Fresh off a Division I state wrestling title on its first try and full of returning starters, Liberty’s 2019-20 squad is not complacent.
Instead, the Lions are pushing for the next level — national recognition.
To ring in the new year, the team traveled to the cradle of wrestling and matched up with several top Midwestern teams at The Clash in Rochester, Minn.
Against this caliber of competition Liberty grew through experiencing something rare in recent years ... losing — twice. The Lions qualified to Division 4 of the 32-team tournament and won all three duals on day two (Jan. 4) to take home the division crown and 13th place overall.
“We had a good conversation after day one of The Clash. In terms of expectations I think they were ready for it and excited about it. I think they put more pressure on it than we did as coaches or parents or the community. I think they felt like they had to be perfect,” Liberty coach Eric Brenton said. “We are going to take some losses. We took our first dual loss since November 2018. We took our first consecutive losses in — I want to say — eight years. After that talk, I think that pressure was relieved. We saw it in day two. We just wrestled.”
The Lions made their annual trip to the Las Vegas Classic in December, but this meet was next level. While The Clash is chock-full of top Midwest teams, 11 different states were represented.
Brenton said most of the field won a state title last year, or at least was ranked in the top five of their state. Liberty wrestled schools from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
“It was a lot different, especially from Arizona. Everyone there was in love with wrestling,” senior 134-pound regular Andrew Correa said.
Liberty won the 2019 state title despite not having an individual. Only two of the 14 wrestlers that made the state finals graduated last spring.
With that in mind, the goals are competition and growth, more than a mere repeat.
“Were worried about the next thing — the next dual, the next point whatever it is,” Brenton said.
The Lions do have a goal at the state meet Feb. 13-14 at Findlay Toyota Center.
It is not only to win. They want to push for a state record in points scored.
“We want to try to set the highest amount of points at state that we can for Division I. We don’t want to focus on any other team. We just want to get that number as high as possible,” Correa said.
Liberty has 13 seniors on the roster. Four-year varsity wrestler and 162-pound mainstay Kamyn Stonebraker said this is the deepest team he has been on.
The team sports a group of stud sophomores and freshman Jayson Flener stepped in at 106 pounds.
“We wanted to put together the strongest team we’ve had,” Stonebraker said. “We had kids that hadn’t really wrestled before on varsity start to come up and do really well on varsity.”
In the first couple of weeks, Brenton had to juggle in and out of lineups as Liberty played its longest football season en route to the 6A title. Three starters and a couple other varsity wrestlers play football.
Brenton said the team finished second behind nationally ranked Poway (Calif.) and placed more guys than ever before in the Las Vegas tournament.
Sophomore Tyler Sauter is wrestling mostly at 145 pounds and has gone next level after placing fifth at state last year. Las Vegas has been his only loss thus far, at 24-1 through The Clash.
“Tyler Sauter is a sophomore that placed fifth at state last year. That sophomore group have all jumped levels. But Tyler has been more vocal. He has a motor on him in the room and the mat. Within five matches at The Clash he was at a different level,” Brenton said.
Sauter finished 5-0 at The Clash. Senior Matthew Stevenson went 6-0 at 182 pounds.
The coach said he wanted Liberty to qualify for the afternoon session and watch Division I teams that are nationally ranked.
Brenton said the event was not too big for Liberty. That does not mean it was not big — crowds were in the four figures.
“You had eight duals going on in two sessions and you could just hear the roar. You had the Iowa teams and Illinois teams — these teams that travel, and they bring their fan bases with them,” Brenton said. “You don’t see pins. There’s not many pins and when there is, the entire place erupts. Every team had more than 14 guys. Every point counted and I think that’s what we learned.”
Stonebraker said everyone was fighting off their back and bonus points were hard to come by.
In many respects, Stonebraker said, it was like a summer meet in nationals.
“It was more pressure from the fact that it was a big tournament like that in season. All the other ones have gone to are nationals in the summer. It was a little nerve-wracking,” Stonebraker said.
It was the first of three straight big meets for the school. The Lions made their customary appearance in the Peoria Wrestling
Invitational Jan. 10-11. Results were not available at press time.
For the first time, the Lions are adding the state’s other main invitational, Flowing Wells on Jan. 17-18 in Tucson, to Peoria.
Tucson Sunnyside has won Peoria several times in the last five years.. They are Liberty’s measuring stick in state. The Blue Devils also are in both big meets.
Correa said this squad is focused on trying to become tighter as a team. He felt like that was their weakest thing last year, like they were a separated team almost.
“I’m really excited to finish the season with a blast. I love everybody on my team. We’re such a tight-knit group,” Correa said.
Correa said this three-week gauntlet will help with cardio and prepare the Lions for state. Brenton listed Yuma Cibola, Boulder Creek, Mesa Mountain View and Phoenix Desert Vista as the other top Division I teams.
The Lions are on the road to state. But they have already enjoyed a road trip to remember.
Rochester, Minn., is most famous as the birthplace of the Mayo Clinic. It is becoming a destination in amateur wrestling circles.
“We planned this out for about a year. This is the first time we had so many parents that went with us. We went to the University of Minnesota and got to practice at their facility. Being in a giant college room with six mats gives you that aura of what Midwest wrestling is all about,” Brenton said. “The coaches were talking about it. We went to go get our credentials and check-in and there was a full banquet dinner of prime rib and a hospitality room. Our program is better. We grew this weekend, being around a pure wrestling environment. Every aspect was done the right way.”