Make no mistake, Spanish Springs is the team to beat when it comes to wrestling in Northern Nevada.
The Cougars have won 55 straight league duals, nine straight league titles, and seven of the last eight regional titles – including four straight.
It’s been a different story at state. They are yet to win a state championship.
However, the Cougs are fresh off the best finish in program history, taking second at the state tournament in Primm. They were just 23 points back of Green Valley, which won its fifth straight state title.
Coach Joe Imelli believes that near miss is the reason this year has a unique feel.
“We’ve had great kids, we’ve even had leaders, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had a group really take control like (this) and everyone in the room follow,” Imelli said. “I’m excited, I really am. These first couple weeks have been something that seems different. The room seems different.
“I think those kids realize we have an opportunity to wrestle with those guys (Green Valley).”
A strong core from last year’s team is back this winter, including Cole Drescher and Casey Preston, who were state runners up at 152 pounds and 190 respectively. Owen Jones and Jacob Ruiz are also back after taking third at the state tournament in the 106- and 113-pound weight classes.
Heavyweight Tyler Barats, who was a state qualifier last year, will join Isaac Ruiz (145 or 152), James Daniels (132) and Joey McKay (145 or 152) among the list of notable names to watch.
Joining the mix this year is freshman Anthony Sissom, a 106-pounder who’s already placed at national tournaments.
With so much talent, and such lofty goals, Imelli has a tough juggling act to perform. Yes, he wants to win a state title. But he also has five league duals and a regional tournament to concern himself with first.
“It stays the same, wouldn’t lie. From basically our first year on, we’ve always talked about ‘win a league title, win a region title, compete for a state title,’” said Imelli, the reigning Nevada Wrestling Coach of the Year. “So we’re talking about the same things right now … Those three goals stay the same. If that stays consistent, then the kids are not really up and down from one year to the other.”
A total of 51 wrestlers came out this year, a number dominated by a large freshman class. That freshman class is quickly learning from one of the most focused teams Imelli has coached.
“This group has really taken a ton of ownership in the first couple weeks of practice,” Imelli said. “They’re leading the stretches and the agilities and the warmups. They have the whole team basically in a ladder and they’re kind of like ‘alright coach, we’re ready for whatever you got.’”
What they got, is a massive early test. Reno will have something to say as well, but the Cougars can take a colossal step towards a 10th straight league title tonight in a pivotal league dual at McQueen.
Last year’s dual at Spanish Springs between the two teams came down to the final match.
Regardless of that outcome, the Cougars will still be in position to chase down goals No. 2 and 3: a regional and state championship.
“We’ve done a good job obtaining the first two goals (league and regional title), but the third one has alluded us,” Imelli said. “So (they’re) hungry. I think they’re hungry for it.”
When coach Mike Klapp says he has a young team, he isn’t kidding.
All but four of his 34 wrestlers are freshmen or sophomores.
“We’re young, young, but I like the kids,” Klapp said. “We’re good at a young level. We just need to develop.”
Of the many in the room who need to develop, senior Izzy Casarez is not one of them. Casarez is the reigning 138-pound state champion.
He is bumping up to the 152-pound weight class this year and will once again be one of the wrestlers to beat in his weight class. Klapp asked Casarez on Thursday what his individual goals were for the season.
“(He said) ‘I want to influence the people around me and I want to put on a show and have fun,’” Klapp said. “I can’t imagine better goals for him. I want him to win. But I want him to enjoy the sport and influence the young crowd I have.”
Other Reed wrestlers to watch are Tim Eubanks, who is coming off a season-ending injury last year and will wrestle at 182 or 195 pounds this year, and Austyn Mitchell, at 170 or 182 pounds.
Another name to look for is Alex Casarez, Izzy’s brother, and one of the 20 freshmen on the squad. Casarez will wrestle at the varsity level in the 120-pound division.
“He’s pretty talented and I know Izzy wants to pass the torch to him a little bit,” Klapp said.
Coach Ric Fehr decided to change the way he does things this year.
The adjustment was partially forced with just 12 wrestlers coming out.
“I actually changed my coaching style this year,” Fehr said. “I went a lot quicker through the fundamentals. It seemed like they were all grasping them and remembering them well.
“Let’s call it person-specific-technique. Instead of working on a team concept, I’m working on individual specifics with these guys since we do have a small team.”
Leading this year’s team will be heavyweight Hunter Nobbs. Nobbs was the Railroaders’ lone state qualifier from last year after taking third at the regional meet.
His season senior season will be abbreviated, however. Nobbs suffered a severe concussion in Sparks’ last football game of the season and is targeting a post-Christmas return to the mat.
The delayed start hasn’t dampened Fehr’s expectations for Nobbs – or the rest of his team.
“I think he’s going to have some company (at state) with a lot of this other group,” Fehr said. “That’s the way I feel.”
Sparks is making up for its lack of numbers with experience. Several players are in their second or third year as a member of the varsity team.
A few names to watch are Walter Gudiel (126), Colby Bowman (132), Avery Aranas (138) and Nate Perez (145).
“With a small team, we want to focus on a lot of detail, some small adjustments,” Fehr said. “I think they’re catching on pretty good, reviewing and remembering a lot of material.”
Sparks started its season last weekend at a non-league tournament in Chester, Calif.