need to approach this season with a slightly different style.
"Last year we had some kids who could just go out there and dominate," DeWitt said. "But to be good this year, we are going to have to wear people down, win matches at the end, and use great technique."
That approach doesn't bother the Eudora coach. That's what wrestling is all about, and this is a sport about which he is deeply passionate about. His respect for the sport and its athletes fuels his coaching success.
"I absolutely love the sport; just the fundamentalism of it," he said. "It's the most pure sport there is. It is just you against another guy, and once you get on that mat you can't hide.
"I really respect the kids that stay with it from start to finish. It is tough. You have to be a little crazy to wrestle. There is an unbelievable amount of conditioning that goes into it and then just the courage to get out there and put it all on the line."
It may take all the craziness and courage the Cards can muster in order to survive a very difficult schedule. Eudora faces a steady stream of high-caliber opposition this season.
"I am really excited about the schedule this year," DeWitt said. "We will have to walk that fine line with a tough schedule. The team will either earn a lot of confidence or begin to second guess themselves, especially with such a young team."
Win or lose, the Cardinals' opposition will know they were in a battle. At least that was DeWitt's aim.
"We really want to be a relentless team," he said. "We just don't want to get outworked on the mat. We want people to know they'll be in a dogfight with us on the mat. If I get my kids to do that then I'll be satisfied."