BELLEVILLE — The self-proclaimed dean of wrestling coaches in the Southwestern Conference, Maurice Brown enters his 19th season at Belleville East with perhaps his best tournament team in ages.
The Lancers have three of the top wrestlers in southern Illinois in Lucas Bernal at 113 pounds, Matt Striegel (160 pounds) and Jeff Brown (285) and six to eight other solid competitors with the ability to go deep in tournament draws.
"We're going to have some weight classes where we're going to be inexperienced and not as strong as others. But where we are strong, I think we've got the athletes who will be able to win some matches and maybe have two or three reach the finals of the tournaments we're in,'' Brown said. "I honestly feel we'll be a pretty good tournament team this season.''
The Lancers, who opened their season on Tuesday against Mount Vernon, have solid numbers in the program. Brown said that 50 wrestlers are competing for mat time at the varsity, junior-varsity and freshmen levels.
But while the number of wrestlers has diminished in recent years, Brown said that the ones competing are probably in for the long haul.
"I don't think kids have changed that much. I think a lot of the fewer wrestlers we've got stems from the fact that there are more things for kids to be involved in,'' Brown said. "You've got bowling now and you have more boys playing volleyball then ever before.
"We'll still get the kids that come out for wrestling and find out after a week or two that it's not for them. But most of the ones we have now understand what's expected of them because they love the sport.''
Tyler Torres (106), Bernal and Isiah Thomas (120) will be the Lancers' starters in the lightweight classes. Of the three, Bernal has the most experience.
A Class 3A sectional qualifier a year ago, Bernal is one of the most dedicated wrestlers on the team.
"Lucas' goal is to be a state champion,'' Brown said. "He's worked very hard last spring and summer. He went to the J Robinson (University of Minnesota) camp and I bet he's had 50 to 70 matches over the offseason. I look for him to have a great season.''
Jordan Hunter (126), Lutrell Hardison (132) and Tyler Sullivan (138) are the current frontrunners for starting jobs in their respective weight classes, while Hunter Coil (145) and Austin Thurman (152) may have their work cut to compete in the middle weight classes.
Striegel will be at 160 pounds for the postseason, but may wrestle most of his matches at 170, especially early in the season.
A state tournament qualifier last season, Striegel could be one of the top middleweight wrestlers in the state this season, especially if he has improved in one area.
"Matt needed to get better in the neutral position,'' Brown said. "He was a good mat wrestler. Good on both top and bottom. He just needed to get better on his feet. By what I've seen so far, he's done that.''
Greg Cobb will also see action at 170 pounds, while Trevor Bridges and Cody Patterson are battling at 182.
Dewayne Hill (195), Savori Love (220) and Jeff Brown (285) round out the Lancers' lineup.
And while Highland senior and defending Class 2A state champion Tanner Farmer is head and shoulders the best heavyweight in the metro-east, Brown is certainly in that next group.
Maurice Brown thinks Edwardsville will again be the team to beat in the Southwestern Conference this season.