While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the optics of every team’s season at Labette, the wrestling program’s campaign underwent some of the most drastic changes.
Labette’s schedule features 10 dual dates and just one open tournament as the NJCAA and KJCCC are trying to limit potential exposures during the pandemic.
For Jeff Vesta, the head coach of Labette wrestling, that’s just fine.
“I personally like duals,” Vesta said. “We struggled to get home-and-away duals with every team in the conference ever since I’ve been here. We just can’t get teams like Barton to travel here. This forced their hand and I like the dual aspect. If we could have this many duals every year, I’d love it.”
Vesta added that duals generate more interest in the sport to observers.
“It’s a good way to promote the sport,” Vesta said. “We don’t have fans that will want to sit in a gym all day to see just a few matches. We have a home dual and you can watch our starters wrestle in an hour-and-a-half. It gets fans interested. Even I don’t like sitting at an open tournament from five in the morning until nine at night.”
The wrestling campaign, along with nearly every sport in the NJCAA, saw its season postponed to the second semester because of the pandemic.
“It was hard on the guys for sure,” Vesta said. “Guys are ready to wrestle right out of the gate. It’s what keeps them in school. They want to compete and get their degree. So this first semester was a bunch of what-ifs. They’re doing fine now that they know we’ll still have a season.”
Labette features two returners that made the national tournament a year ago.
Cade Wathke, a Topeka native, went to nationals at 141 pounds in 2020.
“I’d expect him to get back to the national tournament, stay humble and just wrestle one match at a time,” Vesta said. “I pretty much tell him that every single week. He’s a national qualifier already, so he has goals to be an All-American. I got to tell him to take it one match at a time and we’ll get there.”
Andrew Leitold, a sophomore from Waynesville, Missouri, earned a berth to last year’s nationals at 197 pounds.
“He’s made it to one stepping stone,” Vesta said. “Just like Cade, he wants to be an All-American. We’ll take our steps with him.”
Other sophomores on Labette’s roster include Andrew Baker (Emporia), Gabe Eades (Independence), Vernell Hawkins (Hannibal, Missouri), Kardan Lee (Kansas City, Missouri), Justin McGough (Diamond, Missouri), Dylan Priddy (Claremore, Oklahoma), Wyatt Wells (Owasso, Oklahoma), John White (Rogers, Arkansas) and Caleb Wise (Tulsa).
Freshmen on Labette include Christian Brinkley (Hazelwood, Missouri), Kadeyn Dixon (Pittsburg), Christopher Dugger (Tulsa), Riley Hollis (Rogers, Arkansas), Dillon Hooper (Coweta), Donnie Hurd III (Del City, Oklahoma), Traylon Jackson (Del City, Oklahoma), Kolbe Jones (Diamond, Missouri), Micah Leiberman (Carl Junction), Josue Meza-Fernandez (Oklahoma City), Jaime Mitchell (Clinton, Oklahoma), Darin Neal (Emporia), Daryin Sharp (Bolivar, Missouri), Jace Shiney (Omaha), Tre Steele III (Tulsa), Johnathon Vincent (Topeka), Jeremiah Voliva (Glendale, Arizona), Riley Weir (Tulsa) and Alexander Young (Scottsdale, Arizona).
“As a whole this year, from 125 pounds all the way to heavyweight, we’ve got guys that want to be here and do the right things,” Vesta said. “We’ve always had our 10-man lineup. But this season, we’ll have the 10 that really want to wrestle. We’re ready to go.”
Labette qualified seven wrestlers to nationals a year ago. With the NJCAA and KJCCC still debating on whether or not regionals should or will be held, that number may swell by default.
“That number might grow to 10 regardless just due to COVID-19,” Vesta said. “We might not have a regional tournament. They’re still working on the details for that, but it’s not set in stone. The reason we’re doing duals is because there’s only three teams there. So do we want 10 teams in the same building for regionals?”
Labette’s dual-heavy schedule will be balanced by exhibition matches at duals, allowing Vesta to give the full look at his roster normally seen at opens.
“The conference did a good job allowing us to have six exhibition matches with each school we dual,” Vesta said. “If we have guys that are close in a weight class, they’ll get the opportunity to wrestle those matches and we’ll have a good idea where everybody is at.”
With Labette gearing up for a wrestling season unlike any in its history, Vesta is keeping expectations high.
“We want to put more All-Americans on the board and keep representing Labette well,” Vesta said. “We’re here to wrestle. We want to get to that national tournament and have All-Americans. And hopefully they don’t shut us down.”