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Dominant title run didn't come easy for Norton

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Norton High School had a big poster that hung down from the second level at one end of Gross Memorial Coliseum. The laminated poster had the Bluejays' team motto "Cowboy Up" with each of the state qualifiers dressed in cowboy garb and a nickname.

The words served as the foundation for a Norton team, that despite multiple illnesses and injuries, battled to its second straight Class 3-2-1A state championship at Fort Hays State University with 127 points -- the fourth title for Norton in five seasons, and seventh crown in the last 11.

The Bluejays lost two state medalists for the season in Caysean Campbell and Ethan Ross and Gavin Lively, a returning state qualifier, missed most of the year with injury.

"That's what I finally leveled with the kids in practice," coach Bill Johnson said shortly after the trophy presentation late Saturday.  "This would devastate most teams, they can't overcome that."

But Norton, with its superior depth, could. The Bluejays had just one state champion, senior 113-pounder Branson Addington in a surprising 3-2 victory, but had one runner-up, three others finish third and a pair of wrestlers earn sixth.

All 10 scored. Runner-up Rossville had 81. The Bluejays finished 2.5 points back of last season's winning total.

"Three weeks ago if you would have told me that we would win the state title by (46) points, most of the people in our community would say, 'Well, I don't know,' without three kids that were pretty important to our team not being in the lineup," Johnson said.

Normally, Johnson chooses a wrestler of the week for the hometown weekly Norton Telegram, but said he couldn't do that after state.

"You've had 10 individuals come in and score so many points -- it was a total team effort," Johnson said. "Even the kids that lost, looked outstanding."

Additionally, Johnson and his wife, Joy, had their first grandchild at 1:05 p.m. Friday at Hays Medical Center. Kruz Matthew Wyatt was born to Matthew Wyatt and Kelli Wyatt, the lone daughter of the Johnson family's four children.

"Since we got out early last night, I got to go to the hospital and hold him and spent some time with her," Johnson said. "That was kind of sweet."

Johnson wore a HaysMed green lapel pin showing he was a grandparent.

"We started winning more after my wife brought me that pin," Johnson said with a smile. "...We wrestled not too great before that."

Norton, despite being ranked No. 1 all season, had several struggles, including in early February at the Panther Classic in Phillipsburg. Norton finished fourth at the tournament.

"At the Panther Classic every year, it's about the time you need to either get with the program or get out of the way," Johnson said. "The theme of that meeting was 'Hey, it is time for us to step up.' Because regionals is just around the corner. It was stern, but I think that sometimes you've got to have some tough love. The kids came up and wrestled really well ever since then."

Addington had one of the biggest improvements in the second half of the season. He lost to Thomas More Prep-Marian's Tucker Rhoades, the eventual sixth place finisher at state, at the Western Kansas Tournament of Champions in the last week of January.

At the regional, Addington came back and defeated Rhoades 11-0. At state, Addington defeated previously unbeaten Ty Nienke of Ellsworth in the championship. Nienke defeated Addington 9-2 earlier in the year.

The victory pushed Addington's career record to 100-51 with four state qualifications, including a fourth-place medal last year.

"It's all right up here," Johnson said, pointing to his head. "That's what I tell my kids. All of the postseason is what's going on between this ear and this ear is almost more important than what is going in the weight room or in the wrestling room. My dad always told me, 'If you think you can, or you think you can't, you are probably right.' He thought he could, and he did."

Johnson took a look at the team statistics and noticed Norton had just nine pins among 10 wrestlers. Norton won multiple close matches, including a pair of one-point victories for Addington, two by senior 138-pound runner-up Alec Hager and one each for senior 132-pounder Toby Nickell and senior 170-pounder Cole Renner.

Nickell (11-12) and senior 195-pounder Kolton Harting each lost their first match and came back to take sixth. Johnson couldn't recall the last time he had someone with a losing record collect a state medal.

"That's the Norton way," Johnson said. "I tell them all year, it doesn't matter what happens before regionals, everything else is practice. This is now for real -- and our kids really came to wrestle."

Norton had the state title secured entering the third place and championship rounds, but continued with some upsets. Sophomore Skylar Johnson took third at 106.  

At 145, senior Jared Tallent defeated Oberlin senior standout Dayton Dreher 6-2 for third place. Then, Norton freshman Jacob Green pinned Phillipsburg junior Luke Jacobs for third place before Addington earned the Bluejays' final win of the year in the championship.

"We saw a lot of wild matchups here," coach Johnson said. "Who would have thought that Jared Tallent would be beat Dreher, or that Jacob Green would pin Jacobs? We were not favored."