By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
If anyone outside Independence wrestling circles has anointed the Patriots as the preseason favorites to win a state championship, those expectations are nothing compared to those of their own coach.
“I expect us to do better than we did last season,” coach Cliff Warden said.
So much for deflecting the attention.
Independence finished runner-up to three-time Class AA/A state champion Point Pleasant in February, returns four state placewinners and had a talented freshman class last winter. Plus, Point Pleasant, which ended Oak Glen’s record run of 13 straight state titles in 2010, has moved up to Class AAA.
So the natural inclination for some is to expect Indy to return to the top for the first time since 1996.
Independence came in third with 30 points in the Class AA/A wvmat.com preseason poll as voted by state coaches, released Wednesday. Greenbrier West was a close fourth with 26 points.
But Warden is predicting no such thing. His only expectation is that his team win, period.
“I’m not into losing,” the 1994 Independence graduate said. “When we do lose I get sort of mad and want to work even harder.”
Besides, Warden points out, his team lost some talented wrestlers, including three who finished third in their weight classes last year. Among them is Chris Nelson (195 pounds), who is currently on the roster at West Virginia and will likely be redshirted.
The others are Antoine Brown (182) and Isaac Cales (138). Travis Mills (220) was fifth in the state tournament, and Sam Wood was a qualifier.
“Losing three thirds and a fifth, some people think that will set us back,” Warden said.
Other teams have gone the reverse direction of Point Pleasant, dropping to Class AA/A. That includes East Fairmont, which finished seventh in the state tournament and returns five state placewinners, including 170-pound runner-up Jesse Roman.
“When you put those triple-As down, it will be tough to win an individual state title,” Warden said.
Of course, Indy had 13 state qualifiers, which means several wrestlers are coming back. Teddy Stover (106), Chris Clark (126) and Colton Ward (132) were all third-place finishers, while heavyweight Zach Fleshman was sixth.
Stover was among a solid group of Indy freshmen that included fellow qualifiers Richie Miller (113), Cody Clifton (120) and twins Thomas Williams (160) and Trey Williams (170).
Warden, the reigning Class AA/A Dix Manning Coach of the Year, also looks for a good season from sophomore Dustin Justice.
The Patriots’ hard work didn’t end after the last weekend in February. They participated in a number of offseason camps, including the Ohio Regional Training Center in Huntington. The camp was hosted by Huntington coach Rob Archer and included Ohio State assistant coach Lou Rosselli among the instructors.
Rosselli was an assistant coach at Edinboro University when Warden wrestled there in the mid-1990s.
The ORTC is based in Columbus, Ohio, and provides training for Olympic-level wrestlers.
“I think that (offseason work) will be a key to success,” Warden said.
Indy will start the season Friday at the two-day Shumaker Classic at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, Va.
“It’s competition we don’t see (otherwise),” Warden said.
The Patriots will then be at the Max Horz Invitational at Berkeley Springs Dec. 8. They will make their area debut Dec. 18 at the Raleigh County Quad at Woodrow Wilson.
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