By Jeff Keeling
With the conference championship on the line, Science Hill High School freshman Chase Diehl stepped to the center of the mat Jan. 26. The young Topper wrestling squad was poised to pull an upset in the match that would decide the conference championship.
Across the circle for the 138-pound weight class matchup was Tennessee High senior Corbin Hurley, last year’s state runner-up and the first in a four-man string that could prove the undoing of Science Hill’s 22-point lead.
If the youngster could avoid a pin, the Hilltoppers would be closer to clinching a win with three matches to go after his. Diehl did more than that, limiting Hurley to just five points (two takedowns and one escape) and a 5-2 decision. That was worth just three points for the Vikings, leaving them trailing 37-18 with three matches to go and no chance of catching Science Hill.
With that, the Hilltoppers regained a Big Seven Conference crown that had left their grasp last year after many seasons on top. They did it, head coach Jimmy Miller said, with a sophomore-dominated lineup that was a work in progress after last year’s third-place conference finish had left the team on the outside looking in when regional and state dual meets rolled around.
“I think we’ve exceeded expectations this year,” Miller said Saturday, after the Toppers clinched a state dual berth by placing second at regionals. The team beat Morristown East in the semifinals Friday, then lost another close match to Tennessee High, 35-30.
Seniors Hunter Bagley (a potential state champion at 220), Austin Taylor (heavyweight) and Alden Bailey (195) provide solid leadership in the upper weights, as do juniors Cooper Williams (120) and Grayson Pridemore (132). But those veterans had every right to expect another tough season for the proud program with a basketful of regional championships and a handful of top four state team finishes, Miller said.
“We’re kind of on a two-year plan,” Miller said. “We’ve got good sophomores and freshmen, and a great group of eighth-graders coming in next season. But we knew we were really close this year, and we just kept wrestling a tough schedule and kept putting the young kids in situations to learn and improve. Throughout the three months we’ve just gotten better and better, and it shows.”
The Hilltoppers have a couple of remaining chances to show their maturation. They’ll wrestle at the state duals this weekend, followed by the Region 1 individual tournament Feb. 13. Then it will be the state individual championships Feb. 18-20, where Bagley is expected to lead what Miller hopes will be a good-sized group of qualifiers.
Bagley placed fourth at state as a sophomore in 2014, and Miller said with just a couple
out-of-state losses and 40 or so wins this season, his top senior is capable of winning it all.
“He has the tools to go out and win a state title,” Miller said. “He has the athleticism. He needs to know that if something doesn’t go his way within a match, he can still be okay and win. He’s been much better in that aspect this year.”
The underclassmen – of 14 varsity slots, eight are occupied by sophomores and one by the freshman Diehl – are on the road to learning that recapturing the regular season conference crown, “is just one small piece of the puzzle,” Miller said.
“I want us to be happy we’ve achieved that again, but that achievement needs to be a standard within our program.
“It’s relearning to be dominant and to be a program that is in the talk (statewide) every week, every year. We’re good enough, we work hard enough, we’ve got great kids in the program and great kids coming into the program.”