No one will steal the smile from Bill Ross when reminiscing about last year’s Class 6A state title.
Winning its first championship since 1986, the pursuit of the crown was often more of a marathon than a sprint for Derby’s wrestlers. The challenge was embraced and, in Ross’ eyes, the focus shouldn’t be any different after obtaining the program’s sixth title.
“Success breeds success,” the Derby coach said. “We lost some fantastic seniors that had been together forever and some might think Derby would be down this year … we’re approaching it now that we even have more to prove. We want to show everybody that it’s where we belong and what we deserve.”
Derby will retool its roster with five returning state medalists overall and five qualifiers from last February. An early look at the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association (KWCA) rankings paints a positive picture as well.
The Panthers have six ranked wrestlers in Class 6A. That includes junior Cody Woods and Cason Lindsey along with seniors Xavier Sisco, Bryce Wells, Taidon Wills and Tyler Allen.
Both juniors are both ranked No. 1 in their weight classes, while Wells (138) and Wills (182) are both slotted in at No. 2. Allen (220) is ranked No. 3, while Sisco (132) is fourth.
“We’ve got five returning placers, but Tyler was only one match away [from doing the same],” Ross said. “We’ve got guys coming from the JV level that will definitely help us too.”
Woods (106) is coming off his first state appearance and medal, finishing fourth at 106 pounds. His state tournament was highlighted by an upset over previously unbeaten Bishop Murray of Washburn Rural. While his sophomore trip ended in a loss to Murray in the consolation finals, Ross said there’s plenty of room to grow.
“Cody is the type of kid that’s never out of match,” Ross said. “I call him Gumby because I’ll be saying, ‘don’t do that, don’t do that,’ but then you see it working and you say, ‘do that, do that!’ You can’t coach some of those things, but I’ve watched him long enough to know he feels comfortable in unorthodox situations.”
Lindsey (145) is now a two-time medalist and qualifier after wrestling in the title match at 132 pounds last season. The junior lost to Garden City’s Jacob Holt, who is one of only three returning two-time state championships in Class 5A or 6A.
“He’s got a fiery spirit and he’s relentless,” Ross said. “I feel real comfortable with him in that spot … he’s only going to continue to get better and he comes from a strong wrestling background.”
Wells catapulted his name in conversations after last year’s state meet. He knocked off Lawrence Free State’s Lou Fincher, who was the No. 1 seed in his bracket, in the championship semifinals. He also fell just one point shy of Olathe North’s Keegan Slyter (two-time state champion) in the finals.
“He’s not afraid to do his moves,” Ross said. “Every now and again you might give up a point here or there, but at the same time, you can’t win if you can’t score and he knows how to score points. He’s doing a phenomenal job and he is peaking at the right time.”
Having battled a laundry list of injuries, Wills won his first state medal in Park City last February.
“He’s got the heart, skill, and he’s just a big kid,” Ross said. “He’s got talent and he’s got great wrestling skill too. We want to keep him healthy and it’s going to be fun to watch him.”
Ross said Allen will be plenty motivated after falling one match shy of medals last winter. It came one year after he decided to wrestle up in weights and qualified at 220 pounds as a sophomore, giving up 20-30 pounds.
“I can see the dedication and the fire in his eyes,” Ross added about his senior.
Sisco returns to the mats after missing his junior season. After finishing fourth as a sophomore, Ross said he’s confident that he can once again contribute in 2019-20.
“He’s got a lot of quickness and skill,” Ross said. “… He’s hard to handle when he’s got his speed and he’s using his quickness. You can’t really stop that.”
The Derby coach said Jace Jenkins and Treyton Rusher are two wrestlers who have a chance to make an impact in the middle weights. Both have wrestled varsity before, but have been sitting behind a deep and now graduated class in front of them.
“Jenkins has a blue-collar work ethic and you’re not going to scare him,” Ross said. “He’s got a lot of heart and grit and that’s what I’m excited about.”
A long list of freshmen will be available if the situation calls, according to Ross. A mix of Tate Rusher, Knowlyn Egan, Troy Allen, Pierce Probasco and Miles Wash could possibly find a role. The challenge is finding separation between the group and mixing in with its experienced returning core.
“They are mostly kids who have wrestled since they were young in our Derby Wrestling Club, which does a fantastic job,” Ross added.
Ross also pinpointed Blaise Wood as a potential wrestler in the heavier weights.
“That kid is so strong,” he said. “If he were to grab ahold of a brick wall, he’d probably be able to tear a chunk out of it … he could really surprise some people.”
Derby will also have approximately five to six girls that will wrestle this season in the first official season of the KSHSAA-sanctioned division. A state tournament will take place for these athletes the day before the boys’ event begins on Feb. 28, 2020.