One thing for sure this high school wrestling season in Arizona, there will be a new state champion in Division II.
And Peoria’s Liberty High School is positioning itself as the team to step into the void.
The Lions have put the holiday season to good use, using a number of tournament appearances over the last month to stake a claim early to this year’s D-II state title. And there’s little reason to doubt their ability to do that since Liberty returned many of its top wrestlers from last year’s squad that finished as state runner-up behind Yuma’s Cibola High.
Cibola further opened the door for the Lions’ ascent to the top of the podium by moving up to compete in Division I this year.
But the Lions have been proving they aren’t just a Division II power, but should be respected as a big-school competitor across the board. They won their own Liberty Lions Classic tournament a couple of weeks before Christmas by beating the two-time D-I state champion, Mesa’s Mountain View High School.
Liberty narrowly out-pointed the Toros, 663-634, by using its depth. The Lions had four champions, but also posted five runner-up finishes and three in third place. Mountain View had seven champions, one runner up, and four other top-10 finishes. Both teams went undefeated through the duals portion of the event.
The Lions followed that performance by winning the 76-team Las Vegas Holiday Classic just days before Christmas, placing seven wrestlers that were led by Blake Smith and Miles Nuessle as champions at 195 and 182, respectively. Smith was also one of the four champions on the team at the Liberty Classic, joining Chris Espinoza, Trey Escobar, and Will Hudson.
While Liberty was competing in Las Vegas, the other team expected to challenge for the D-II title, was also taking on teams outside of the state to help it prepare for the state tournament in mid-February. Seton Catholic finished in 16th place in the 104-team Beast of the East Tournament in Delaware. The Sentinels had a runner-up finish with Quentin Hovis at 145 pounds and a pair of fourth-place finishes by Vincent Dolce at 138 and Brandon Konecny at 152.
The two teams had a chance to test each other at last week’s Steve Blackford Duals at Arizona State University, but Seton didn’t bring a full line-up for the event. The Steven Blackford High School Dual Meet Championships were set up by ASU to honor one of the best wrestlers to come through its program. Blackford is second on the list of all-time wins at ASU and was a two-time Pac-10 champion and three-time NCAA All-American. He died in a 2004 car accident.
Liberty beat Seton in the tournament semifinals and then went on to win the 33-team event by handily taking down Thunderbird High School, 48-15, in the championship match. Seton took third by beating Mountain View, which had sent its ‘B’ team to the event since its varsity squad was competing in a Minnesota tournament.
The event drew a good cross-section of high school wrestling talent to the ASU Activity Center. The majority of the field came from the metro Phoenix area, but also included schools from Globe, Prescott, Window Rock, Benson, Casa Grande, Campo Verde, and the Tucson area.
These holiday events don’t always offer the level of competition found in the regular season since coaches have to deal with rosters that are sometimes depleted by family commitments at that time of year. And there are coaches who just want to hold out some of their better wrestlers to have them ready for the re-start of the regular season once the holidays have passed.
But Liberty has clearly established itself as the school to beat for any team setting its sights on this year’s D-II title.