The competitive fire that made him an NCAA Division II All-American at SIU-Edwardsville is still there, but as Belleville East wrestling coach Maurice Brown enters his 20th season of leading the Lancers he has a confession to make.
“I’ve mellowed a little bit,” Brown said on Tuesday. “But I still have the passion for the sport. I’ll never lose that. Wrestling is a great sport because it teaches kids about discipline and hard work and many other things needed to be successful in life.”
The Lancers were successful a year ago. Senior Matt Striegel put the finishing touch on a brilliant high school career with a sixth-place medal at the Class 3A state finals and became the Lancers’ all-time leader in career wins with 144.
East also finished with a winning record and heads into the 2015-16 season with a group of unproven athletes looking to make their mark in the Southwestern Conference.
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“We’re young but this group is one that I think will get better as the season goes on. That’s the hope anyway,” Brown said. “They’re working hard in the room and hopefully by the end of January we’ll be at the point where we’ll be wrestling at our best and be able to get some kids onto the sectional and maybe a couple of them to the state tournament.
“I think we’ve got the kids who have the ability to have good seasons.”
East, getting a clutch pin from freshman Trey Fernandes, opened its season with a win when it rallied to defeat St. Louis power Vianney on Monday.
The Lancers are led by DeWayne Hill at 220 pounds, while Brown also has solid wrestlers in the upper weight classes like Josh Jones (195 pounds), Brad Edwards (182), Fernaldo Greer and James Antonakos, both at 170 and 285-pound wrestlers Matt Kern and Josh Stelling.
But the Lancers best is Hill, who was one of the Lancers’ top football players in the fall.
“I would say DeWayne is probably our top hope of getting to state,” Brown said. “He’s a kid who has had some success a year ago and he has all the physical gifts to be somebody who I think can be a state qualifier if he continues to work hard.
“Not only is he a big strong athlete but he’s got good quickness and speed. We hope he’ll have a big year for us.”
Another wrestler Brown had high hopes for was junior Austin Thurman. A starter in each of his first two years, Thurman will miss the entire season because of a neck injury.
Fernandes, whose father C.J. Fernandes was a standout at East in the 1990’s, will be at 106 pounds, while Sean Epps and Marcus Epps are at 113 and 120 pounds respectively.
Experienced wrestler Logan Barringer (132) along with Justin Sanders (145-152) and Alex Garza (152) also have potential, according to Brown, while senior James Escehnfelder (160) should be able to do the job.
Brown also has capable backups at several weight classes and the longtime Lancers coach also has high hopes for a very good freshman class. But Brown plans to keep his freshmen at that level with perhaps a few moving up to the junior-varsity team sometime during the season.
“You have to be careful with the younger wrestlers and not move them up too quickly,” Brown said. “If you bring them up and they’re not successful it’s sometimes easy for them to become discouraged and some may end up quitting or not reaching their potential later on.
“The key to this sport is that you have to work at it and I don’t just mean during the three-month season. Most of the top wrestlers compete from six months to all year round. It’s like anything. If you want to be good, you need to put in the time.”