Defending champs hopeful of a three-peat in 2022

Defending champs hopeful of a three-peat in 2022

The 2021-22 GHS wrestling season is off to a somewhat depressing start, having dropped six of their first seven matches, then suffering the tragic loss of one of their own when senior Garrett Haralson was killed in a highway accident about ten days ago. Head Coach John Kincade cancelled two matches last week to give his team time to recover and reflect on the meaning of such a life-changing event, because teenagers often think of themselves as indestructible. It’s jarring to learn they are not. Incidentally, hundreds of GHS students attended the funeral for Haralson last Friday.   

But while two matches were cancelled, wrestling practice continued last week, because life does go on, and returning to a normal schedule or getting back to work are often helpful antidotes to life’s heartaches. Besides, there is still much to be optimistic about regarding the 2021-22 season for the defending two-time state champion Bulldogs. In fact, the ‘Dogs have won five of the last six state competitions they have participated in, including three straight dual state titles.

Most all of Greenwood’s early losses have been to much larger Class 6A schools and took place before the arrival of several football players who also compete in wrestling. In a nutshell, on December 2nd Greenwood fell to Fayetteville, 48-36, and narrowly lost to Frontenac, Kansas, 39-36. A week later they lost badly to Rogers-Heritage, 66-6, and to Rogers, 57-19.

Then on Saturday of the weekend Garrett Haralson suffered his fatal accident, the GHS wrestling team competed in a dual tournament at Van Buren, defeating Fort Smith Northside (46-25), before falling to both Little Rock Central (49-24) and Van Buren (62-18). The road thus far has not been easy, but that’s by design, according to Coach Kincade.

“January is when we begin our 5A conference schedule,” he explained. “In December we wrestle [mostly] 6A schools. Van Buren is the only 5A team we’ve wrestled. We get beat up in December, and that’s my plan. We wrestle some really good teams, then in January wrestle people in our own conference, and we’re battle ready by then. We’re a little bit off this year because of circumstances, but we will be ready.”

Reminded that his team has established the gold standard for wrestling excellence in Class 5A with five recent state titles, Coach Kincade revealed a little-known sixth championship earned by his student-athletes. “We found out at the end of the year that we won the academic state championship. I was probably more proud of that than any of them.

“Our kids are successful,” said the coach. “Jason Arnold is at the Air Force Academy. Garrett Newman is over at UCA. Jordan Hanna is at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Ty [Moose] is wrestling in junior college at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. I’m proud of those kids and what they are doing. They are productive in society, and I’m proud of that fact.”

But looking at the still young season of 2021-22, Kincade is confident he has another group of wrestlers capable of defending their back-to-back state titles and earning a three-peat, though he admits it won’t be as easy. “There are some good teams out there [like] Van Buren, Lake Hamilton, and Searcy,” he offered.

“We won the state tournament last year by over 120 points. It wasn’t even close,” he continued. “No way that will happen this year. It will be a real tight race. The younger kids, depending on how much they grow up and what they can do, will determine which way we go, which is a challenge. We’re always striving to be the best and we don’t change anything up. We want to work hard and get in shape and continue to wrestle on a state championship level. We’re still going to fight for that title. I’m not ready to retire yet.”

The Bulldogs have a unique mixture of younger inexperienced wrestlers with potential and several veterans who have been through the wars of state tournament competition. On the other hand, there’s not much in-between. There are 29 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, including several female wrestlers. Conversely, there are only three juniors and seven seniors total.

“I could have one starter that may be a junior and maybe one that’s a sophomore, and the rest are freshman and seniors,” explained Kincade. “We’ve got a lot of younger guys to go along with my older guys, and that seems to be a pretty good formula. We have a lot of pups, but we’re going to have [plenty of] guys in the ninth and tenth grades, and in two more years they will be very good because they will have experience at that time.

“At 113 [pounds] Antonio Martinez won the state championship two years ago and took third last year, and he is back,” said the coach. “Jackson Witherington was state runner-up last year at 106 [pounds] and he’s back this year at 126. Hayden Rofkahr is a two-time state champion [120-126 pounds] and he’s back as a senior.

“Lucas Honkala will move up a weight class to 195 this year and he was a state runner-up last season. Tyler Crossno at 220 is a two-time state champion and runner-up, and he is back. Jeremiah Presson at heavyweight was a state runner-up last year. So we have six state placers coming back, and five of them were finalists. And I have a good mixture of younger kids, like [sophomore] Jarod Pace. He will wrestle at 120 this year and he’s a kid people don’t know about. He’s a good little wrestler and has been with me for a long time.”

Garrett Haralson was going to move up a class and wrestle at 152 pounds, but his passing has forced several wrestlers to shift their weight categories to fill the void. “We’ll have another guy who can wrestle at 152 and we’ll do just fine. The only weight I’m concerned about right now is 182. I may have somebody, or I may not. We could be missing one,” said Kincade. There are 14 weight categories in high school wrestling.

Asked about some of his promising youngsters this season, the coach said, “My 106-pounder Jonathan Martinez has been having a tough time right now because he is a first-year wrestler, but he is athletic. By the time we get to the state tournament he’s going to have a chance. I have Jared Pace, a sophomore, and Jackson Witherington at 126, and they’re going to be pretty good. At 132 Parker Branton is a ninth grader who has been in my youth program forever.

“We have Landon Rofkahr, Hayden’s younger brother, and he will be competing between 126 and 132. I look for good things out of Landon. Then we have Pablo Ambriz, another freshman who is a cross country guy like Rhett Williams (also a freshman), and those guys can go. They have stamina forever. At 152 will be Williams and he’s been wrestling really well.

“At 170 we have Caden Erskine who is a junior,” he added. “Caden has stuck it out and gotten stronger and looks good. I don’t know about 182 pounds yet, but from 195 to heavyweight, we are strong. We’ve got a bunch of guys there. At 220 I have a move-in from Missouri, Logan Taylor, who will be eligible in January. He has a younger brother named Cody, an eighth grader, and he’s a big human being. He's about 6-2 or 6-3 and over 220 pounds right now, and he’s wrestling for me on my youth team. He took third place at a tournament in Springdale.

“Then I have Sam Hicks, another eight grader who is a heavyweight about 6-3. So my heavyweights have promise for the next few years. Bryce Williams would have placed in the state tournament last year, but Jordan Hanna was also at his weight. Jake Robbins is another heavyweight who has done well. We’re going to score some points, but we’re going to need some younger guys to step up if we are to compete at that elite status,” concluded the coach.

Concerning his recent award for Arkansas Coach of the Year, the always humble Kincade said, “When you win an award like that, so much of it goes to your assistants. I surround myself with good people. Austin [Moreton] is my official assistant coach, and I couldn’t have gone out and recruited one any better than him.” Also assisting with the GHS program are unpaid volunteers Robert Moore along with Caleb and Ashley Erskine, who also help Kincade with his thriving youth program.

“You’ve got to have a youth program in this sport. If you don’t, you’re in trouble. There’s a lot of pieces that have to fit together,” acknowledged Kincade. “I’ve been tremendously blessed, and I attribute all that to God. [My assistants] also won the Arkansas National Assistant Coaches award this year,” he revealed.

Regarding the growing number of GHS girls involved in the sport of wrestling, the coach said, “I have eleven girls this year and I had just two last year, with Skylar Belin being the state runner-up. The school gave me some press and our girls started coming out. It’s been a blessing. That’s what I want to grow so much.

“There are ten weights in girls wrestling and we have enough to fill seven of them. Women’s wrestling has exploded. I have two sisters and I love being able to influence a young lady and show them the way things are supposed to be. We want to teach them character and how to do things right and work hard. Most of the girls I have in here are not in any other sports.”

The coach then offered his opinion about the success of the entire Greenwood School District, both academically and athletically, giving much of the credit to the district’s administration and coaches. “We’re lucky here at Greenwood,” he said. “The administration is second to none. There is none better than right here. Our leadership is unbelievable, and the people they hire as coaches are top notch, not just as coaches, but as individuals. It’s a place people want to come.”

Coach Kincade is certainly right about the caliber of people who hold administrative positions within the school district, and the character and integrity of those hired to teach and coach at Greenwood schools, and there is no more perfect example of that statement than Kincade himself. His gentle demeanor along with his honesty and humility are a tribute to the God he serves and the love he has for the people within his orbit.

His obvious expertise in the sport of high school wrestling has been clearly demonstrated over the past decade. He has built one of the best programs in the state in Class 5A, with no signs of slowing down this season. It’s no wonder that kids want to wrestle for him. He’s the best, and Greenwood is fortunate to call him one of their own, despite his Oklahoma origins. Well, nobody’s perfect.

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