The student section at Andover Central basketball games is one of the best around. And right in front of the large, loud student section is senior Zac Gentzler, leading cheers.
In his wrestling singlet.
Gentzler (37-0 at 120 pounds) is a wrestler through and through. He started wrestling at 4 and has signed with Oklahoma State after already having national success.
Gentzler tries to become Kansas’ 29th wrestler to win four state titles Friday and Saturday in the Class 5A tournament at Hartman Arena.
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But during basketball games, he’s one of the most involved.
“He’s a popular kid, everyone likes him, and when he’s doing that at our games, it’s obviously good for (our team) and good for the school,” boys basketball coach Jesse Herrmann said.
This is the first season, though, that Gentzler has attended basketball games.
“I didn’t go to one basketball game freshman through junior year,” Gentzler said. “I don’t know what’s changed, but I think the more I support every sports team, the more they come out for me. And, it’s my senior year, I need to enjoy it.”
Gentzler’s focus has always been on wrestling. While he is a straight-A student — after winning Saturday’s regional championship he watched wrestling video and did his homework — his absorption in the sport never waned.
He wants to get better and he puts in the work. That’s nothing new.
His social life revolved around wrestling and the “Armadillo Gang,” a phrased coined by a former wrestler a half-dozen years ago. Monday night the group went to Taco Shop for dinner and then bowled.
But outside of his wrestling teammates, Gentzler’s social life was quiet.
“I just never really got out and had fun,” he said. “I was too worried about wrestling, wrestling, wrestling. It feels good to go out and hang out with my buddies.”
Now he’s added his student section duties at basketball. He was the winter homecoming king.
The change is one coach Chris Saferite is glad to see.
“He’s taken a bigger role in being a bigger part of the student body as a whole,” Saferite said. “He’s now part of the student council. He’s at basketball games and football games. He’s part of the student section, and he’s kind of a leader in that.
“Wrestling will take care of itself, and he knows that. I enjoy seeing him being more of a leader outside wrestling.”
Gentzler’s slight shift of focus has allowed him to approach his defense of three state titles with less tension. He knows opponents are targeting him. He knows he’ll get the best match from whomever he faces.
As his father, Dan, says, winning four takes a bit of good fortune — you have to be injury free. It’s why when Zac Gentzler complained of a sore throat last week, his father went to the grocery store for any medicine containing the word “throat.”
“I wasn’t taking any chances,” Dan Gentzler said with a laugh.
Zac Gentzler he wants his fourth title. Badly. It’s what he’s worked for, dreamed of.
“This means the world to me,” he said. “I have put so much work in, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I need to take it one match at a time.”
Gentzler, who has one loss in high school, has also upped his workouts the past two seasons. He admits to not putting in the extra time during his first two years at Central.
But he’s been the first one to arrive and last to leave these last two years. When practice ends, he’s doing extra pull-ups or sprints.
Gentzler has what all the great athletes do — quickness, athleticism, strength. What sets him apart is his knowledge and experience.
“He never gets out of position,” Saferite said. “He’ll force opponents into bad situations, and at the same time, he can attack offensively, too. Like playing chess, he’s always two, three steps ahead.”
Saferite praises Gentzler’s technical ability. The technical aspect is key because there are so many moves and counters — and counters to someone’s counter.
“He’s been doing it long enough that he knows so much more,” Saferite said. “But it’s not the fact that he knows all the moves that makes him good. It’s how well he does the few that he really likes. It’s his ability to attack on offense and be able to react defensively.”
Gentzler has learned how to react to his quest for four, which is now down to the final few matches.
He’s put the time in at practice. He’s well-conditioned. He knows what he has to do.
It’s been a grind, but he’s been having fun along the way.
“I just go out and press on,” Gentzler said. “It’s the sport I love I just want to go out there and have fun.”