Now in his second year as head wrestling coach at Belleville West, Joe Rujawitz is looking toward the future. But the former Maroons all-state wrestler will take a little success along the way.
Rujawitz was in the corner for senior Nick Foster at the State Farm Center in Champaign last year when he claimed his third-straight state medal, placing third in the Class 3A 152-pound weight class.
Foster’s accomplishment marked the eighth year in a row that a Maroons matman placed at state. But Rujawitz wants more for his West program.
“I want this program to be good — very good. But I don’t want us to be good one year then not so good the next two or three years. I think last year we had kind of a rude awakening. We were 13-12, but dual teamwise I thought we were pretty soft,” Rujawitz said. “I thought we were going to be good, but we had some kids get injured, we had kids quit and honestly, we weren’t as good as they thought they were.
“This year we’re going to be young. We’ve got a solid nucleus of kids who will be state qualifiers and hopefully state-medal winners in the next two years. And we’ve got a bunch of kids who are green but very athletic. It’s our job as coaches to help these guys progress ... so they’re very good by the time they are juniors and seniors.”
Two seniors — Tristan Caswell (170 pounds) and Isreal Griffin (285) — will be leaders both in and out of the wrestling room. The other two seniors are Kaylee Foster (152) and Brooke Holt (145), who are among the top female high school grapplers in the nation and will wrestle next year in college.
But of the 63 athletes on the Maroons roster, 15 are freshman, and many more are sophomores.
“The 15 freshmen are all good athletes. They aren’t on the team as a punishment at from home for not cleaning their rooms or something. They are here because they want to be here, and with the sophomore class we have, we have a chance to be really strong the next three or four years,” Rujawitz said. “The key is getting the kids to trust us and to buy into what we’re telling them on what they have to do in order to be successful.
“I just want our kids to continue to improve. If they do that, we’re going to have success.”
Two wrestlers Rujawitz hopes will improve as the season progresses are freshmen Noah Trap (106) and Hunter Laminack (113), who have won the starting jobs in their weight classes. Both have wrestled in junior high and in little league programs.
Sophomores Simon Elam and Dylan Rainey both saw time in the varsity lineup a year ago and will split time at the 120-pound weight class.
Sophomore Mitch Millsap and junior Justin Koderhandt lead a strong group of Maroons wrestlers in the 126- to 145-pound divisions. Millsap is a transfer from Granite City and figures to get even better by working out with Koderhandt each day in practice.
“I fully expect that by the time he is a senior that Mitch will be a state-tournament medal-winner. He’s a very strong wrestler, and the kids we have between 126 and 145 pounds will make him even better,” Rujawitz said. “Justin (Koderhandt) is a quality kid who got to the sectional and missed getting to state by a couple of matches. He’s worked hard in the offseason, and we think he’ll have a big year for us.”
Junior Garrett Bass and sophomore Logan Johnson are perhaps the Maroons’ best hopes of running the streak of state medals to nine-straight years. Bass was a state qualifier a year ago and has the strength and ability to be on the state medal stand in February.
Johnson had a sensational freshman season a year ago, winning over 40 matches, and like Bass, has the ability to be a state medal winner in the 145-pound weight class.
Juniors Ransom Widener (152) and Stefan Caswell (160) may face a tough road in their weight classes, while senior Tristan Caswell looks to build on an excellent football season with an equally-impressive performance on the wrestling mat.
Juniors Antwan Stith (182) and Turon Johnson (195) are both good athletes and could be solid contributors for the Maroons, while sophomore Alhagi Khargbo (220) and Griffin (285) round out the Maroons’ lineup.