Last season, Derby qualified 11 wrestlers out of 14 weight classes for the Class 6A tournament.
Eight return this year, which prompted the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association to put the Panthers atop its 6A preseason rankings.
Entering his 23rd year as a wrestling coach – 17 at Derby – Bill Ross is flattered, and that’s about it.
“Rankings are nice, and it’s all beautiful, but as far as I’m concerned, everybody right now is equal,” he said. “We haven’t won a single match yet. We’re no better than anyone else at this point.”
However, that record will definitely change Thursday, when the Panthers have a chance to avenge one of three dual-meet losses from last season at Salina Central.
The Panthers were fifth at state last year, 40 points behind champion Manhattan.
One of Derby’s eight returning state qualifiers is a senior, Brandon Becker at 132 pounds.
Becker said the Panthers have enough talent to vie for the team title.
“We’ve been waiting for this to come together,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest years for us to do this.”
Becker has improved his state finish each year, going from sixth as a freshman to fourth as a sophomore (both at 126) to third in his first season at 132. He said he’s determined to bring home the individual title this year.
“All my cards are going out this year,” he said. “No excuses. I can’t overlook anyone at 132.”
Becker will be wrestling in college next year, signing three weeks ago with Cowley Community College, which launched its program this year. But he serves as the cornerstone for Derby this season.
“He’s our only three-time state placer we have back,” Ross said. “He’s taken on a leadership role with (junior) Triston Wills (at 160). (Wills) placed third (at 145) last year. He’s (also) been a good leader for us. (Junior) Kobe Grijalva (runner-up at 113 last year, wrestling at 120 this season) also has helped us out.”
Ross also singled out junior Cooper Ross, a qualifier at 120 who will move up to 126 this season.
Leadership has come out of necessity, Bill Ross said.
“We’re missing some of our football guys, so we need some other leadership to step up, and they’ve done a good job with that,” he said.
Derby’s march in the Class 6A football playoffs, which ended Saturday with a championship-game loss, also has delayed the return of some of its key wrestlers, most notably juniors Cade Lindsey and Crew Squires, both returning state qualifiers. Ross said he plans to work the football players back gradually.
“We’re getting some of them back this week,” he said. “We realize that this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. We’re going to take our time and do things right and make sure we’re ready to go in February.”
Included in the football players are a good chunk of Derby’s linebacking corps – Lindsey and Squires and another junior, Jacob Ormsby. Lindsey, a state champion as a freshman, will move up from 138 to 152 this season. Squires moves down to 145 from 152. Both finished third at state.