For the first time since 2013, Independence goes into wrestling season not as the reigning state champion. There should be little need for motivation.
"It does make some of the kids hungrier," said Jeremy Hart, now in his third year as the Patriots head coach. "A lot of the guys want to get back to the top. We have to make sure they are not fine with settling for second."
Point Pleasant won the Class AA state title in February, ending the Patriots' five-year run at the top. Independence did finish second to at least run its stretch of top-two finishes to eight consecutive seasons.
Point will be the favorite to repeat after returning 13 state qualifiers, including nine place winners and three champions.
The Black Knights defeated Independence in an early dual last December in their home gym. They will return the trip this season, joining Herbert Hoover in visiting Coal City on Dec. 19.
Independence won't be as experienced as Point Pleasant, returning just five of its 10 state qualifiers. Of those five, three were place winners: junior John Sanders (fourth, 106 pounds), junior Bryce Perdue (third, 120) and senior Sean Dawson (second, 132).
"John Sanders worked his butt off all summer," Hart said. "Sean Dawson should have a really good year."
Perdue returned to the lineup last January after recovering from a serious injury and wound up placing third at the state tournament.
"Bryce came in this year miles ahead of where he was this time last year," Hart said. "He has a better attitude. He will work with the newer kids during breaks. It seems like he is ready to have a big year."
Also back are juniors Daylen Gilkerson, the Region 3 champion at 113, and Sam Adams (second, 152).
"(Adams) had a tough state tournament. We thought he could easily have been in the finals," Hart said. "He didn't perform the way we expected him to. But he's back and he is working hard and has been impressive."
The biggest losses for the Patriots came in the form of Mason Kump and Liam Lusher. Kump won the 195-pound state championship and is now at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla.
"When you lose a state champion, that's hard to (overcome)," Hart said. "You can't just put the next guy up."
Lusher was runner-up at 145 and is now redshirting at West Virginia, reunited with former Independence teammate Noah Adams. Lusher was a four-time Region 3 and Coalfield Conference champion and won a state title (113) as a sophomore.
Independence has a strong group of freshmen who had successful middle school careers, including Judah Price, Colton Caron, Austin Derringer and Braxton McKinney.
"Bringing the freshmen along will be the biggest challenge," Hart said. "I think they will be fine come February. ... We have a lot of young guys and there is nothing we have had them do in practice that they have complained about. That's what I'm excited about. There has not been one negative thing happen at practice. They all work hard and don't complain."
The Patriots will have their traditional opener at the Lake Norman Duals on Dec. 7. They will also go to the Holy Angels Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., the Army National Guard Duals in Summersville, the Christiansburg (Va.) Big Blue Invitational, the WSAZ Invitational in Huntington and will be looking to get into the inaugural State Duals Feb. 1 at The Greenbrier. They need a win over Herbert Hoover in order to qualify.
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