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Highlanders seek first title

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:45 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington High's wrestling team got its first challenge before the 2012-13 season started. The Highlanders landed at No. 1 in the West Virginia Coaches Association preseason poll for the first time in school history.

From that point, coach Rob Archer has thrown challenges at his team all season. With a slight stumble here or there, the Highlanders responded and held the No. 1 spot all season.

Huntington High's ultimate challenge begins Thursday in the 66th West Virginia High School Tournament at Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Parkersburg South will be seeking a record fifth straight Class AAA title and its 19th overall. The Highlanders beat the No. 2 Patriots, 37-24, in a dual on Feb. 7 at Huntington High. Huntington won the Region IV crown on Saturday for the fourth straight year.

"For the most part they've handled it," Archer said Monday prior to practice. "I challenge them at practice, at matches. I want to make them uncomfortable so when they get to Big Sandy, they're ready to go. Rankings mean nothing now. If they can't deal with certain situations now, all the good they've done has been a waste. We've wrestled them all, but this week is different."

Huntington High, which has never won a state title, had seven regional champions and all 14 wrestlers qualified for the state. Parkersburg South had five regional winners and 12 are headed to Huntington.

"Some guys have really stepped up for us," Archer said. "Some need to get on the train. They (South) are going to come back at us hard."

One coach impressed by Huntington's run is Point Pleasant's John Bonecutter. The Black Knights finished runner-up in the regional and had 12 wrestlers qualify for the state. However, in head-to-head meetings in the finals, the Highlanders went 5-1. Noah Searls got Point Pleasant's lone win at 138 pounds.

"I haven't seen a team like that in a while," Bonecutter said. "No holes. Huntington's the team to beat. They're very well coached. They work for every point and never get in a bad position. They put it on us."

Huntington High had four wrestlers ranked No. 1 going into the regional. They are Logan Grass at 106, Jordan Allen at 113, Billy Waldeck at 138 and Justin Arthur at 145. Waldeck lost to No. 3 Searls in the regional final.

One of Huntington High's surprises of late is Johnathan Spence at 120. He was at 126, and dropped to his current weight after the WSAZ Invitational. He took over for Jarred Simpkins, who left the team. In the regional, Spence scored three points late to edge No. 1 Guy Fisher of Point Pleasant, 5-4.

"Surprised? No," the fourth-ranked Spence said. "I believed I could win. It comes down to all the hard work in the (practice) room."

At one point in his career, Spence was on the jayvee squad. Now the junior (17-9) enters the regional as a champion.

"It's showing what you can do when you get the chance," Spence said. "It's going to take the same kind of effort this week."

Cody Shepherd of the Highlanders, ranked No. 9 at 132, pinned Point Pleasant's Stevie Porter in the regional final. Porter finished second at 126 a year ago in Class AA/A. The Black Knights moved up a class this season.

"Keep pushing the pace," Shepherd said of his style. "I hope this carries over to next week."

Shepherd knows the target's on Huntington's chest entering the state. That's OK with him.

"We all have to generate that same type of enthusiasm and bring it on the mat one more time," he said.

Pairings were made Saturday night after the pill drawing. Archer doesn't get caught up in that drawing like some coaches and fans do.

"I don't have a say in it," he said. "It's OK, what is it?"