Wrestling tradition on upswing
The more milk you have in the bucket, the more cream that rises to the top.
As interest and participation in wrestling has grown in Tonganoxie during the last few years, the success reaped at all levels has grown proportionately.
At the highest level, the high school varsity team is closing out one of its best seasons in recent history.
After finishing 4-8 in Bill DeWitt's first season as head coach, the team has improved its record every year since.
Earning an 8-3-1 record this season, the Chieftains have finished in the top four in each of their five tournaments.
After finishing in the Kaw Valley League's cellar in '98, Tonganoxie wrestled to second place at this year's league championship tournament, just 41 points behind Santa Fe Trail.
On the way to their 161-point league performance, 12 Chieftains won medals, including two firsts and three seconds.
The six Chieftain qualifiers for the Class 4A State Championship from last week's regional competition at Holton are double last year's number.
But this kind of success at the top didn't come overnight. It's the result of a renewed, area-wide interest in the sport.
The foundation for this interest was laid a decade ago when the Tonganoxie Kids Wrestling program was formed to help local children built a solid understanding of wrestling. The program is for children ages 6 through 15.
For the next six or seven years, wrestlers in Tonganoxie move up through the ranks in Kids Wrestling, learning the basics, and then join the high school squad when they're old enough.
This helps lay a solid foundation, and gives those interested in wrestling a chance to learn and compete from an early age.
When DeWitt entered the picture in '98, he and assistant coach Dean Moss helped start a program at the junior high school.
Since then, that program has enjoyed as much success, if not more success, as the high school team.
In its fourth season, the Tonganoxie Junior High school warriors finished 8-0.
"They just had an outstanding season," Moss said. "The experienced wrestlers helped the inexperienced guys. We really worked together as a team, and I think we had a lot of fun. Of course when you win as much as we've done, you're going to have fun."
In its last tournament of the season, four Warriors earned medals, including a fourth by Hunter Samuels (95), a second by Tyler Truesdell (88), a second by Zach Ditty (115) and a first by Ross Starcher (105).
Starcher was the team's top wrestler, going 11-0 in his weight class.
About the same time DeWitt and Moss began turning things around Tonganoxie's schools, Scott Underwood, Tonganoxie, began coaching the Kids program.
Underwood said the main role of the program is still to introduce the sport to Tonganoxie's youth.
"We teach them the basics of wrestling," he said. "We get them prepared and, when they get to high school, DeWitt finetunes their technique and style."
This year the club qualified six wrestlers for the state tournament in March.
And with the kids program's age range of 6 to 15, several of its wrestlers also compete for their school teams.
According to Underwood, about 20 of his 40 wrestlers also compete for either the high school or the junior high.
This group includes junior high wrestlers Ross Starcher and Hunter Samuels and high school state qualifiers Steve Adcox, Josh Ferris and Chad Starcher.
Underwood also helped bring another form of wrestling to Tonganoxie.
Last summer, he started a free-style Greco-Roman wrestling program, in which a handful of Tonganoxie wrestlers participated.
Though the program was small, its results were not, as one member, state qualifier Mike Andrews, advanced to compete at nationals.
Despite all the success, and despite the 100-plus combined enrollment in the three programs, things might get even better.
"We started the junior high program four years ago," Moss said. "And now the kids program is really starting to help. This year we're just starting to see some of it. Next year should be even better."
"We've got some 10- and 12-year-olds that are just going to be studs when they get a little older," he said.