After the final whistle sounded Friday in Ross Starcher's state semifinal match against Clay Center's Nate Boyer, the Tonganoxie senior circled the wrestling mat.
Starcher had slipped past Boyer, 7-2, and stayed in the winner's bracket.
With his right index finger pointed in the air, the Chieftain senior pointed to jubilant THS fans in the northeast corner of Kansas Coliseum. Flashing the universal signal for "No. 1," Starcher was headed where no Tonganoxie wrestler had before -- a state title match.
In the finals Saturday, however, Tonganoxie's top grappler couldn't bring home the program's first state championship.
Despite coming back from an early deficit against Santa Fe Trail's Justin Wiscombe in the 171-pound finals, Starcher couldn't generate enough momentum to usurp the Kaw Valley League champion.
Wiscombe won the match with a 9-3 decision, capping his perfect 41-0 season. After the victory, the Trail senior jumped into his father's arms. Kirk Wiscombe, an SFT assistant, embraced his son after he won the Class 4A title. Kirk, who wrestled roughly three decades ago, placed second at state in high school in the 138-pound weight class.
The Wiscombe family tradition lived on, but in a hallway on the Kansas Coliseum's main floor, another family tradition was finished -- at least for a few years.
Starcher's family has immersed itself in wrestling. Uncles, cousins, a brother and father all grappled before Starcher. Many were in attendance Saturday to see the senior wrestle one last time.
Starcher, whose goal throughout the tournament was to have a rematch with Wiscombe in the finals, got his wish. But after losing three times this season to Wiscombe, Starcher couldn't overtake his rival in a final attempt.
Friday evening, Starcher was "on top of the world," but Saturday, knowing he was Tonganoxie's highest finisher wasn't consolation for a four-time state wrestler.
"It would have been better if I would have won," Starcher said.
To reach the finals, Starcher had to muster three victories. Starcher defeated Goodland's Josiah Goodley (pin, 3 minutes) and Council Grove's Mike Brakenhoff (7-2) before defeating Boyer.
Starcher ended his senior campaign with a 38-5 record. That brought his career record at Tonganoxie to 143-26.
Tonganoxie's other two representatives -- Hunter Samuels and Garrett Palmer -- were right with their fellow senior in the first round. The team posted a 3-0 record after the first round.
Samuels outlasted Douglass' James Fox, 13-12, while Palmer upended Concordia's Weston Fleming, 3-2. Fleming came into the tournament with a 39-5 record. He also was ranked No. 2 in the state.
But in the second round, Samuels lost to Andale's Doug Stroot by pin with 1:30 left in the second period, while Palmer fell to Columbus' Brian Simpson, 7-1, in his quarterfinal match.
The two Chieftains bounced back early Saturday with consolation wins. Samuels disposed of Fort Scott's Cole Pruitt, 10-3, in his 130-pound match while Palmer outlasted Santa Fe Trail's Josh Connelly, 3-1, at 145.
With one more win, both wrestlers would have guaranteed themselves state medals.
But Samuels lost to El Dorado's Kaleb Lowmaster and Palmer dropped his match to Abilene's Jenne Dylon.
In his first trip to state, Samuels finished with two victories. Palmer, who made appearances at Wichita twice before registered his first state victories by also going 2-2.
Samuels' two losses came to the eventual second- and third-place finishers at 130. Stroot lost to Columbus' Aaron Ellison in the finals, while Lowmaster defeated Wamego's Chris Scheideman for third. Palmer's first victim, Fleming, went on to finish fourth, losing to Colby's Taylor Finley in the third-place match.
Samuels' season ended with a 28-17 record, while Palmer's final campaign closed with a 28-12 mark.
"We just beat good kids down there and wrestled our tails off," THS coach Jeremy Goebel said. "We did a lot of record-breaking.
"We put Tonganoxie on the map for wrestling."
The second-place finish, the number of combined wins at state and the finish at state all were new highs, Goebel said.
Tonganoxie finished the meet tied for 22nd out of 56 teams. The Chieftains scored 26 points, good for a tie with Douglass.
Clay Center won its third state title and second in the last four years. The Tigers scored 141.5 points, outlasting rival Abilene, which scored 127. Goodland placed third with 115.
It was an emotional weekend for Tonganoxie's senior class. The upperclassmen have been with coach Goebel for three of their four years, but all said goodbye to their prep careers in Wichita.
"I'm hurting inside, but it's not in a negative manner," Goebel said after Starcher's loss Saturday. "It's because they're my sons."
Goebel said he wished the seniors had one more season at THS.
"These kids are not only great wrestlers, but great people," Goebel added. "They'll always be a part of me. It's that special."
Despite the tough losses, Goebel still could look back on the tournament with fondness. After all, it was the program's best finish at a state tournament.
"It was about like a joyride we went on this weekend," Goebel said.
As for the future, Tonganoxie will have an overall young squad returning next season -- but one with plenty of varsity experience.
"We've just got to get more mat time," Goebel said. "It was hard for people to realize at the beginning of the year, our schedule was brutal.
"We didn't have good records, but we went into regionals and wrestled as hard as we did all year. We peaked at the right time."
The more experienced squad again will tackle a competitive schedule next year that likely will include some long road trips.
"It's a no-brainer," Goebel said. "You have to compete at that level if you want to make it at state."
State wrestling notes
- So long, Wichita. Class 4A teams won't head to state's largest city for state next February. Although Classes 5A and 6A are expected to stay in Wichita, 4A will move to Salina's Bicentennial Center next year. It will mark the first time since 1984 the meet was not held in Wichita. That year, the tournament was held in Russell. Class 3-2-1A will remain at Hays, that tournament's home since 1979.
- Shawnee Mission Extreme Northwest? If Tonganoxie were a Class 6A school, Ross Starcher might just have become Tonganoxie's first state champion. Shawnee Mission East's Ryan Snodregger won the Class 6A title at 171. Snodregger finished the season at 44-2. His two losses were to -- Starcher and Wiscombe.
- Area success. Santa Fe Trail, the Kaw Valley League champions, placed sixth at state, while former KVL member De Soto placed ninth. In Class 5A, Lansing placed sixth, while Mill Valley finished 13th. Lansing sophomore Kyle Grape won the 5A title at 140 and became Lansing's first individual state champ since 1997.
- Four-peat. Wichita-Campus' Josh Baldridge became a four-time state champion after he won the 130-pound title Saturday with an 8-3 win against Salina South's Nick Nothern. Baldridge finished the season with a 32-0 record.
- Tough league. With Clay Center and Abilene coming in 1-2 at state this year, the North Central Kansas League had the two top teams in the state. Last year, Abilene placed second, while Clay Center finished sixth. Abilene won state in 2003, Clay Center in 2002 and Abilene again in 1999 and 1998.
- State champions. In Class 6A, Manhattan won the team title with Emporia placing second and Goddard third. In Class 5A, Kansas City Turner won the top trophy, while Wichita-Campus finished second and Wichita-Bishop Carroll finished third. And inn Class 3-2-1A, Norton won the team title, while St. Francis and Oakley were second and third.
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