THE Jennings Country wrestling team hopes that starting its season earlier will pay dividends later in the year.
The team competed in the New Castle Duals this past weekend. Coach Howard Jones traditionally likes to begin the regular season later in November.
“I’m still questioning my decision to start my No. 1 varsity this early,” Jones said before the first meet. “The New Castle Duals strengthens our schedule with stiff competition, but I’ve never started a team this early. This was one of the things my staff and I felt we needed to push to a higher level. We’ll revisit this decision next year.”
Conditioning has been a hallmark during Jones’ 28 seasons as a head coach, and that is a big reason why the season-opener concerns him.
“We’re not in shape to go five matches this early in the season,” he said. “We won’t begin our full-phase conditioning until Thanksgiving. We’ll take along some No. 2 varsity wrestlers (to New Castle) to cut down on the wear and tear.”
The Panthers’ depth always has been such a strength that Jones has two varsity squads. He oversees a wrestling program that begins in the elementary schools, and it has instilled a large number of young men with a passion for the sport and winning the right way.
“This year’s freshman class is one of the biggest we’ve ever had,” Jones said. ”They have the potential to be the best classes to ever come through Jennings County wrestling. They’ve progressed even further this summer. Many of them went to summer wrestling camps, and some even went to two of them. One of them went to three, and he’ll be on the varsity this season. The young kids are picking up our routine fast.”
Jones is quick to credit his assistants for the success of his program, especially below the high school level because of the wrestling program that provides a talent pipeline for the high school team.
“Elementary School Director Leonard Collet and Middle School Head Coach Jeff Morrison and their assistants have worked diligently to put together one of the finest wrestling programs in the state,” he said.
The foundation built at the lower levels assures that Jones will always have strong leaders on his team annually, and this season is no exception.
“We have five seniors this year, and all of them have the ability to make an impact this season with their leadership skills,” Jones said. “Two of them, Gary Engelking and Connor Montgomery, have been named captains and at least one more captain will be appointed during the season.”
The Panthers return five of the nine semi-state qualifiers from last season, and Jones has similar expectations for the upcoming year. The team will host the sectionals this season and try to repeat its sectional championship performance from last season.
“We’ll be competitive, work hard and surprise some people,” Jones said. ”We will be tough by the end of the season. We’re slowly getting into position for what lies ahead.”