BY DEAN HOCKNEY
CONVERSE, Ind. – The annual IHSAA wrestling sectional is a means to eliminate weaker wrestlers and advance the best to the next week. For the Western Panthers, there was no elimination. In a dominating effort, all 14 Panthers wrestlers will advance to the Peru Regional next Saturday, with six moving on as champions of the Oak Hill Sectional.
In a dominating team performance, Western ended Oak Hill’s four-year title reign by topping the Golden Eagles by 78 points (283.5 to 205.5). Marion finished third in the 11-team field with 137 points, followed by Eastern (127.5), Kokomo (88), Tri-Central (87), Mississinewa (85), Northwestern (80.5), Madison-Grant (72), Eastbrook (45) and Taylor (7). All 14 Western wrestlers finished third or better to advance to the regional while Eastern will take six to the regional, Northwestern five and Kokomo three.
“They came out and responded and we were really, really good today,” said Western head coach Chad Shepherd, whose squad won its first 15 matches of the day. “We just put 14 guys into the regional, and that has never happened. And we set a new (Oak Hill) tournament record (old record was 164.5 set by Kokomo in 2005). It was not a perfect day, but it was pretty close.”
The Panthers entered as the tournament favorite after winning the Hoosier Conference tournament and posting a 17-3 dual record. But Shepherd said he did not want his team to be distracted entering the sectional.
“We have talked about finishing and not taking anything for granted,” he said. “We were the team with the big X on our backs, and at the end of the day, we did very well.”
Shepherd pointed out that three wrestlers entered the sectional with undefeated records, and only Eastbrook’s Christian Bratcher (44-0) left without a blemish after he won the 160-pound title 14-3 over Western freshman Jerry Padgett. Along the way, Panthers sophomore Chandler Ciscell (25-12) pulled off an upset with a 12-4 major decision over Eastern freshman Tallan Morrisett (37-1) in the 120-pound championship match. And at 132-pounds, Western sophomore Hunter Cottingham (39-2) won a 5-3 decision over Tri-Central sophomore Ethan Mason (35-1).
“Chandler Ciscell wrestled awesome all day,” said Shepherd. “Morrisett had beaten us earlier. This time, we thought we could win. Chandler has wrestled some really tough competition in the last month, and his record does not indicate what he has accomplished. He had the best week of practice of anyone on the team, and you could see that today. He is on fire.”
Other Western champions included Tyler Lechner (126-pounds), Hunter Cottingham (132), Dylan Goudy (138) and Donavan Shepherd (152); Matt Scott (182) and Lane Eubank (285) each earned runners-up honors; Justin Brantley (106), Aidan Belt (113), Luke Lechner (145), Kevin Lenahan (170) and Luke Lushin (195) placed third.
All season, Shepherd has talked about how the Panther wrestling program had toughened its schedule, including a trip to No. 2-ranked Warren Central. With a conference and sectional championship under its belt, the enhanced competition level Western has faced all season seems to have paid off.
“Most people don’t do that the week before the sectional,” Shepherd said of the Warren Central trip. “Warren beat us in a tough meet, and their coach came up to me afterward and said we had a ‘tough team.’ We are battle tested.”
For Eastern, joining Tallan Morrisett as sectional runners-up were Macaiah White (126), Tytus Morrisett (138), Aren Turner (145) and Garrett Hetzner (170). Bryce Buckley finished fourth (160).
Northwestern battled in the Oak Hill Sectional for the first time after moving from the Peru Sectional. Bodey Henry (132) and Patrick Harris (182) placed third while Marcos Castorena (126), Evan Cardwell (195) and Kyle Cardwell (220) took home fourth place finishes.
“To be very honest, we had a tough day as a team. As individuals we just made way too many mistakes in key matches,” said Tigers head coach Steve Swinson. “I was very happy for senior Patrick Harris. He wrestled really well today and captured his milestone 100th career win.”
Kokomo had Austin Johnson (152) and Anthony Fox (285) place third while Wilmer Corrales (113) took home a fourth-place finish.
The next stop for the Panthers and the other 14 Howard County qualifiers is the Peru Regional this Saturday at 9 a.m. Admission to the regional is $7, and the top four qualify for the New Haven Semi-State at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 10. This year’s IHSAA State Finals are slated for Feb. 16-17 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.