BELLEVILLE — Josh Harper was just 4 years old when he started wrestling for the Belleville Little Devils.
Twenty-three years later, the sport is his passion and a big part of his life.
A 2004 Althoff graduate and assistant for the last five years, Harper takes over a Crusaders program rich in state tournament place winners and tradition but currently low on numbers.
Very low. Heading into its season- opening match on Tuesday with Mascoutah, Triad and Mount Olive, Althoff had just eight wrestlers in the entire program.
"We're going with what we've got this season,'' Harper said. "The numbers in the school are down and I think another reason why we have so few kids out is that most kids don't really understand what wrestling is about.
"Wrestling is not an easy sport. You've got to get in the practice room every day and really push yourself in order to get better. We expect a lot out of the kids. We want athletes who will come in every day, work hard and want to continue to get better as the season goes on.''
One of those wrestlers who keeps improving is sophomore Jarid Braunagel. Third in the 113-pound weight division at the Class A State Tournament last season, Braunagel is ranked second at 120 pounds in the most recent Illinois Matmen poll.
"Jarid wrestled a lot this summer in freestyle and greco (Roman) and so he's fine tuned what he's got," Harper said, "He's the type of kid who will get in your face and push you hard for six minutes every time he walks on the mat.''
Harper also has high hopes for Cody Harris. A sectional qualifier, Harris is making the jump from 120 to 138 pounds.
"We think Cody will be just fine. He's a growing kid and that's part of being in this sport. You are going to move up in weight,'' Harper said. "He's been around the block and he knows what to expect. We think he'll have a big season for us.''
Althoff has some depth at the 285-pound class where Gage Rainey is battling Rodney Baker for the starting spot.
Baker is still fairly new to the sport but still managed to qualify for the sectional tournament a year ago.
"Rodney hadn't wrestled much at all until last year but he's a kid who came in every day and gave us everything he had. As the season went on, he had some success and got a little confidence in himself. That's what its all about.''
Maurice Williams is another new-to- the-sport wrestler who is a good athlete and will compete at the 195 pound class, while Andrew Dori (113) is a returning letter winner who got valuable experience last season.
Freshmen Joey Bates (132) and Austin Carey (145) are brand new to the sport.
"But they're both pretty good athletes and they're freshmen and so we're hoping that they'll improve as the season goes on and that we'll be able to develop them in the next three years,'' Harper said.
"Realistically, its going to be tough for us to do anything as a team. But we think we've got the individuals who if they continue to work hard and improve, have the talent to get to the state tournament and bring some medals home.''