The Liberty Lions are in an odd, albeit positive, position for the 2019-20 AIA wrestling season.
Liberty is the defending AIA state champion. But, it’s been there before, hoisting the trophy in 2016.
This is a different type of title defense because coach Eric Brenton and the staff believe the team actually improved dramatically, even after scaling the mountain of high school wrestling in Arizona less than a calendar year ago.
An impressive performance by his team at “The Clash” – a Minnesota-based tournament boasting many of the best schools in the United States – in early January cemented this thought.
“I’d say this is probably the most talent we’ve had here,” said Brenton.
The team has depth and high-level wrestlers at nearly every weight class. And they are hungry to repeat.
Brenton recalls the first time, heading into the season, when he finally had all of his athletes together for an official practice. “I told them last year doesn’t matter anymore. We have so much to do here to be able to reach the goals we want to hit,” Brenton said.
Even after the initial meeting, the Lions kept adding talent, in the form of several football players fresh off a magical run to a 6A conference championship in December.
The dual-sport athletes hardly had time for their aches and bruises to heal after an epic overtime win over Red Mountain in the title game before they were suiting up for wrestling season and looking to claim a second postseason triumph in back-to-back campaigns.
Senior Matthew Stevenson said the addition of his teammates who also played football speaks to the tremendous mindset of the wrestling team overall.
“Yeah, we love having those guys bring even more championship mentality. Plus, with the football players we can joke with them they ‘only’ won a conference championship,” said Stevenson in jest, “but if they want to win an actual state championship they have to do it here.”
However, the road to victory will not be easy, the Lions know this. The Lions had six wrestlers finish in second or third place in last season’s individual tournaments, and many of them are hoping to place even higher in 2020.
Sophomores Zander Phaturos and Carson Coy are defending runners-up, as well as junior Collin McCorkle. Sophomore Jonathan Rodgers and seniors Kamyn Stonebraker and Matthew Stevenson are looking to improve on their third-place finishes from a year ago.
Senior Nicholas Magri said most of the Lions compete in wrestling clubs in the off-season. There, they are training daily with athletes from other teams looking to take them down. The words of others help them put the extra few repetitions in on the mat,
“It’s an awesome memory this team has, but we’re focused on now. We hear a lot of trash talk from other kids we compete with from other schools gunning for us because we’re at the top right now. So we’re getting a lot of guys’ best shots every meet,” Magri said.
“Some of them don’t even talk about winning state. They talk about beating Liberty,” Stevenson added.
However the season ends, championship or not, Brenton knows there is a lot of improvement to be made. For now, he is proud of every wrestler hitting the mat for him.
“We’re here trying to keep getting better, keep improving what we can be as wrestlers and people, whether it’s a state title or however it goes,” Brenton said. “If we do all those things that have made these kids get to where they are now, the results will work themselves out.”