CHARLOTTESVILLE — For years, the path has been the same for the Eastern Hancock wrestling team. This season, however, the Royals face a new postseason route, along with a new conference, but they aren’t flinching.
Instead, Royals head coach Keith Oliver says, his team, which runs 24 deep, is embracing the challenge ahead and wouldn’t mind shocking a few people in the process.
Formerly part of the Shenandoah Sectional and the Richmond Regional before convening with state contenders such as Warren Central and Greenfield-Central at the New Castle Semistate, Eastern Hancock will see both and more from the start of the state tournament this year.
Part of the IHSAA’s recent sectional realignments for 2017-18, the Royals now join the Warren Central Sectional and must contend with the Perry Meridian Regional, which Oliver remarked, ups the ante a bit to push through for an individual state berth.
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“The other (sectional) was a lot easier to be honest,” Oliver laughed. “You just don’t want to take fourth or third. You want to be in those top-two spots going into the Perry Meridian Regional. That’s what we’ve been focusing on. This whole season is going to be built on conference and sectional.”
While leaving behind the likes of former sectional foes Knightstown, Shenandoah and New Castle, the Royals will now face Franklin Central, Shelbyville, Scecina Memorial, New Palestine, Indianapolis Howe, Indianapolis Lutheran and Triton Central.
At regional, Perry Meridian, Beech Grove and Roncalli join the mix.
“The sectional is going to be good. Warren is good and Greenfield will have a lot of good kids,” Oliver said. “It could be interesting. I think we’ll be in the top four, but Franklin Central has good kids, so you never know.
“We’re in pretty good shape, though. I think we’ll surprise some people this year.”
With a group of five projected seniors in the lineup, including two-time semistate qualifer Jordyn Wills, the Royals are optimistic.
Behind the elder statesmen are a solid band of up-and-coming underclassmen, which Oliver believes will help the team not only contend in the postseason but in the Mid-Eastern Conference.
“I definitely think with losing five seniors from last year, people are thinking it’s a rebuilding year, but I don’t think we’re at that point,” Oliver said. “It’s more of a tuneup year, moving guys up from JV spots to varsity spots that are pretty good.”
Some of the key newcomers are in the lighter weights where freshmen Dylan Anderson at 106 pounds and Ceagan Kendall (113) have cracked the varsity lineup. Sophomore Chase Sweet, who is moving up from 106, will take over at 120.
At 126, the Royals welcome a transfer from Greenfield-Central in Trey Brown, who returns to the mat after a one-year hiatus.
From there, the program’s experience kicks in with Jack Smith, a senior, set to potentially handle 132 once he regains eligibility later this season. Smith placed fourth at sectional last season at 120 with 18 wins. Sophomore Ethan Boyer will hold the spot to begin the year, jumping from 113 as a freshman.
Senior Caleb Giddings, who was 17-9 at 132 in 2016-17, bumps up to 138, while sophomore Garrett Friesen returns at 152 following a 17-win freshman campaign. Giddings placed sixth at sectional as a junior with 17 victories.
“(Caleb) is coming back with a different attitude this year. He did really well toward the end of the year last season, so I think he wants to get out of sectional and move on to regional,” Oliver said. “He’s been showing that in the room and working hard.”
Wills was a sectional runner-up in 2016-17 and placed fourth at regional to earn a semistate berth. He finished the season 30-9 at 145 pounds, but with depth at the middle weights, he could move up to 160 this winter.
Wills’ younger brother, Avery, a freshman, is vying for time at 145 this season, which strengthens the Royals’ lineup through five weight classes.
“Our three best kids in regards to pushing each other in the room are going to be right in a row (in Avery, Friesen and Jordyn),” Oliver said. “We’ll really have the right pieces (from 132 to 160). It will be very beneficial.”
Junior Ben Ferloni will wrestle at 170 with first-year newcomer Tyler VanDervliet, a sophomore, seeing time at 182.
Wes Myers, a senior, returns after a year off, and he will compete at 182 and 195. As a sophomore, Myers went 25-11. Senior Clayton Cochard (22-6) solidifies the upper weights at 195, while junior Alexander Burton anchors the group at 220.
Burton was fourth at sectional last season and finished 26-12 at 220 as a sophomore to place fifth at regional. Freshman Connor Knudson is the projected starter at heavyweight.
“Jordyn definitely has a shot at (state). Alexander Burton is one not to forget about and either is Friesen,” Oliver said. “Alexander is strong. I like what I’ve seen out of him. Jordyn, being a two-time semistate qualifier, he’s got his sights set on going back.”
The team’s schedule and MEC conference affiliation will test the Royals before the postseason with Shenandoah, who carries a handful of ranked wrestlers, entering as the preseason favorite to win the league title.
“We’re going in with the mindset of conference and sectional time, so we have to peak at the right time this year,” Oliver said. “I think Shenandoah will be tough there, but I think it will be between us and them.”
The Royals open the season on Saturday at Indianapolis Arsenal Tech with the John Hurrle Invitational, a 32-team individual-format tournament, which includes sectional foe Warren Central.
Eastern Hancock hosts the MEC Tournament on Jan. 20 and will once again lock up with rival Knightstown at Hoosier Gym for senior night on Jan. 9 after competing in the Avon Super 6 on Jan. 6.