WARDSVILLE — Mike DeMilia likes the strides he is seeing from the Blair Oaks wrestling team.

“Having four (state) qualifiers back is huge, and a couple of (all-staters coming back) automatically makes your room pretty tough,” the Blair Oaks coach said ahead of today’s season-opening tri-dual against Buffalo and Jefferson City at Blair Oaks Middle School.

“A lot of our guys that wrestled varsity last year and didn’t have the best seasons have improved a lot. We want a tough room, and when your room is tough, it carries over into your duals and tournaments. I definitely think we’ve done that.”

Among the top returners is senior Kyler Griep, a two-time state qualifier who finished third at 152 pounds in 2017 and then fifth at 170 last season. Griep will continue to wrestle at 170 this season and is one win away from 100 for his career.

“The experience he has, you can’t beat what he’s gone through,” DeMilia said. ” He finished fifth last year, but 170, in my opinion, was the toughest weight class in Class 1.

“He’s pretty motivated, he had a great football season. I think he’s feeding off all of that, and there’s no doubt he’s ready to go.”

Senior Caleb Meeks, who made his debut at the state tournament last season, took fourth place at 132. He finished with a 48-10 record.

DeMilia said Meeks will be on every team’s radar as he wrestles at 138 this season.

“Everybody in the state disrespects that kid because he doesn’t fit the part,” DeMilia said. “He’s not the most physically strong kid, he’s not going to intimidate you, he’s unorthodox. But at the end of the day, he just finds ways to win. He frustrates people.”

Levi Haney, a junior, was a state qualifier at 152 last season. He lost in the bubble round for a chance at a state medal but finished with a 32-12 record. Haney will move up to 160 this season.

“He made a lot of strides last year,” DeMilia said. “Physically, he’s much better, he’s stronger. His athleticism is really good. There’s always things to fix with his technique, but overall, he’s in a really good place right now.”

Junior Eli Batiste, another state qualifier from last season, will also move up a weight class to 152 this season.

“He’s such a worker and he’s a determined kid,” DeMilia said. “If we can avoid injuries, he’s going to have a solid year, for sure.”

The Falcons return five additional wrestlers from last year’s district lineup. Sophomore Zac McCarty and senior Shane Gillmore lost in the bubble matches to advance to the state tournament.

McCarty will wrestle at 120 this season and Gillmore will move up to 220.

“Shane’s been in the bubble match for two straight years,” DeMilia said. “Those are guys that are going to give us a chance.”

Other returners are sophomore Austin Baumhoer at 126, senior Adam Jurgensmeyer at 195 and sophomore Austin Lange at 285. Jurgensmeyer will compete with junior Devonte Sanders at 195.

Aidan Bollinger, a sophomore, will wrestle at 106, and Camden Meeks, a sophomore, will wrestle at 145. Junior Nick Welch tips the scales around 160, but with state qualifiers at 160 and 170, he’ll bump up a few weight classes to fill the lineup at 182.

The Falcons will have two freshmen new to the varsity lineup with Quinten Denney at 113 and Zach Rackers at 132.

“He’s the best freshman we’ve had in my four years,” DeMilia said of Rackers. “I think he’s definitely ready to be a big impact. He’ll take some lumps as a freshman, but he’s got an opportunity to be pretty tough at 132.”

Changes to the schedule this season include pushing back all Tri-County Conference duals to January, allowing wrestlers who played football to have more time to transition to their winter sport.

“With the conference season moving into January, it’s going to be more to our benefit,” DeMilia said. “That being said, I think the conference is getting tougher. Every team in there is getting a little bit better. We’re better as well, but Versailles has won it the last few years, so they’re the team to beat.”

Another change this season for Blair Oaks won’t occur until the postseason. The Falcons are making the move from Class 1 to Class 2, and they’ll travel to Mexico for the Class 2 District 2 Tournament.

“We’re not really that concerned with it,” DeMilia said. “I think it will be a step up, but I don’t think it’s going to be a drastic step up. When you talk about the top teams in Class 1, they’re every bit as good as the top teams in Class 2.”

Blair Oaks only has 21 wrestlers this season, but DeMilia is hopeful to have a full lineup for dual competition.

“We’re fortunate enough that we’re spread out in our weights that I think we can fill every weight class,” he said. “Maybe not right away, because we have guys cutting down from other weights, but at the end of the day, we could fill 14 weights.”

After the home opener, Blair Oaks will compete this weekend in the Missouri Duals, a new competition to the Falcons’ schedule. They’ll also wrestle in The Battle on the Katy Trail later this month and then tournaments at Park Hills Central, Owensville, Brookfield and Seneca in January.

Blair Oaks will start a girls wrestling program this season, with Tim Karsten coming out of retirement to coach the Lady Falcons.

Filling out their roster are juniors Ellie Kliethermes, Mackenzie Prenger and Emily Sporleder and freshmen Rylee Robinett, Alayna Roling and Molly Suthoff.

“They do pretty much everything our boys do,” DeMilia said. “We put them through some tough conditioning, some tough practices. Those six girls have really competed a lot.”

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