The Hillsboro High School wrestling team is bookended with two promising team factions — the seniors looking to capitalize on a final season and freshman planning to make waves ahead of schedule.
He has had several close matches this year — 6-2, 4-2, 3-1 in overtime. Senior Tanner Jones knows those are the type of matches he needs to win to claim a state medal.
Jones is 19-5 wrestling at 170 pounds this season. He is more interested in the five than the 19. He feels he has lost some matches he should have won. He knows he cannot leave any points on the mat, opportunities lost, once action advances to regionals Feb. 15 and 16 in Fredonia.
He has prepared himself to wrestle defensively. Opponents will not just give him shots — takedown attempts have to be well planned.
“I’m not trying to out-muscle people,” Jones said. “I don’t care if a dude can bench 50 pounds more than you, you will beat him with good technique.”
In fact, Jones is trying to outwork people. He talked about every practice as if each session was equal parts learning opportunity and battle against his own will. He wants to push himself and he wants to push his teammates so they’ll make him work even harder.
In the end, Jones thinks all those techniques will betray him if he does not believe he can win. The only way he knows how to instill more confidence is to maximize his preparation.
“If you’re working your butt off, you’ll believe you can win,” Jones said.
Jones said his brothers were good wrestlers, but he can one-up them with a state medal. He’s willing to work his butt off to get it.
Austin Cross’ confidence comes from a wealth of experience.
The freshman, competing at 145-pounds, has been wrestling since he was 4 years old, first in Kansas and then in an intense youth league in Ohio before his family moved back to the Sunflower state.
This experience allows Cross to make adjustments in matches — to know when to attack or back away from frantic opponent. Cross also uses considerable length and leverage from his 6-foot-4 frame to keep opponents at bay.
Cross placed second at Hoisington on Sunday, second at the Halstead Invitational Tournament, second at the Hesston Invitational Tournament, and third at the Herington Invitational tournament.
In the three second-place finishes, Cross has run into an opponent who is physically stronger. The downside to wrestling at his height at 145 pounds is that Cross is surrendering strength to older opponents. To combat stronger wrestlers, he said he needs to stay compact and scramble better when in bottom position.
Cross is getting better with each match. He lost to Nic Johnson of Halstead in the final at Hesston. At the time, Johnson was ranked sixth in 3-2-1A. When Cross saw Johnson again at Halstead, he won the match, 8-5.
This past week, Cross lost to the No. 2 ranked wrestler in 3-2-1A, Chance Demel of Hoisington. Demel is the new target. Cross is looking forward to a rematch Feb. 7 in Hoisington.
Those gates crash open, metal on metal, and Levi Mendoza goes into a zone.
The action around him slows down, allowing him to connect with the 1,000-pound beast bucking between his legs. His focus narrows to the bull’s shoulders; he adjusts his hips to match their positioning. His goal is to hold on for at least 8 seconds. Sometimes 8 seconds can feel like an eternity.
Bull riding and wrestling have a few things in common. Mendoza said they both require considerable leg strength, whether trying to control a bull or force a 182-pound grappler off his back. Both require balance in an attempt to control one’s body in the midst of a powerful opposing force.
More importantly, both sports pit Mendoza against a singular foe. It’s up to him, and only him, to prevail.
“I’m not afraid to do stuff,” Mendoza said. “I’m really aggressive.”
Mendoza’s aggressive brawling style has served him well in a third-place finish at Hesston and a sixth-place finish at Halstead. He said he wants to get an opponent flustered and then capitalize on his mistakes. He feels more comfortable going for a head snap than trying to whizzer into a defensive position.
O’Hare said Mendoza needs to attack more selectively in future matches. However, coach and wrestler are both surprised with Mendoza’s progress this season.
Mendoza actually has more experience bull riding than wrestling. He started bull riding with mechanical calves when he was very young, adding that he has taken the sport seriously the past five years. The freshman grappler just starting wrestling in middle school.
O’Hare expected Mendoza to struggle this season. He has taken a few lumps, but he’s dished out a few, too.