Kinnick goes after both halves of title
Familiarity can be a good thing. Except perhaps if you’re Gary Wilson, and he and his Nile C. Kinnick wrestling team keep seeing familiar faces every time his Red Devils take the mat against their Kanto Plain rival St. Mary’s International.
“I practically know those guys by name,” Wilson said of the Titans, three of them in particular: two-time defending Far East champions Chang Young Lee and Ryan Vasconcellos and 148-pound champion Kazuho Kawashima from last year’s tournament.
The script from 2014 kept to form last winter when St. Mary’s won the Far East Division I individual freestyle team title, only to lose the dual-meet final a day later to the Red Devils.
Can Kinnick finally take that final step and capture their first Far East title sweep in six years?
“We have to get a lot better than we are now,” Wilson said of a group that features three prior medalists, including 2015 101-pound champion Lucas Wirth, but with most of his strong wrestlers grouped at the lower and higher weights with few in between.
“We have a lot of holes to fill,” Wilson said, adding that for the first time in a long while, he has multiple first-year wrestlers plugged into the varsity lineup.
“It’s difficult to assess. We’ll be strong where other (teams) are strong. We’ll struggle early but learn from it, we’ll adjust and hopefully, we’ll be ready to go for Far East.”
One of the advantages that the Titans and Red Devils, with 22 Far East team titles between them, have had over the last two years was more preparation than their counterparts on Okinawa - Kubasaki and Kadena – which have 31 combined team titles.
The Okinawa schools had as few as three dual meets in the 2013-14 season.
That could change this season, with Kadena and Kubasaki each planning to compete in Kinnick’s annual “Beast of the Far East” tournament on Jan. 9 and, for the first time, in an invitational hosted by Yokota on Jan. 23. Far East is Feb. 15-17, again at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
Despite their youth and other disadvantages, Kinnick still fields a large squad, as many as 40 in the room at practice, and has the same assistant coaching cadre that’s helped the last few years, Wilson said.
The core group of wrestlers will get the youngsters “up to speed. They’re serious,” Wilson said, adding that it won’t be easy to overcome the opposition lying in wait for them.
“It may take some magic, some fairy dust, a lot of hard work and preparation. St. Mary’s, they’re the champs, they’re the team we have to take out. Kubasaki, Kadena, Seoul American, they’ll all be better. It will be a lot closer this season.”
There’s plenty of depth in Kadena’s wrestling room, with wrestle-offs expected at higher weights throughout the season. Still, “everything can look good on paper, but you still have to line up and wrestle,” longtime Panthers coach Steve Schrock said.
Saleem Malik assumes the helm of a Kubasaki program that still leads all Pacific school in all sports in total Far East team titles, with 25 since 1977.
“We have some guys who will put up a fight with the guys up north, but they’ve dominated the last two years,” Malik said.
Division II the last two years has been dominated by Robert D. Edgren, which has won eight Far East titles on coach Justin Edmonds’ 10-year watch, including the individual and dual-meet crowns in 2014 and 2015.
Among Edmonds’ core group are four wrestlers who medaled in last February’s Far East, including 122-pound third-place finisher Kade Sundvall.
“We are going to be a force, I’m sure,” Edmonds said, adding that this “could be” his last year of coaching and he wants to leave on a winning note. “I’ve had my fun,” he said.