As he was riding the bus back home from Lexington late Saturday night, Apollo wrestling coach Lee Mitchell had nothing but pride after his team finished up a season that he said could not have gone much more perfectly.
The highlight, of course, was the state championship that senior Preston Mattingly brought home for the Eagles — a title that was 12 years in the making. Add to that a pair of podium finishes by Jake Insko and Jack Fuller, and the trio led Apollo to 9th place as a team at the state tournament.
“This has been a great season for us,” Mitchell said. “My kids have worked hard all year. If I call, they haul. That’s just how it was. It’s a great group of kids. If you set your sights high enough, you’ll hit something. We hit just about everything we aimed at.”
It’s about more than the trophies, though. The bond Mitchell and his team has runs deep, and they completely trust one another.
“A coach told me one time that if your kids love you, they will walk through walls for you,” he said. “Mine will walk through walls for you. I can’t say enough about what kind of kids they are. A lot of teams win a lot of things but don’t have great kids. I have great kids.”
Apollo had eight guys competing over the weekend. Aside from Joseph Morgan, who Mitchell said unfortunately had to face some of the top guys in the early rounds, the team did as well as he could have expected.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” Mitchell said. “You got up there with certain expectations. For the way we wrestle, we fulfilled every expectation except for Joseph. We had hoped to get him in the medals, but he had the worst draw of the whole bunch. There were about 10 guys in that bracket that could have won it.
“We said going up there if we could finish in the top 10 we’d be tickled to death. We got a state champion and a third and a fourth place. That’s about as good as we could have hoped for.”
Every year, Apollo has improved in the final team standings. After finishing 20th in 2018, the Eagles took 9th this time around. During the course of the season, two wrestlers were injured and a third quit. Had those three still been on the roster, Mitchell thinks a top five finish would have been attainable.
“We started out the season ranked fifth,” he said. “We believe after this weekend that we could have very easily done that if we could have held on to all of our kids.”
The Eagles have been working toward this level of success for several years. Mitchell said it’s been a long time coming, but he knew it would pay off.
“I keep going back to that core group of kids,” he said. “There was about five or six of them that I’ve had for six or seven years. When you get that kind of experience on the mat, it’s going to pay off in the future.”
Mattingly was unquestionably the key cog in the machine, and he blew through the competition the entire season. He finished the season 51-0, but more impressively was only taken down once and was never put on his back.
Along with Mattingly (120), Insko (138), Fuller (170) and Morgan (113) all finished as region champions in their weight class. Samuel Ramirez (126) and Cameron Baker (152) were runners-up, Travis Roby (145) took third, and Cade Crume (220) finished fourth at region.
Mitchell was especially proud of Ramirez, who had a successful year despite never stepping on a mat before.
“He had never wrestled a day in his life,” Mitchell said. “He won several tournaments this year and went into the state tournament as a region runner-up. He went deep into the tournament and was two rounds away from medaling.That just doesn’t happen.”
Mattingly, Fuller, Morgan, Ramirez and Roby will all graduate this year. Insko is only a junior, while Baker and Crume are sophomores.
With his core group leaving, Mitchell understands they’ll have to take a step back. He’s still got plenty of talent returning, though, and he’ll start building for another bright future.
“We’ve still got some good guys in the pipeline,” Mitchell said. “Will we be where we were this year losing five seniors, no we won’t. Good things come and go. We’ll just have to get back in there and do some rebuilding. As time passes, it’ll come around again.”