CHARLOTTESVILLE — After every practice and during every meet, the Eastern Hancock wrestling team breaks with a single word.
It’s hardly lip service, said Royals third-year head coach Keith Oliver. It’s a direct description of what his team is shooting for by season’s end.
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“I asked the kids the first day of practice this year what they wanted to do. They said, ‘We want to be champions,’” Oliver said. “That’s what the goal is, we want to win a sectional title. … I think anything is attainable for them, if we keep working hard and keep doing the right things.”
So far this year, Oliver’s Royals have done little wrong.
The team has shot out to an 11-1 start, winning the Cambridge City Invitational last weekend and only losing to rival Knightstown, 51-27, during the Panthers’ Invitational after Thanksgiving.
Their recent success and winning trend isn’t anything new with the team finishing 22-11 last season and claiming it’s second consecutive Mid-Hoosier Conference championship.
A sectional title, however, has proven elusive with the Royals taking third in back-to-back seasons. Eastern Hancock hasn’t won a sectional since 2001-02 when Oliver, a former heavyweight for the Royals, helped the program snap a 16-year drought with a repeat feat, beginning in 2000-01.
“That was actually my junior and senior year in high school. We won back-to-back. It’s been a long time since though,” Oliver said. “We’re wanting to do it. The kids really want to do it, and we can’t ask for better work than what we’re getting at practice to try to accomplish it.”
Behind a pair of unbeaten wrestlers, two senior leaders and the return of three regional qualifiers and a semistate qualifer, the Royals are making progress daily.
“There are a couple of guys on the this team that have the desire to be great, and that’s what we’re trying to teach every day,” Oliver said. “If we do that, then I think we have some kids that could be really good.”
Senior team captain Jared Waterman is already well on his way, carrying a 12-0 record with seven pins this season at 152 pounds.
Last year, he won sectional at 160 pounds and was runner-up at regional before closing the book with a 39-5 record.
“The sky is limit for him. If we can get him to do a few more things on top, he can have a shot at reaching (state),” Oliver said. “He just has to keep working. There aren’t many kids who will out work him in the room.”
If anyone is close, it’s senior captain Dakota Myers, a regional qualifier a year ago, who is 6-1 at 170 and recently went 4-1 at 182 out of necessity.
The team’s third team captain, sophomore Wes Myers, is leading by example in the room and on the mat with a 10-2 record at 220 pounds and 10 pins, despite giving up 20 pounds every match.
Brandon Francis, a junior, is the team’s “dark horse,” said Oliver. Wrestling at 160, Francis is a perfect 8-0 on the year.
Junior Gabe Blake, a regional qualifier in 2014-15, is 9-3 at 132 through the first few weeks, winning seven straight matches and building momentum.
“He’s a cradle machine,” Oliver said of Blake. “He’s been winning. He’s very flexible and hard to put on his back. He’s a special kind of kid.”
Josh Robinson, a junior heavyweight, who placed fifth at sectional as a sophomore, is 11-1 on the season with 10 pins. His only loss has been to Union County’s Clark Minges, who is ranked 12th by Indianamat.
Sophomore Jack Smith (8-4) has jumped from 106 to 113 after going 31-12 last season. Jordyn Wills (9-3), a sophomore, has gone up two weight classes from 120 to 132. He was 25-11 as a freshman.
Austin Henderson, a junior, is 10-2 at 126 and is benefiting from being training partners with Wills as evident by his 10-match winning streak.
Junior Devyn Brinson, who works with Waterman, is 8-4 at 182 while weighing around 162. Junior Colby Hunt at 195 is off to a 9-3 start.
But the lineup remains fluid, said Oliver, who along with assistant coach and New Palestine graduate Robbie Elsea, are always looking to fortify their team for a late- January run. Elsea placed eighth at state as a senior for the Dragons at 145 pounds in 2013.
“Mitch Guinn (a regional qualifier last year) can potentially go down to 220, and if he does, I think that will make our lineup a lot stronger with (Wes) Myers dropping to 195,” Oliver said.
“It’s a process, though. When I took over three years ago, we weren’t very good. We had very few kids, little technique, just heart. I’ve seen vast improvements across the board since. Potentially, this could be our best year yet.”
Eastern Hancock Wrestling Starting Lineup
113 pounds: Jack Smith, sophomore
120: Caleb Giddings, sophomore
126: Austin Henderson, junior
132: Jordyn Wills, sophomore
138: Gabe Blake, junior
145: Jayson Bowers, junior
152: Jared Waterman, senior
160: Brandon Francis, junior
170: Dakota Myers, senior
182: Devyn Brinson, junior
195: Colby Hunt, junior
220: Wes Myers, sophomore
Heavyweight: Josh Robinson, junior