OREM — This week, Wednesday through Saturday, hundreds of high school wrestlers from each of the four biggest classifications in the state will gather at Utah Valley University’s UCCU Center, with state championship trophies on the line.
Each classification has its own storylines, but every division has one thing in common — all who participate will look to etch their names in the state record books.
Two years ago, after more than a decade under head coach John Fager, the Layton Lancers pulled it off — they won the state championship.
“It’s something we had been chasing for a long time,” Fager told the Deseret News following the victory. “As a first-year head coach, 11 years ago, I thought I was going to just come in and win it all. Just like that. I quickly found out that the state title is very elusive.”
While the state title was Layton’s first in 17 years and just the fourth in school history, Fager felt the win was only the beginning.
“We plan on being here forever,” he said. “It takes time to win a title, as well as a great coaching staff, a dedicated administration and a good feeder program. We have all those things and hope to become the next great wrestling dynasty.”
The Lancers may not have become that dynasty — Pleasant Grove returned to the top of the heap last season and won its seventh state title in eight years — but this year Layton has the look of a champion.
The Lancers are the top-ranked team in the state, according to WrestleUtah, and feature, among others, Terrell Barraclough, who is considered by most to be the second-best high school wrestler in Utah behind Olympus’ Isaac Wilcox.
Then there is Tyson Humphreys, Jon Hunt, Cole Faust… the list of high-level Lancers is long.
All told, the team qualified 17 wrestlers for the 6A state tournament, including nine individual winners.
Standing in the way of a Layton title are the Vikings.
Pleasant Grove qualified 26 wrestlers in a dominant showing in the Divisional B qualifying meet two weeks ago.
Among those are stalwarts Cole Zorn — Zorn is considered a top-15, arguably a top-10 wrestler — and Maika Tauteoli.
In addition to Pleasant Grove, Syracuse is a program on the rise, as the Titans qualified a school-best 20 wrestlers to state. Westlake, Herriman and Fremont should all play a role in the proceedings as well.
For years, under the direction of legendary head coach Mike Ripplinger, the Box Elder Bees maintained a position as one of the elite wrestling programs in the state.
Even when they weren’t on top as a team, the Bees often boasted some of the best individual wrestlers in Utah.
Ripplinger is gone now, enjoying a much-deserved retirement, and in his place at the helm is Jed Craner.
The Bees haven’t skipped a beat.
Alongside the likes of the Wasatch Wasps and the defending champion Viewmont Vikings, Box Elder stands as one of the favorites to take home the 5A state title.
Coming off an impressive showing in the divisional qualifying meet, which included a win over the Wasps, Box Elder might be the favorite.
“I feel like our team is wrestling great,” Craner said. “Everyone who qualified is healthy and anxious to get on the mat. The kids have worked hard and are ready to reap the rewards. We are excited and ready to go.”
The Bees qualified 20 wrestlers for state, including individual winners in Ryan Gunn, Kellen Collier and Lucas Cochran, among others.
Right behind them was Wasatch, with 18 wrestlers qualified. The Wasps have been as dominant as any wrestling program in the state in recent years, with 10 state titles in the last 18 seasons, and boast some of the state’s best in Zak Kohler, Stockton O’Brien, River Wardle and Sammy Heywood.
Viewmont, headed by Brandon Ripplinger, handily won its qualifying meet as well and with 17 wrestlers headed to UVU appears more than capable of defending the crown.
“It is all about a long-lasting tradition, coaching and having the right athletes,” Craner said. “That is what makes Wasatch, Viewmont and Box Elder excellent teams.”
Other teams to watch out for include the Skyridge Falcons and the always-competitive Maple Mountain Golden Eagles.
Is there a better team in 4A than the Payson Lions? WrestleUtah doesn’t think so.
“Payson beat Wasatch and Uintah in a dual,” the publication wrote. “Missing a couple of guys at the Rumble hurt, but it's all about what happens at UVU the third weekend in February.”
It has been a few years since the Lions have claimed the state title, since 2015 in fact, but Payson appears primed to do just that this postseason.
The Lions handily won their divisional qualifying meet over the weekend, a meet that included the defending champion Mountain Crest Mustangs.
Payson finished more than 100 points better than the Mustangs and had five individual winners.
Among those was Cole Jensen, who should be the title favorite at 113 pounds. All told, the Lions have a legitimate shot at individual titles in up to eight different weight classes.
The biggest obstacle to a Payson title run will be the Utes.
Uintah has been hit or miss at times this season — “which lineup do the Utes field in February? The one that walked through the TOC or the one that placed 5th at the Rumble,” WrestleUtah asked — but have the talent to come away with the school’s first wrestling title in nearly 20 years.
Gavin Ayotte leads the way for the Utes, who rolled in their divisional qualifying meet, but Randon Deets, Bridger Bennion, Brady Merkley and Cole Huber all have championship potential.
Outside of Payson and Uintah, Mountain Crest, led by Jace Dart, will look to defend its title, while Brady Lowry and Canyon View hope to go on a run of their own.
At this point, it may be championship or bust for the Juab Wasps. The two-time defending champions are once again the title favorites in 3A, runaway favorites at that.
Of course, it is not always easy to be the king.
“I always think it is easier to be the chaser than the chasee,” Juab head coach Joel Holman said. “It is easier to be climbing the ladder than to be at the top. Once you are there, there is a tendency to be complacent.”
Holman saw that firsthand when his Wasps triumphed over Delta earlier this season.
“When we wrestled the Delta dual this year we were kind of like, ‘Oh, we can beat them.’ I didn’t think we had our best performance. I have to get my kids to understand that just because you are supposed to win doesn’t mean you are going to win. You still have to do your part.”
The Wasps have all the necessary talent to three-peat.
Juab qualified 20 wrestlers for the state tournament, including seven individual winners, a group headlined by Channing Warner, Conner Ingram and Cade Bowring.
“I think we should be ready to go,” said Holman. “I have some good experienced guys, leaders, and they seem to have the team in pretty good spirits. If we hold up our end of the bargain we should do well.”8 comments on this story
Standing in the way of any Juab three-peat are the Rabbits. Delta has one of the most decorated histories of any high school wrestling program in Utah. The Rabbits won their divisional qualifying meet and advanced 18 wrestlers to state.
There is also Emery.
“Emery is solid,” Holman said. “They are a little bit unsung, but they always show up come postseason. They seem to be prepared that way and I think they can challenge us or Delta.”
The Spartans qualified 19 wrestlers. Other potential contenders include American Leadership Academy and South Summit.