Brian Hess walked into the St. Amant wrestling room four seasons ago with nine wrestlers, most of whom were unaware of even the most basic technique.
Now with nearly 40 wrestlers in a booming program that lost just one starter from last year’s city runner-up squad, Hess’ Gators are the preseason city favorites alongside Catholic High, Brusly and Live Oak.
Hess’ first full freshman class is all seniors now, primed to fulfill Hess’ premonition during his first season.
“I saw that freshman class and was like ‘these guys can be good,’” Hess said. “I think they’re all pretty excited about it. Finishing second last year was a huge thing for them. We didn’t have any champions, but we had 11 or 12 (who placed). They all stepped up. One of my biggest things was not necessarily trying to make one champion; I was trying to make a team of wrestlers.”
Leadership is tasked to seniors Clint Brownell and Jordan Averett, both of whom placed at the state tournament, and Sage Nugent, a Florida transplant who had a breakout sophomore season and is looking to follow up with a consistent junior year.
To capture a city title, the Gators need to contend with perennial powerhouse Catholic, which has claimed 11 of the past 12 city titles under Tommy Prochaska, who is 13 dual meet victories away from 300 as he enters his 18th season at his alma mater.
Prochaska returns eight starters, including four who placed at the state tournament, but he suffered a vital loss off the mat. Top assistant Sheridan Moran left at the end of last season to become head coach at rival Jesuit and was replaced by former Holy Cross assistant Ben Kritsonis, who was a three-time state champion at Tara.
“We haven’t changed what we’re doing,” Prochaska said. “We’re trying to get the first points, get a good turn and that kind of stuff. Technique hasn’t changed, any of that kind of stuff. We’ve got some guys that people don’t know, but they’re quality kids.”
Though most are still playing football, look for the Bears’ upper weights to anchor the team, including senior K.J. Wilson and junior James DeLee, while senior Daniel Gunn and junior Cameron Carpenter will try to replicate state-placing performances in the lighter weight classes.
Brusly, the only team other than Catholic to win a city championship in the past 12 years, has a loss of its own to contend with. Kendon Lee, a two-time city and state champion, moved to Oklahoma for his junior and senior seasons, leaving coach Jimmy Bible to focus on other aspects of his small but determined team in search of a fifth straight Division III state title.
“He wanted to go to greener pastures, and he went to Oklahoma,” Bible said of Lee. “That was his choice. That’s fine. I’ve got a real good group of juniors and one senior I’m focusing on. You can’t cry over spilled milk. We’ve got to go with what we’ve got.
“This is probably the first team I’ve had in a long time where my juniors and my seniors have really stepped up to help the younger kids. They’ve bought in, and I’m having a great time at practice because the older kids get it.”
Bible has defending state champions Austin Franklin and Richard Hunter returning, but with only one senior back, it’ll be another young group. No problem for Bible, who barely filled all 14 weight classes at last year’s state meet but still brought home a title.
In Division II, Live Oak returns Brennan Webb and the upstart Ethan Alphonso, both of whom placed at the state meet last year. They provide experience for an Eagles team that doesn’t boast its customary standout in the lineup, but has consistency.
“I have the total supporting cast, but I don’t have the home run hitters,” Live Oak coach Chris Collier said.
“We’re young, real young still … so next year we’re going to be even better. This year we’re going to be really good, next year we’re going to be even better.”