With 25 years of coaching experience, the last 10 at O’Fallon Township High School, Panther wrestling coach Glenn Exton knows what it takes to field a competitive team.
The 2016-17 campaign will challenge the veteran coach’s expertise in building a lineup even though the Panthers return a solid nucleus of talented and successful wrestlers. O’Fallon could be caught in a numbers game that will make winning problematic — especially in the highly competitive tournaments that are the rule rather than the exception on the Panthers’ schedule.
“We have six really strong wrestlers in the middle of our lineup, and the rest of the weight divisions are solid, with the exception of the lightweights,” Exton said. “In our opening tournament, for example, we will have four open spots, which we will forfeit. That’s 24 points. No matter how dominating your other wrestlers are, it will be extremely difficult to make up those points.”
Exton hopes sliding some of his grapplers into the lighter weights can cover some of the deficiencies in the OTHS lineup, but it will be an ongoing process as the season unfolds.
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Despite the holes in the lineup, the Panthers will be rock solid, beginning with the 126 lb. weight class and extending through their heavyweight wrestler.
“We will put some very talented wrestlers on the mat who have proven their ability in previous seasons,” Exton said.
Senior Alek Ziegler begins the parade of potential standouts at 120 lbs. Ziegler will move up from 106 lbs. to fill O’Fallon’s 120-lb. weight class. Exton foresees Ziegler as a potential state qualifier, combining mat acumen with superior physical attributes.
Sophomore Alex Fulton was a varsity starter as a freshman and completed his first tour of duty on the mat as a sectional qualifier. This year Fulton will hold down the 126-lb. weight class, providing a one-two punch with Ziegler.
Junior veteran Jack Bond will follow Fulton to the mat for the Panthers, but Exton is not sure what spot Bond will fill.
“Bond is an outstanding wrestler — definitely a threat to advance to the state finals,” Exton said. “He has worked diligently in the offseason and is even stronger than he was last year. He will start the year at 160 lbs. Wherever he fits into our lineup, he will be counted on to give us victories.”
Beginning at 152 lbs., the Panthers will be formidable. Senior Caleb Carriel will fill that slot for O’Fallon. Carriel is a four-year starter and ended last season just short of 30 wins. Jake DeLange, another senior, moved into the program last year and will wrestle at 170 lbs. He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 19-16 record.
A trio of senior grapplers will spearhead the OTHS attack: Mason Hewitt (182 lbs.), Kobey Bosworth (195 lbs.) and Brian Ahle (220 lbs.). Hewitt and Bosworth are entering their fourth seasons as varsity starters, and Ahle will be in his second year of varsity action.
Hewitt, who just completed a record-setting season on the gridiron, will transfer his strength, agility and athleticism to the mat, bringing impressive credentials with him as a two-time wrestling MVP and state qualifier. Bosworth and Ahle also bring experience and confidence to the mat, each having posted banner seasons as juniors last year.
After three highly-successful years in the O’Fallon youth program, freshman Mason Baker will hold down the 285 lb. weight class for the Panthers. Exton believes Baker will be up to the task of making the transition to high school competition.
Additional OTHS matmen who will be counted on to fill significant roles include senior Jalen Jones and juniors Andrew Nunez and Michael Faulkner.
“We expect all three to contribute,” Exton said. “Jones will wrestle at 132 lbs. and bring a lot of experience to the table. Nunez is trying to certify at 113 lbs. If he makes that weight, it will give us a chance to slide Ziegler and Jones. That’s an option that would make our team stronger, but it remains to be seen if that is something we will be able to do. Faulkner can fill either the 138 or 145 slot.”
The holes at the lightweight end of the lineup are the major cause for concern — an issue that will need to be rectified if the Panthers are to compete on equal terms in the rugged Southwestern Conference, as well as in major tournaments on the OTHS schedule, such as Geneseo and the Francis Howell tournament. Edwardsville, Collinsville, Belleville West and Belleville East will provide the stiffest challenge in league competition.
“We expect to compete like we have done every year,” Exton said. “If forfeitures don’t bite us, I’m confident that our core kids will be some of the best wrestlers in the area this year. That should make for some exciting mat action.”