When the Garden City Buffaloes wrestling team walks onto the mats Friday at 1 p.m., they will do so with one of youngest groups in recent memory.
Of the 13 wrestlers who will compete in the Class 6A super regional at Wichita South, nine are underclassmen. There are two each in the junior and senior classes.
In addition to the youth movement of this year’s team, the Buffs will be without their head coach, Carlos Prieto, who has been ill now for two weeks and will be absent this weekend.
In his stead will be assistant head coach Paul Lappin, a former GCHS standout, along with former Buffs who now comprise a solid staff in Kevin Perez, Jacob Waller, Joey Dozier and Shannon Ford. Dozier and Ford are in their first year with the program. Dozier is a former state champ and Ford a state medalist.
“Yeah, we’re definitely a young team, and we’ve been even younger since the first of December due to some injuries,” Lappin said Wednesday. “We lost some kids, but the ones we have now have had to step up and be the man in their weight class, and I think we’re at the point where they’re ready to compete.”
One of those youngsters, sophomore Jacob Holt (33-8), returns as a state champion from his freshman season, when he claimed the 113-pound title with 13 losses.
“Our schedule is tougher at many tournaments than what we see at the regionals and even state,” Lappin said. “We’ve got some kids who are unranked, who have beaten some of the kids who are ranked right now (by Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association).”
In 2017, the Buffs string of four consecutive state team titles came to an end with a third-place finish behind Manhattan and Campus.
With the new super regional format in place, a wrestler who places in the top eight will advance to the Class 6A state tournament the following week on Feb. 23-24 at Hartman Arena in Park City, just north of Wichita.
Lappin said to finish among the top eight, a wrestler would need to win at least two consecutive matches, either on the championship side of the bracket or the consolation side, when they move into cross-bracketing matches on Saturday.
That toughness in the West regional is exemplified by the fact that seven of the top 10 ranked teams will be competing with the Buffs, who are currently ranked No. 6 in 6A.
That group includes Derby (1), Topeka-Washburn Rural (3), defending champion Manhattan (4), Dodge City (5), Wichita South (7) and Lawrence-Free State (8). Olathe North (2), Olathe South (9) and Blue Valley-Northwest (10) are in the East regional.
Other teams in the West regional include Campus, Hutchinson, Junction City, Topeka, Wichita East, Wichita North, Wichita Northwest, Wichita Southeast and Wichita West.
After the difficult December-January schedule of weekend tournaments from Kansas City to Denver, Colo., the Buffs have had just two dual matches (wins over Hays and Colby) in the past two weeks. That came on the heels of the late January Rocky Welton Invitational that they hosted, where they finished ninth in a field of 36 teams from four states.
The freshmen group includes Steven Sellers (106, 32-10), Trey Medina (152, 28-15) and Jacob Sims (160, 15-18). Sophomores are Silas Pineda (113, 24-12), Holt (126, 33-8), Wyatt McElroy (145, 12-6), Alex Rodriguez (170, 31-15) and Refugio Chairez (285, 22-8).
The upperclass group includes juniors Andrew Garcia (138, 14-13) and Julian Facio (220, 14-19) while seniors Kaj Perez (132, 25-12) and Jonathan Fernandez (182, 3-3) round out the lineup. The Buffs are open at the 195-pound weight class.
The lineup is missing Elijahblu Ruiz Hernandez (138), who returned from an injury and lost in a challenge match to Garcia; Curtis Near (Sr., 152, injured in early Jan.); and Alex Herrera (Jr., 120), injured the first week of the season.
In addition to Holt’s title a year ago, Pineda is the lone returning medalist for the Buffs, having placed sixth at 106 a year ago before moving up to 113 this season. Perez also is a former state runner-up at 106 in his freshman year.
Area notes: The remainder of the southwest Kansas area schools will be competing in respective regionals on Friday and Saturday, too. Class 4A will be at Arkansas City, with Holcomb, Hugoton and Ulysses among the competing teams. In Class 3-2-1A, Goodland will be the regional site, where Scott City will be the most likely team to compete for top honors and qualify a number of state-ranked wrestlers. The 4A and 3-2-1A state meets also are on Feb. 23-24 at the Tony's Pizza Events Center in Salina (formerly the Bicentennial Center) and at Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays.
Tanner Johnson (170, 4th) and Chance Rodriguez (182, 3rd) will be Holcomb's top two contenders to advance to state in the Ark City regional.
Scott City's team is currently ranked No. 2 in Class 3-2-1A, behind Hoisington and the Beavers head into regionals with four state-ranked members. That group includes Justus McDaniel (1st at 126), Kaden Wren (2nd at 132), Jarret Jurgens (2nd at 160), and Wyatt Hayes (1st at 170). Cimarron has defending state champion Josh Seabolt (182 a year ago) entering as the No. 1-ranked 195-pounder while teammate Braiden Lynn (5th, 126) also is a top contender. Lakin sophomore Hadley Panzer is ranked No. 2 at 285 pounds and is a good candidate for reaching the finals.