The wrestling room at Queen Creek High School was full of energy on a Friday and had 30 some athletes preparing for the final two weeks of the season.
Considering only 10 individuals fill out a wrestling lineup and if time was rewound to last season when a practice usually topped out at eight or so wrestlers, this season would be considered a success regardless of the results.
The program is growing, improving and developing under first-year coach Joel Anderson, who also serves as the athletic program’s strength and conditioning coach.
He would consider the sheer number of Bulldogs, which has as many as 60 signed before attrition took over, now involved in the program a success, but it doesn’t stop there.
Queen Creek ended the regular season with 11 straight dual meet victories, and 18 of its last 21, while also winning the Desert Challenge tournament at San Tan Foothills High School on Jan. 21.
“We are peaking right now,” Anderson said. “We have some wrestlers competing at a very high level and we’re looking to get 10 placers at sectionals and surprise some people at sectional.”
It started when Anderson, who was a state champion in 1995 at Mountain View in Mesa during his prep days, essentially talked to as many wrestlers and former wrestlers in the hallways at Queen Creek.
Several wrestlers chose not to compete last season as the program bottomed out after reaching the pinnacle of the sport just four seasons ago when Queen Creek won the state title in 2018. It marked the steady improvement of the program under coaches like Tom Wokasch, Jake Goddard and Kyle Hare, who left just before last season.
It left the program’s direction uncertain, and the numbers dwindled in a hurry, but Anderson put an end to that just as fast he could. His days in the Mountain View wrestling room may have been long ago, but he still remembers the atmosphere and the competition level in the Toros’ program and how it created the edge individuals needed to win outside of it.
“The first thing I did was make connections with anyone who has wrestled and invited them personally to come find out what we are about,” Anderson said. “We had to change the culture. It starts with getting bodies in the room. I let them know we would support them in any way to do great things.”
The future looks to be healthy as the program had 10 wrestlers finish in the top four at the freshmen state tournament, including champions TJ Taylor and Riggs Anderson.
Add that to fact that the Bulldogs are getting better and better this year, it has Queen Creek heading into sectionals ready to return to the level that saw three straight top four finishes at the state tournament from 2016 to 2018.
The Bulldogs travel to Pinnacle for the 12-team Division I, Section II tournament that includes several quality programs like Mesa, Pinnacle, Desert Ridge and Dobson.
Queen Creek will have a strong contingent competing this week, including seniors Brecken Butler (140 pounds), state placer Logan Brown (215 pounds) and sophomore Tate Curtis (120 pounds).
Butler and Curtis didn’t wrestle last year for the Bulldogs but have come back strong this year.
Butler lost one match before qualifying for state his freshman and sophomore seasons and plans to take that last step this year.
“It drives me every day,” Butler said. “I have to make it this year. That’s what all the work has been for and we’re getting there as a team, too.
“I wanted to come back for my senior year and Coach Anderson. It’s been a completely different atmosphere.”
Curtis also stepped away from the sport instead of coming in as a freshman a year ago after the late coaching change.
And then there is Brown, who has been through it all and finished fourth in the state at 195 last season. He’s had COVID-19 and an infected tooth this year, but is focused and ready to go now.
“The plan is to win sectional and win state,” Brown said. “That’s always the goal, but you can get taken out in a hurry. You just keep battling and trying to finish as hard as you can.”
That’s essentially what the Bulldogs have been doing all year. Regrouping, and trying to get better each time out.
“We are really a different team now,” Anderson said. “We only have a few juniors and seniors. The younger classes have stepped up and we’re ready to compete hard the new two weeks.”