Tony Love stops short of declaring this his finest Ashland wrestling team in 13 years as head coach.
It’s only a matter of time.
“I could make that statement at the end of the season,” Love said. “I’ve had some better wrestlers, but this group as a whole, from what I see now, is the best team I’ve had.”
It’s easy to see why. The MatCats have won 13 of 16 dual matches so far, to go with a pair of tournament championships — a breakthrough for Ashland’s program. Love called it a milestone.
The squad features a combination of proven upperclassmen and quality youth.
“It’s a good blend,” Love said. “We’re fortunate this year to have a good mix of younger and older kids, and a variety of weights.”
For the first time, Ashland can cover all 14 weight classes. That’s most helpful, since a team gives away six points for each vacant spot in head-to-head matches.
Two of the MatCats’ top wins in dual competition came against traditionally strong Sheldon Clark and Spring Valley (W.Va.) teams. Ashland captured tournament titles at Lincoln County (W.Va.) and Spring Valley.
Love credited the success in part to a Mini-MatCat starter program that’s been around for six years at the elementary level.
“What we are starting to see is the proof of that,” Love said.
Several team members have already posted double-digit win totals this season, led by unbeaten senior Tanner Adams. The 220-pounder is off to a 17-0 start with none of the matches going the distance.
“I don’t think he’s gone past the second round,” Love said. “He pinned everybody. Tanner is a kid that is extremely strong and flexible. He’s very coachable and extremely hard-working.”
Seniors Slater Swift (170) and Dakota Sloas (152) have a combined record of 25-8.
“Those three kind of jumped into the leadership role,” Love said. “They have been all the way through our Mini-MatCat program.”
Adams, Swift, senior Isaiah Copley (126), junior Luke Johnson (heavyweight) and freshmen Wyatt Kirk (120) and Grant Krueger (195) all qualified for the State Tournament a year ago.
Johnson has won 11 of 12 matches this season. Kirk is 15-2, Copley 9-3 and Krueger 14-3.
Junior Austin Pinkerman, a 106-pounder, also ranks among Ashland’s top winners at 15-2. Freshmen Jay Layne (138) and Justin McDowell (113) sport records of 13-4 and 12-5, respectively.
Tyler Sutton, a junior, is 5-3. He was slated to wrestle in the 182-pound division but has been slowed by sickness. Sutton and Swift have been sharing time in the 170 and 182 slots.
Seventh-grader Vance Krueger (132) competes mostly on the middle school level but has won all three of his varsity matches.
Junior Xavier Guitierez (145) is 4-4, while freshman Brady Smedley (160) has seven wins. Another junior, Andrew Burgess, filled in at 170 pounds last week at Spring Valley and went 5-0.
“It’s a hard-working bunch,” Love said. “The thing that really helps us, having the talent we do, is that they push each other in practice. They have some pride about them. They want to beat their buddy. Sometimes you have to pull them apart. It’s good to see that.”
This weekend and next are important for the MatCats. They go to Chesapeake (Ohio) tonight for a tournament, then travel to Johnson Central on Saturday for the regional duals. The top two teams from that meet advance to the state duals on Jan. 26.
“It’s a benchmark, in my mind, to see if we qualify for state,” Love said. “We have never been one of those teams. Hopefully this year we can get there.”
Next weekend, Ashland heads to Huntington for the 35th annual WSAZ Invitational, billed as the largest and longest-running scholastic wrestling tournament in the eastern United States.
It will mark Ashland’s first appearance in the WSAZ Invitational in several years.
“We haven’t gone in a while, because I didn’t think we could do very well competitively as a team,” Love said. “It’s a huge tournament and I think that will help prepare us for the State Tournament.”
The main reason behind Love’s decision is the atmosphere his wrestlers will find at the Big Sandy SuperStore Arena.
“It’s so large, with several mats on the floor and a lot going on at one time,” he said. “Last year, we had so many first-time guys going to state and got shell-shocked. I think this can kind of help us to get ready.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.