Feb. 8—Two Hatchet wrestlers will step onto a big stage on Saturday in Evansville's Ford Center. WHS's Brady Byrd and Jackson Whitehead earned a second- and fourth-place spot in the Castle Regional, and now take the final step before state. The event is hosted by Reitz and will feature regionals from Bloomington South, Castle, Jeffersonville and Mooresville.
This has been arguably the program's most successful season and coaches Aaron Cissell and Sean Byrd have seen explosive growth in numbers, wins and youth development, as having a pair at semi-state participants is a good indication of that.
"In terms of numbers and winning, we've been having a lot more dominate wins. We've been having more champions and placements in tournaments, so it's been a good year. We pretty much filled every weight class along with JV, but we've also dealt with a lot of sickness and injuries this year. But other than that, we had every weight class covered. We were hoping for at least three at semi-state and we got close to that. However, two is an improvement from last year, so we're still moving in the right direction," said Cissell.
Byrd, at 106 lbs., has had a record-setting career at WHS. He is now the school's all-time leader in wins and capped off the season with just one loss. He also was a double All-American at Fargo in the off-season National Championships. Last weekend, he defeated Noah Putnam of North and Matteo Cirignano, before losing in a 4-2 decision to David Altstadt of Mater Dei.
This week, he will start with Aiden Woods of Franklin Community who is 31-10. Also on his side of the bracket is Owen Blessinger of Southridge, 32-6, a wrestler who gave Byrd a tough match at the PAC championship. David Altstadt (27-8) is on the opposite side of the bracket and wouldn't meet Byrd until the finals if they advance.
"He didn't get the regional championship, but that kind of works out for us because we get to reignite our hunger for coming back. So we're coming in and looking to win the semi-state. Of course, we've got to get through our first few matches, so that's what we're prepping for," added Cissell.
"Nobody works harder than him. He's established that and that's still true to this day. And I think that'll be the case for quite a while. He's just determined dedicated during the season out of the season."
Byrd believes that in spite of coming in at runner-up last weekend, he believes he can not only qualify for state, but be the semi-state champion.
"A lot of people see me as a juggernaut of that weight class, so everyone's game plan is keep it close and try to squeak out a win. I think I'm still looked at as a favorite, and that brings a lot of pressure. I'm just got to make sure I focus in and win every position I can," said Byrd.
"My strategy is just to control every position, you know, not give up points on silly mistakes, and make sure I'm really dialed in and ready to go."
At 144 lbs., Whitehead, a junior, also advances (34-8) and will face 31-2 Reese Courtney of Center Grove. Last week, Whitehead opened with a win over North Posey's Tyler Barrow, before falling to Deacon Dressler of Gibson Southern. Whitehead then lost to Zach Bulkley of MTV with by an 8-4 decision. Both Dessler and Bulkley will be wrestling this week, while the top gun at 144 is probably senior Branson Weaver of Owen Valley, 38-0.
"He has a lot of good wrestlers in that class. You're going to run into those guys (like Weaver) all the time, but like coach Byrd says, 'you know, the wrestling skills stay the same, just the names that change'. Jackson is as good as anyone in that class," added Cissell.
"I'm excited to go wrestle. I'm pretty happy that I was able to qualify for it. I'm ranked seventh in the semi-state. There are several kids I've wrestled before that are in my bracket, but none that I'll see in the first two rounds," said Whitehead.
Assistant coach Byrd has a dual role, as an assistant and as Brady's father, and he is proud of both wrestlers. He has watched the progress not only during the season, but in the summers at Maurer Coughlin wrestling in Evansville.
"Both of these wrestlers are two guys that spent all summer down in Evansville together. They rode together down there almost every day, four days a week for really the last nine months, so it's no surprise that they are part of the very few that we have still competing matches," said Byrd.
As a father, Sean Byrd said Brady is entertaining offers about his college future.
"He has a lot of offers and he's definitely going to wrestle in college. He's just trying to make that right decision of which college and to which one's the best opportunity not only for education, but also his goals that he has for wrestling."
Wrestlers will have to win their first two matches to advance to state.
As far as viewing for fans goes, bundled package that includes access to all four semi-state sites, as well as next weekend's state finals, is available via IHSAAtv.org and the IHSAAtv suite of apps (iPhone, Android phone, Roku, Amazon Firestick, AppleTV, and Android TV) for $25. Access to all four semi-states only is available for $15. If you have a FloPro+ plan, you may also view the livestream at FloWrestling.com.
Tickets are digital-only for $12 and available at https://public.eventlink.com/ticket.