Every wrestling season in Wyoming can be divided into three meets: the Shane Shatto, the Ron Thon and the state championships.
As first formal practices began last Monday, wrestling teams from across the state prepare for a small slate of 2017 contests before the holiday break and the looming Shane Shatto Memorial Invitational on the other side of it (Jan. 5-6).
There’s plenty to pay attention to this season between team competition and individual accolades. There’s also plenty of time between the first practice and the final weekend of the season for everything to change.
For three months high school wrestlers across the state watch their meal intake and live in sweatpants with the hope of convening at the Casper Events Center on the last weekend in February for a shot at a state championship.
Here’s a quick look at some of the biggest storylines, by classification:
Real estate at the top of the mountain is getting sparse.
Green River repeated as state champion last season, using championship Saturday to create separation from second-place Natrona County. The gap between the Mustangs and fifth-place Cheyenne East was 30.5 points. Kelly Walsh shot up to sixth with 147 points just one year removed from finishing last with 74 points.
And third-place Gillette is now a divided team with Thunder Basin, which makes this year even more interesting.
Seven state champions return this season for a chance to defend their crowns.
Kelly Walsh’s Jace Palmer went 49-2 as a freshman at 106 pounds last year and ultimately won the championship with a dramatic 9-7 decision. Palmer was one of eight Trojans who made the semifinals at last year’s tournament. Six of them, including 2016 state champion Caleb Nathan, return for this season.
Junior Justin Flores returns for Green River after winning at 113 while Sweetwater County rival Cameron Metcalf gave Rock Springs a 120-pound championship with a 9-7 overtime win. RJ Stassinos also returns for the Tigers after winning the 132-pound title.
Trevor Jeffries (138) and Deric Johnson (220) each won state championships with Gillette last year, but both will compete for Thunder Basin this season. Meanwhile, Natrona County’s Brett Brenton returns for a chance to complete a three-peat after an impressive junior campaign.
Even with all of those returning faces, there will undoubtedly be some interesting moments without staples like Carless Looney (Laramie) and Hayden Hastings (Sheridan) on the mats. Both went out on top with state championships to cap their senior seasons before beginning their college wrestling careers at Wyoming.
Another program to repeat as state champion last year was Star Valley. The Braves won their 20th wrestling championship on the strength of three state champions, two of which (Tristan Hicks and Josh Dawson) return this season.
Star Valley will likely come in as the favorite to win a third straight championship but there is intrigue in which team poses the biggest threat to the top team in 3A.
The most likely candidate is Riverton, which may be on the cusp of a special season. The Wolverines return reigning state champions Ridge Briggs (113) and Hayden Wempen (182), but will need to develop depth in the middle weights in order to make a run for the top spot.
Powell finished second last season and returns a state champion in Reese Karst (132), which should keep the Panthers in contention.
Dryden Menck of Lyman broke through to win at 195 last year and returns for his senior season. Cody’s inspirational wrestler Dan Beaudrie capped his comeback junior season from a near-fatal car accident with a state championship at 152 pounds and has a chance to finish his high school career with back-to-back titles.
The rest is almost entirely unknown. Seven weight classes will have new champions claimed by season’s end, which opens the door for younger wrestlers jumping weight for this year.
Douglas will rely on a strong underclassmen effort to return to the top four in the team standings while Buffalo can cement itself as a threat after a near-disastrous first day at last year’s state tournament.
Moorcroft’s dynasty furthered last season with a fifth straight state championship. The Wolves were dominant in Class 2A at the beginning of the season and sealed another title on championship Saturday.
But the biggest story in the smallest wrestling class may be the team that is poised to knock Moorcroft off its throne.
Glenrock returns three state champions for a season in which the Herders aim for finishing with a little more than last season’s silver. Tate Stoddard (113), Joe Taylor (126) and Jadon Williams (285) will provide valuable senior leadership to an underclass middle division, the only apparent weak spot in the Herders’ lineup.
Moorcroft returns two state champions and four state semifinalists. The Wolves will again rely on their depth to carry their season.
After those two the team standings drop off.
There’s Kemmerer, which is young and should improve on a few key finishes last year. Dawson Schramm (106), Donny Proffit (132) and Hayden Walker (170) all won gold last season and return for a chance of repeating for the Rangers.
Cokeville and Burns/Pine Bluffs were neck-and-neck in the team standings at fourth and fifth, respectively, separated by just 0.5 points. Both return two state semifinalists.
Alex Schlattman (145) of Greybull/Riverside is the only other returning state champion.
The rest, however, is completely up for grabs.