The Jamestown High School wrestling team is planning to pick up right where they left off last February.
"We're really excited to be returning the bulk of our state placers and the bulk of our roster," JHS head wrestling coach Larry Eslick said. "The kids are really chomping at the bit to start where we left off and to be in the mix. Our expectations are high."
As of this writing, the wrestling team's first day of practice is slated for Nov. 30, while the first dual of the season is scheduled to be held on Dec. 18 at Turtle Mountain Community High School in Belcourt.
The Blue Jays concluded a successful 2019 season at the state tournament in Fargo. As a team, the Blue Jays had not competed at state since transitioning to the Western Dakota Association (WDA) in 2003.
Jamestown came away with nine state-placers all told -- the most ever for the program -- and placed fourth in the Class A wrestling team standings with 136 points. Eslick was named the 2019 Class A wrestling coach of the year.
The Jays will return state placers Colten Mewes, Joel Bowman, Jackson Walters, Talor Huebner and Pete Rasmussen. Mewes and Bowman placed third at 138 and 126 pounds, respectively, in Fargo, while Walters (145) and Huebner (120) placed seventh.
Rasmussen finished fifth in the 106-pound bracket.
While proud of the success found on the mat last season, Eslick said with every new year comes new goals.
"It's always tough to lose a state champion, but the last seven years we've had five state champions," Eslick said. "It seems like we have good leaders that leave behind an incredible mark on the team so we can keep finishing high and keep kids in the running for a championship.
Eslick said many teams out of the WDA have graduated more talent than the Blue Jays. The Jays lost defending 152-pound state champ Noah Braun and state placers in Cody Huebner and Johnny Browning.
Aden Braun, a sophomore for the Jays, will be returning to the mat a little bigger than he left it.
Braun wrestled at 113 pounds last season posting a 56-12 record and tallying 33 pins, 11 technical falls and three major decisions. At state, Braun cruised to the title match, defeating Willison's Micah Larson (11-0), Grand Forks Central's Tyson Gass (fall) and Bismarck Century's Neal Bohrer (10-4).
Braun fell to Bismarck High's Christian Tanefeau in the state title match. Now, seven months later, Eslick is expecting big things from the two-time state placer.
"Aden is a little bigger this year -- he should be the favorite anywhere he goes," Eslick said. "His goal and his mindset is to be a champion and experience that top of the podium, and I think this year is the year it will happen."
Individual and team titles may happen, but it won't be an easy road leading up to the state tourney.
"Bismarck High is always the perennial powerhouse and they are always going to be the favorite," Eslick said. "They have a lot of firepower back and so do we. Wrestling some teams in our conference more than once is only going to benefit us when it comes to the state tournament."
Eslick said the North Dakota High School Activities Association (NDHSAA) has canceled all regular-season tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Blue Jays have put together a conference dual and non-conference dual schedule and have cut down the number of matches from a typical 50 to 25.
"We're just going to work on being responsible to have a season for these kids," Eslick said. "We're looking at being one of the top two or three teams in the state this season, so the kids are excited and they are serious about doing what it takes to keep the season alive and being responsible with keeping things clean."
In efforts to keep the season going and avoid any COVID-19 shutdowns, Eslick said the team will likely split practices in order to minimize the number of athletes in one space. Eslick said the coaching staff will also be increasingly aware of warm-up partner pairs. Masks will also be worn by sidelined athletes and coaches.
While the team has had to adjust, Eslick said dealing with disinfection and sanitizing practices is nothing new for the program.
"We're a sport where we're constantly aware of infection; constantly working with skin infection and deterrents of that," Eslick said. "We've always been up on the latest disinfection and keeping things clean because of the nature of the sport.
"COVID is another hurdle but we've always dealt with "cold and flu season" during wrestling, so it will be something we'll just be hyper-aware of. We'll be wrestling, it will just be a little different."