As this year’s Dodge City Red Demon Wrestling team walked out of Hartman Arena in Wichita Saturday, they did so having completed a season which could help set the program up for even more success going forward.
For the first time in Dodge City High School Wrestling history, three athletes had won state championships in their respective weight divisions.
Senior Couy Weil won the 120, junior Garrett Edwards won the 138 and freshman Damian Mendez won the 106.
Two other wrestlers, senior Evan Darville (third in the 285) and junior Jashon Taylor (fifth in the 260) had also medaled, giving the Red Demons five total this season.
But it was having three separate state champions all in the same year that made this season a historic one for the Red Demons.
Red Demon head coach Lars Lueders said the only other year the team had finished with as many as two in the same year was 1995.
As a team, the Red Demons finished this year’s State Tournament in sixth place behind Derby, Manhattan, Garden City, Washburn Rural and Haysville-Campus.
“I think in program development you kind of have to reach for milestones, and it kind of comes in stages,” Lueders said.
Eventually, the goal is for the team to become perennial state champions, but in order to do that, culture and expectations have to be changed, Lueders said.
Having multiple state champions in the same year is also vital.
Accomplishing that this year helps the program take the next step, that’s big, he said.
“Now hopefully that will be the expectation from every year on out,” Lueders said.
There could be plenty of familiar faces to help ensure that happens next year.
Darville and Weil both graduate, but Taylor and Edwards will both be seniors next year, and Mendez will only be a sophomore.
“The future definitely looks bright,” Lueders said. “We’ve never had multiple state champions returning, so that’s big to have two state champions on next year’s team, not just for performance and not just because they’re going to make us better as a team, but because of their leadership. They’re going to be good examples on how to be a champion, so to have them in the room next year will be big.”
They won’t be all. Others who qualified for State could return, as could a host of other wrestlers who didn’t qualify but were solid this season.
“The future looks bright, but our message is definitely going to be that they need to work even harder to accomplish the same goal or to increase their standing next year,” Lueders said.
For the Dodge City Wrestling program to continue to improve, Lueders said he thinks each wrestler will need to have the goal to be a state champion.
“I think being like those top teams, like Manhattan, Garden (City), Derby, where you’re sending 12, 13, 14 to state tournament, I think that’s the next step that we have to take in order to be a state title contender every single year,” Lueders said.
In terms of the system, Lueders said he doesn’t see a need to change anything with that.
“I think that we have the right system in place, where our youth program, our middle schools, our high school are aligned,” Lueders said.
That’s been something that’s taken shape in the last few years. Even this year, there were some wrestlers that weren’t able to compete at Regionals or finish on the team for various reasons that maybe could have been state placers or even champions, Lueders said.
“I think we have the right formula, it’s just kind of putting all the pieces together and making sure everybody’s consistent and making sure that everybody finishes out the season is basically the piece missing,” Lueders said.
The number of state champions this year shows the program has taken a step in the right direction.
“The way we finished, I was really proud as a coach, and I know everybody involved in the program is proud,” Lueders said. “It’s not just me, it’s a community effort. It’s all (the) programs involved at the youth level all the way through the high school (level), and even the alumni talking with the kids, being supportive.”
Lueders said it feels good that the team is making steps in the right direction, and that was something specifically evidenced by how the team peaked at the right time this year.
“Those state champions, that was the best they’ve wrestled all year, was at the state tournament, and that’s the goal,” Lueders said. “To know that you’re peaking in the right way and giving them the opportunity to win the state championship feels good and know that you kind of have that formula figured out.”