Norton coach Bill Johnson watched his Bluejays lean on each other as they coped with two unfathomable tragedies last year.
The bond they built was evident in the Class 3-2-1A tournament this weekend at Gross Memorial Coliseum, as the inspired Bluejays seemingly fed off each other’s performances to put themselves in position for a team title.
In an emotional scene, the Bluejays sealed the deal on Saturday thanks to championships from Darius Shields, Kolton Field and Cole Amlong.
The day largely belonged to Shields, who honored the memory of his late mother, Lori Shields, by winning the 106-pound title as Bluejay wrestlers and Norton supporters were overcome with emotion.
"I know she’s proud. I know she’s cheering loud up there like she always did," Shields said.
Lori Shields, 38, was found dead in her home on April 7, 2019. Her husband, Damien Shields, was arrested in connection with the murder.
Darius has stayed with Johnson since his mother’s death. He said using wrestling as an outlet has helped him cope.
"I’ve just worked harder. Never stopped, just kept working," he said.
"He’s a fighter," Johnson said.
After completing a 5-0 decision win against Goodland’s D.J. Knox in the final, Shields received the biggest applause of the weekend from the crowd. He pointed to the sky.
"I promised my mom I’d be a state champion, and I did it," Shields said.
Shields jumped into the arms of Johnson for a big embrace following the match.
"He’s a father figure to me and I just love making him proud," Shields said.
And Johnson said he loves having Shields as part of his family.
"He’s a great kid; he’s a 4.0 student," Johnson said. "We just had a kid that went off to college, our last, so we had an empty nest and an opportunity to give him a place to stay."
Shields avenged a loss by fall to Knox in the regional final.
"(In the regional), Darius got taken down right away and got pinned in the very first period, so it wasn’t even a close match. I could see in Darius’ eyes that he wasn’t ready to go."
On Saturday, however, Johnson "had a good feeling that (Shields) was on."
His intuition was right, with Shields controlling the match.
"I had to come out here more aggressive than he did and take more shots, because I knew if I got to his legs, I would win the match," Shields said
Just one day after Lori Shields’ death last April, Norton was hit with another tragedy. Sophomore Thunder Linner, a junior varsity wrestler for the Bluejays, was killed in a farm accident.
Johnson said the Bluejays grew closer than ever through the tragedies. He said Linner’s death had a profound effect on Field, in particular, noting that after Linner’s death, Field pushed himself to "get on the right track."
Field, who did not finish the season last year due to disciplinary reasons, captured the 120-pound crown with a breakthrough showing in the tournament.
"That wasn’t surprising to me," Johnson said. "I knew that he could do it."
Field entered the tournament with a 24-15 mark and was ranked No. 6.
"I had a good feeling," Field said. "I just kept confident. I knew if I kept to my game plan, I could come out here and do something."
He made his presence felt immediately, upsetting top-seeded Tom VanValkenburg from Council Grove with a 7-6 decision in the first round.
"I just had to keep pushing and keep attacking," Field said. "He liked to wait for me, so I just had to keep on going.
"That first match really bumped (the confidence) up, because no one was expecting it."
Field pulled out a wild 16-12 win over Smith Center’s Colton Shoemaker in the final, officially clinching the team title for Norton. Norton finished with 120 points, seven points ahead of second-place Hoxie.
As he was gearing up for the match, Field saw Shields earn his championship to give the Bluejays a commanding lead.
"It sealed the deal for us," Field said. "I knew the pressure was off me. I knew I would get it done.
"His mom would be happy right now."
Amlong captured his title at 170 pounds after finishing runner-up at that weight a year ago. He beat Cimarron’s Tate Seabolt with a 4-2 decision in the final.
"From the beginning of the year, I knew that if I worked hard and wrestled my matches that I could come out on top," Amlong said.
"He’s worked his tail off," Johnson said of Amlong. "He’s the one that’s been our rock. He’s always doing the extra work that it takes to try to be a state champion. His goal was to go out a state champion and he was able to do that."
Norton led 95-88 after the first day of the tournament and maintained a slim lead throughout Saturday over Hoxie. The Indians’ Dylan Weimer became a two-time state champion with a title at 138 pounds, while Derek Johnson won the crown at 132 pounds and Hoxie’s Drew Bell took the title at 126.
In addition to its three champions, Norton got solid showings from Judson Wiltfong and Camdyn Unterseher, who placed fourth at 220 and 132 pounds, respectively.
"It’s awesome," Amlong said. "I love my teammates; they’re my brothers. We work hard in the practice room every day and do what we can to make each other better. It’s really awesome to see us come together and wrestle like this at the state tournament."
"No one expected Norton to come out of nowhere until the regional tournament; we were right behind (Hoxie)," Field said. "At state, we knew we could give it a good shot at the end."
It was Norton’s 11th state title under Johnson.
"We were not expected to win this," Johnson said. "I think we might have had a losing record in our dual meet competitions this year.
"There’s been many times we’ve come down here and were a heavy favorite to win. It’s always more exciting when you do something that no one thinks you can do."
Johnson said the back-and-forth battle with Hoxie was reminiscent of when the Bluejays won their first team title in 2004.
"It takes me back to the old days with us and Hoxie," Johnson said. "(In 2004) it was back and forth and back and forth, very similar to this. That time it came down to the heavyweight match, the very last match in the tournament, and we won in overtime to beat Hoxie.
"It’s kind of neat to have that rivalry. But I didn’t really call it a rivalry this year, because they kicked our butt the whole year. We were just able to come up at the right time."