DURANT — The West Liberty wrestling team is ready, and the River Valley Conference tournament showed how.
Buoyed by an effort that saw all 14 wrestlers place in the top six in their weight classes, including 10 who finished among the top three, the Comets defended their River Valley Conference tournament title at Durant High School on Saturday.
Bryce Esmoil was the champion at 195 pounds to claim the lone West Liberty title, but Coy Ruess (106 pounds), Ivan Escobedo (138), Joe Kelly (152) and Jakob Barten (170) were all runners-up to help the Comets claim the RVC title for the second straight season with 232 points.
“They prepared really well for this,” West Liberty wrestling coach Jeff Wiele said. “They have been preparing for their postseason and I think … that helped us a little today. They had a big effort.”
Camanche finished second with 206 points, with Wilton right behind in third with 199.5 points. Durant finished 13th with 34 points, led by Brandon Dykes’ third-place finish at 195.
Wilton — despite having a lineup dominated by underclassmen, with nine of the 12 Beavers competing Saturday either freshmen or sophomores — had seven grapplers earn berths in the finals, with Trey Brisker (145), Tanner Greenwald (152) and Bryce Oveson (182) all winning conference titles.
Freshmen Cory Anderson (113) and Jerome Mays (132) and sophomores Reid Johnson (120) and Cameron Reddick (160) each finished second for Wilton.
“We stepped it up and won some big matches that I knew were going to be a battle. Very impressed the way the boys kind of rose to the occasion,” Wilton coach Gabe Boorn said. “They performed very well today.
“... I won’t say they exceeded expectations, we still got stuff to work on, but they definitely showed what they’re capable of today.”
Greenwald, the lone Wilton senior, returned to the mats for the first time since Jan. 7 due to a lingering injury and beat West Liberty’s Joe Kelly 6-2 for the 152 title. Expecting to be out-muscled by Kelly, Greenwald realized it was more of a draw early on and used that to his advantage by building a 6-0 lead by the midway mark of the third period.
“It was equal strength, so it gave me a little more confidence,” Greenwald said. “I started to open up more and taking more sweeps. It helped me out a lot just attacking and not letting him attack.”
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The win was the first RVC title for Greenwald, a two-time state runner-up.
“It’s pretty amazing to finally win this,” Greenwald said. “… I finally won it. I’m pretty happy about it.”
While it ended in a loss, Kelly’s day was notable considering it was his first competition since early December. He won twice by pinfall, including a 16-second victory over Camache’s 30-win Andrew Edens.
“The way he came back is impressive,” Wiele said of Kelly. “Nobody knew what to expect, and he comes back out and he looks like the old hammer Joe.”
Esmoil, though, was the only Comet to finish on the top of the podium as he improved his unblemished record to 40-0 with a pair of impressive victories, including a 10-1 major decision over Tipton’s Jordan Challis, the No. 5-ranked wrestler at 195 in Class 1A.
Challis seemingly avoided the second-ranked Esmoil early in the match and was called for stalling twice. In the final period, though, Esmoil was able to take control on the ground and twice got Challis on his back to net five near-fall points.
“Before the match, I was stretching, went up to the circle, put my ankle band on and in my head I was thinking, ‘Let’s go. I’m going to push you until you break,’” Esmoil said. “… I was trying my hardest to push the pace and not let him get to his offense.”
In addition to the Comets top-two finishers, Justis Dengler (126), Austin Beaver (132), Noah Barten (145), Joe Baker (160) and Andy Lopez (285) all battled back to finish third in their classes.
That was the type of effort the Comets put forth Saturday as they piled up bonus points to pull away from the field. Trailing Wilton by three points after the semifinal round, the Comets won five of their seven consolation matches via pins as they busted the team race open.
“They were wrestling for that,” Wiele said of the pinfalls and bonus points. “They really wanted to win today, and I think they came in with the mindset that they were going to work.”