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3-2-1A: Norton uses rare schedule to better prepare

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Norton Community High School coach Bill Johnson finished in the top four every year of his wrestling career at Fort Hays State University. That included one national championship and two runner-up finishes. For many national tournaments, collegians arrive several days prior -- similar to the unique schedule for the Class 3-2-1A state tournament this weekend at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Because of the massive snowstorm that hit the state, the Kansas State High School Activities Association switched the state wrestling schedule from its usual Friday morning start to 4 p.m. Instead of wrestling three rounds of action, Friday featured just two rounds and concluded after 11 p.m. Norton arrived Wednesday, and spent two days in Hays before competing.

Norton, which qualified a tournament-high nine wrestlers, rolled to a big lead with 58.5 Day 1 points. Oberlin-Decatur Community and Plainville were tied for second with 39 points. The Bluejays were in position for their sixth state title in the last decade, and a big turnaround following a rare 16th-place finish last winter.

"That's what I told my team -- it feels like a national tournament in college," Johnson said. "You are there on-site several days before the tournament begins, and that's why I think I was able to prepare them for factors that we can control and factors that we absolutely can't control, and I think it's paying off."

Throughout the week, Johnson imposed a media blackout and called all information about his team "classified." Outside of answering one question about preparing with the different schedule, Johnson held to his silence.

"The semifinals haven't even been wrestled yet, so I would really like to respect the team's classified talking," Johnson said. "No information."

Instead, Johnson let his team's results -- and Norton's many displays of emotions and joy tell the story. The Bluejays still had all nine wrestlers competing Saturday. Norton went 8-1 in first-round matches with four wins by fall, one technical fall, one major decision and two decisions. Overall, Norton finished 15-3, including 6-2 in winner's bracket quarterfinals matches. All six of those wrestlers, including four whom had never placed at state before, were guaranteed medals.

"We are on a mission, and that mission is not even halfway completed yet," Johnson said.

Saturday morning featured the winner's bracket semifinals, a round normally reserved for the last part of Friday. Yet, the weather changed everything and forced a compressed schedule. KSHSAA wrestling administrator Mark Lentz, at Hays on Friday, said he had never dealt with a situation like this week.

"It's not something that we want, but Mother Nature did it, and we are going to adjust and move forward and try to keep it a positive, because it's still about the kids," Lentz said.

KSHSAA moved Friday's start time to 4 p.m. to accommodate 76 schools from all across the state traveling to Hays. Plus, the Class 4A meet occurred in Salina and the 5A and 6A meets were at Hartman Arena in Park City.

"One, we had to make sure that all sites had teams there," Lentz said. "We wanted to make sure all of our athletes arrived on time and were able to get here, and good thing we pushed it back, because it took everybody all that time to get everybody here. Plus, our mats didn't arrive here until about 3:20 (Friday), because of the fact that I-70 was closed, and then we condensed (Saturday) a little bit, because we want to get everybody home safely at all the sites, because of the melting and then the refreezing."

Lentz said KHSAA contemplated a Saturday/Sunday schedule, but wanted to keep all three sites on a similar schedule. On Sunday, the Bicentennial Center in Salina was hosting a youth wrestling tournament. The Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference had its postseason basketball tournament at Hartman Arena early next week and needed time to set up. Plus, another storm is expected to come in today. The fifth, third and championship matches will run at the same time Saturday.

"I think that it will create an exciting environment, because every team point is going to matter, and I think people will be excited," Lentz said. "It's not something that we are looking to do in the future, but it's something that we feel like is best in this condition, which has really been a crazy year."

The Bluejays, not expected to contend for a championship for most of the year, won the Norton regional last week. Norton immediately took the lead Friday when sophomore 106-pounder Caysean Campbell won by fall in 1 minute, 47 seconds, the first result of the state tournament. After the first round, Norton had 26.5 points, 9.5 ahead of runner-up Hoisington.

Campbell, in his first state appearance, started the winner's quarterfinals with another huge win, a 9-7 victory against Ellsworth junior Ty Nienke, the defending state runner-up. Nienke led 6-4 with 48 seconds left in the second period, but Campbell picked up four points and led 8-7 after the second period. As the clock ran out, Nienke sat back on the mat and put his head down.

Johnson, long known for his sideline gymnastics and constant chatter during a match, wore a big smile. Campbell ran over to Johnson, jumped into his coach's arms and the two bear hugged. A similar moment occurred at 120 pounds when Bluejay junior Branson Addington collected a 7-5 win in his second match. Addington is a three-time state qualifier, but this winter marked his first medal. At 145 pounds, senior Cody Ellis went 2-0 to clinch his first career state medal. As well, senior 220-pounder Lucas Engel earned a state medal with 14-8 and 2-1 decisions.

With the winner's bracket semifinals going Saturday, 56 wrestlers (as opposed to 28) still had a chance to win a state title.

Other than Norton, perhaps no area team had more finality Friday than Smith Center. The Redmen were tied for 10th with 21 points At 182, though, senior Kyler Atwood missed an opportunity to match his brother Matt's state title. Atwood lost in the quarterfinals, 9-8, to Riley-Riley County junior Gavin Grater. Redmen coach Brock Hutchinson said he was "very disappointed."

"Gavin Grater is a great wrestler, but we controlled that whole match," Hutchinson said. "Except for about 10 seconds, and we got beat because of it."

But freshman 106-pounder Cale Rogers and, his brother, junior 126-pounder Clint Rogers, clinched medals. Last year, Clint lost in the first round and battled back to place

"Nutrition was better this week," Hutchinson said. "More focused this week."

Including four state titles from their older brother, Colt, the three Rogers brothers, have combined for eight state medals in eight opportunities.

"Very happy for those kids," Hutchinson said. "They work their tails off as the whole team does."