High School Sports

Derby vs. Goddard is the ultimate wrestling match

It is five minutes before his match and Derby wrestler Bradley Little is trying to stay calm.

Around him is a jam-packed Fugate Gymnasium on the campus of Newman University, with numerous college coaches in attendance that will squarely have their eyes on not only Little, but others.

More than that, though, a few yards across the gym on the opposite side of the mat, is the main reason why Little is an emotional wreck.

It's the hated enemy and defending state champion, Goddard.

At times, the pressure is overwhelming and Little has to talk himself down from the emotional high.

"The pressure and emotion is only fun when we are winning," he said.

Across the mat, Little's opponent, Goddard's Trey Houlden, is also a bundle of nerves and adrenaline.

The thought of losing to his rival is more than he can handle.

Back and forth, he paces along the sideline, trying to stay focused with music and exercises.

Being a state runnerup, Houlden knows the feeling of all this pressure, but that thought doesn't make it any easier.

"I try to stay calm and relax, but that doesn't really work," Houlden said.

This is the annual Goddard-Derby dual, set for Jan. 27 this season.

It's a mixture of hatred, respect and most of all a passionate desire to beat the other; a rivalry between two of 6A's finest, which feels like a miniature state tournament all in one night.

"You always know what kind of battle it's going to be when we play each other," Derby coach Bill Ross said. "It's never going to be easy."

While the Panthers have had the Lions' number in the regular season (they have won the past three duals), Goddard has come alive in the postseason, taking the last three state championships.

But Goddard coach Brett Means gives credit to the Panthers for his championships. Last year, Derby had an early lead at state, only to see Goddard get more players into the medal rounds and rally to win titles — last year's title was by just 1 1/2 points.

"Derby never gives up," Means said. "They will always claw and fight until the very end. It makes my guys want to fight even more."

Goddard again has as much talent as any team in 6A. The Lions are the top-ranked team in the preseason, according to the coaches association poll, and have three state champions back. Along with Houlden, who won at 140, the Lions have Kaleb Bonilla, who won at 103 and Dalton Beard, who won at 189.

But to this point, depth is an issue that concerns Means.

"I feel the same way about this team as I did with last year's before the season and that is we have some question marks," Means said. "We need our state qualifiers to become placers and other kids become qualifiers in order for us to have a chance."

Derby doesn't have any champions returning, but it does have seven qualifiers returning, including Little, who placed second at 140.

Ross knows that if his team is going to contend, he is going to need some of his younger kids to come in and instantly become state qualifiers.

"We are going to have some kids that nobody knows about," Ross said. "On paper, we aren't as good as the other teams right now. But that's where I hope we can sneak in there with some of these kids that haven't been on varsity before."

The Jan. 27 dual will be standing room only.

There will perhaps be even a little drama, like last year when Derby jumped out to a big lead and Goddard came storming back, before falling just short.

Both schools have come to expect the unexpected when they meet on the mat. And neither would want it any other way.