Just weeks before the start of a new wrestling season, Lakota head wrestling coach Rick Whetsel sat in a hospital room with Jon Moes, a sophomore wrestler who was awaiting an X-ray and a doctor's evaluation on an injured ankle resulting from a preseason practice. Moes (138) was sidelined a year ago because of knee injuries.
Dealing with injuries is nothing new to Whetsel and the Lakota wrestlers. In fact, they dealt with it all last season. Injuries were so numerous last year that the team was forced to forfeit six dual meets.
"We're going to be a whole lot better than last year," said Whetsel. "The way things are going, I'm way happy."
An odd statement considering the circumstances, but Whetsel and his coaching staff have been very encouraged with how much the team has shown improvement from last year, mainly in the areas of durability and endurance.
Whetsel improved the off-season conditioning program, which included an increased regimen of lifting and cardio in hopes of preventing any more injuries. He says the team lifts three days a week and does cardio exercises twice a week.
"We are very impressed with all of the hard work our kids are putting in," said Whetsel. "This is probably the best team we've had in a long while."
The Raiders may be fielding one of their better teams according to the coaches, but there is no doubt a few major holes will have to be filled with the graduation of Ben Timmons and Jacob Tolento. Tiger Jaso did not go out for the team this year either.
Timmons (126) was undoubtedly the best wrestler from last year's team, getting his 100th win, placing first at sectionals, second at districts and sixth at state. He now aids Whetsel as an assistant coach. Jacob Tolento (132) served as an alternate at last year's district tournament and Tiger Jaso (170) was a district qualifier.
According to Whetsel, Jaso was expected to be one of Lakota's top wrestlers this year, but he bowed out just before the start of the season telling the coach that he planned to focus on baseball, a potential avenue for scouting and scholarships for the senior.
"We'll be alright without him [Tiger]," said Whetsel. "He's just one kid. Jordan, Andrew and Caleb will step up for him."
Whetsel is referring to Jordan Jaso, Tiger's sophomore brother, Andrew Bickford and Caleb Tolento. As a sophomore last season, Jordan qualified for districts in the 152-pound weight class. Tolento, also a sophomore, was a district qualifier as well in the 132-pound division. Bickford (132), a district alternate from last year, is the only senior on Lakota's current squad.
One wrestler to watch is Max Flanigan, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior who will compete in the heavyweight division this year. Flanigan hasn't wrestled the past two seasons due to injuries suffered during the football season, but Whetsel says he is in excellent condition this year.
"This kid [Flanigan] is big and not a bit of fat on him," said Whetsel. "He lifts a lot and he's a really hard worker."
Expectations are also high for Flanigan because the departure of key opponents from the heavyweight division. Among them are Midland Athletic League standout Alex Damschroder (Carey), four-time state placer and two-time state champion Mimmo Lytle (Swanton), and two-time state placer Nino Majoy (Huron).
Austin Wiles, a junior transfer from Findlay High School, will wrestle in the 145-pound division for the Raiders, while Bobby Arriaga (195), Dakota Kroeger (120), Jared Wolph (170) and Cody Carver (220) round out the rest of Lakota's team.
Getting better is coach Whetsel's goal this season, so staying healthy will be key, and if they can do that, he says they have a good shot at winning the MAL title as well as sending up to four wrestlers to state.
As for Moes' injury, a severely sprained ankle, Whetsel chalks it up to a freak accident, which no elevated level of conditioning could have prevented. Whetsel says Moes' will be reevaluated as the season gets underway. He is confident that the upcoming season will be an improvement over last year, despite this early setback.
"It's going to be a whole lot better than last year," Whetsel reiterated.