Wristen: Character helped Lions thrive through adversity
Wichita Ron Averill didn't have to wait until the first day of practice to find out his Lansing High wrestling team would face more than its share of adversity this season.
He found that out Sept. 29 when three-time state medalist, two-time state finalist and 2005 state champion Kyle Grape tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a football game at Basehor-Linwood.
Grape's injury not only threatened to cost him his senior season of wrestling, but it also cost the Lions a valuable partner in the practice room.
The roster was cut nearly in half from last year when only about 20 wrestlers showed up for the first day of practice.
More bad news followed when three varsity wrestlers were kicked off the team for breaking team rules.
Then senior defending state champion Kyle Buehler came down with mononucleosis and was forced to miss the Kaw Valley League tournament.
"We had some tough breaks," Buehler said. "But this is a good group of guys."
And this group of guys had its priorities in check. The Lions were given every reason to quit, but they never made excuses. They never felt bad for themselves. Instead, they rallied together and kept their goals in sight.
"We just wanted to go out there and focus on what's ahead of us, not what's behind us," Flynn said.
Averill said the way his wrestlers handled the seemingly endless obstacles was a tribute to their character.
"Nothing builds character like adversity," Averill said. "We had the opportunity to work through those things, and we did not dwell on those things. It's not really the absence of adversity that defines the man. It's how he deals with it.
"You can step up and deal with it, or you can lay down and die. These aren't the lay-down-and-die type of guys."
No, the Lions never buckled. Instead, they adjusted and continued to move forward. Grape returned for the league tournament and competed through pain to score points for the Lions. Senior Brad Zink jumped two weight classes from 152 to 171 to earn more valuable points. Despite having a few open weight classes - including three-time league champ Buehler's spot at 140 pounds - they stepped up and won their first KVL title in 11 years.
One week later Lansing qualified nine wrestlers for the state tournament. Buehler was back in the lineup and won a regional title. Grape earned a second-place finish and helped LHS earn a runner-up finish before pulling the plug on his season to protect his knee from additional damage.
The Lions were on the attack again Friday and Saturday at the state tournament. They took some lumps because of difficult draws, but five others survived to the second day of competition.
Freshman 125-pounder Cullen Demarest battled to within a victory of the medal rounds before being eliminated. Sophomore 160-pounder slugged his way through the consolation bracket to a fourth-place finish. Three others - Buehler, junior 103-pounder Dennis Wood and junior 145-pounder Nick Flynn - all marched to the state finals before losing.
Lansing's final tally from state was four medals, three runners-up and an eighth-place finish in the team standings. It marked the third straight season LHS has had at least four state medalists and a top 10 team finish.
For a year full of ups and downs, Averill said he couldn't be prouder of his team.
"These guys are the gladiators of the new age," he said. "And I'm just excited to see where they're going to be going next year."