KEARNEY, Mo. — Platte County didn’t enter the postseason with many expectations — at least not from those outside the program.
Didn’t matter. The Pirates were focused all year on getting better, and they made a statement of sorts over the weekend in the Class 3 District 4 tournament. They qualified nine for this weekend’s Missouri State Wrestling Championships and ended up second to defending district and state champion Kearney in the final team standings.
Platte County now goes into the final tournament of the season with a chance to create more surprises.
“I think they showed everybody something,” Platte County coach Reggie Burress said. “Obviously, a lot of people left us for dead this year, not thinking we could rally back and get back to giving ourselves a chance. We give ourselves a chance now.”
Platte County’s state contingent includes six first-time qualifiers — three of them freshmen. The three seniors are the only returning qualifiers, and Nolan Saale, Nick Filger and Nick Maddux don’t have a single state medal between them.
However, the Pirates now have the numbers to try and chase a fourth state trophy in five years. They were third last year and second in both 2015 and 2016.
The difference this time will be the lack of state champion and state medal returners. Platte County lost two state champions, five total medalists and six qualifiers from last year’s team.
Saale and Filger have the most state experience of this group as two-time qualifiers, but both went 1-2 a year ago. As sophomores, Saale was also 1-2, while Filger was 0-2, leaving them with one last chance to make their mark.
“All three seniors that qualified need to scratch and claw and find their way to the medal and these young guys need to do the same thing,” Saale said.
Platte County put four in the finals of the Class 3 District 4 tournament.
Eli Rocha, a freshman, dominated his first three matches in the 120-pound bracket with three straight pins to send the second seed into the championship match. Saale, Filger and freshman Jaydon Walls all survived tough bouts in the semifinals to guarantee their state spots.
Filger held on for a 3-2 decision over Grain Valley senior and four-time state qualifier Mitchell Alexander in a 138 semifinal. Saale bested Helias’ Dustin Luebbert for the second time this season with a 6-2 decision in a 160 semifinal.
Walls provided the most dramatic win of the round, scoring an escape and then a takedown with 21 seconds to go to win 5-4 over Grain Valley’s Hunter Newsom, who won a matchup between the two in a dual about a week earlier.
Rocha ended up Platte County’s only individual champion. He matched up with Kearney senior James Freitag in the 120 final — a rematch of a December meeting at KC Stampede that ended with Freitag catching and pinning Rocha in a headlock. This time around, Rocha controlled the action and scored three takedowns on the way to a dominant 8-4 decision victory over the two-time state medalist and 2017 state runnerup at 106 pounds.
“It’s a big confidence booster knowing I can beat the top guys in the state,” said Rocha, who improved to 37-8.
Platte County’s other five qualifiers took a more difficult path, and Vinny Cesaro’s run at 106 embodied the persistent mentality of this year’s Pirates team.
A junior, Cesaro had been in and out of the lineup as a backup at 106 in his first two seasons. He entered districts in his first year as a full-time starter with a losing record but battled back with two consolation wins after a quarterfinal loss.
That earned Cesaro a third matchup with Smithville’s Daeton Bone, who won the first two meetings between the two by fall and then major decision. This time, Cesaro held a late 5-3 lead in the consolation semifinal, leaving him seconds from earning a state berth.
Instead, Bone scored a tying reversal in the final 5 seconds to send the match to sudden death overtime. Cesaro wasted little time in recovering, taking Bone down to his back and then scoring the pin to earn his first state berth in dramatic fashion.
“I think I always knew that it was very possible for me to beat this guy,” said Cesaro (17-22), who ended up fourth place. “It just took me a couple trial runs to realize what I was missing, what would make me a better wrestler and give me the ability to eventually beat him.
“Just the emotions going through me at that point, I was just so angry that he got those points and that it was going to come down to overtime. At that point, I felt I had no choice but to leave everything on the mat and go as hard as I could.”
Cesaro’s win started a strong round for Platte County, which moved into second place in front of Smithville and then remained there for the rest of the tournament. Pirates sophomore Grant Stathopoulos (fourth, 113), Maddux (third, 126), freshman Blaine Keuhn (third, 152) and sophomore Drake Lacina (fourth, 182) also won consolation semifinals to secure state berths. Lacina had a quick pin of Smithville’s Eldon Miller to cap his backside run.
Of that group, only Maddux had previous state experience, going 2-2 as a qualifier in 2018.
Platte County also just missed out on taking more. Omar Garcia, a senior, lost his 132 consolation semifinal 5-2 to Grain Valley two-time state finalist and three-time state medalist Caleb Benshoof, while senior Glen Gammill lost his 285 consolation semifinal in ultimate tiebreaker to Grain Valley sophomore Donovan McBride.
“So proud of everybody from top to bottom,” Burress said. “For us to get second as a team, it took everybody. Even the kids who didn’t qualify won matches for us, scored bonus points. I’m proud of every single one of them.”
Platte County’s depth — built as usual during a difficult early schedule — fully showed in the tournament, and the Pirates even briefly challenged Kearney for the top spot in the finals. Rocha’s upset of Freitag along with third-place match wins for Maddux (15-10) and Keuhn (24-28) closed the gap, but the momentum didn’t hold throughout the final round.
Filger (43-12) matched up with Smithville senior Mitchell Bohlken in the 138 final. Bohlken won a 2-0 decision with a reversal in the third period, improving to 4-0 against Filger on the season. Filger is yet to score an offensive point against Bohlken in the matchups of state title hopefuls.
Saale (33-12) trailed Kearney junior and returning state finalist Coby Aebersold 3-1 late in the second period. Aebersold appeared to slip near the edge of the mat, but time was ruled to have run out before Saale could complete what looked like an inevitable takedown.
Aebersold held on for a 3-2 win, and Saale finished as district runner-up for a second straight season. Walls (36-16) followed with his finals match at 170 and lost a 9-1 major decision to Kearney senior and returning state finalist Chopper Mordecai.
In the end, Platte County had 167½ points to finish as runner-up ahead of Smithville and just 21½ behind Kearney. The nine qualifiers were more than most would expect and now gives the senior leaders a chance to make a run next week.
“I’m just hoping we can keep this momentum going at state,” Saale said. “I think we’re definitely going to be talking to these younger guys and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re really proud of what you’ve done, but we know there’s more in you. We expect that from them.”
Still, Platte County goes into state with a lot of unknowns. Cesaro, Stathopoulos (25-24) and Lacina (15-29) have No. 4 seeds, and the three freshmen will be on the same new stage. The Pirates might not know what to expect, but they are enjoying the journey to get to this point.
“Honestly, it’s such a weird feeling. I never expected it to happen like this,” Cesaro said. “It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before, and it definitely hasn’t sunk in yet.”