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Tiger Wrestlers Bring Home Lessons (and Medals) from State

Less than a week ago, Republic’s three state-qualifying wrestlers returned home from Columbia. In addition to the two medals they brought home, they also returned with lessons they learned from their experience.

(See photo gallery of individual matches below. Photos by Jared Lankford.)

For Jonathan O’Connell, his second-place state medal was a disappointment. It’s the same finish for him as in 2018, and he said it’s still too soon for him to fully appreciate his accomplishment.

“I’m disappointed I’m not a state champion. It was a closer [finals] match this time, and I felt like I could have beaten this kid. It wasn’t that he was better than me. It was really my mistake. I let him go with 11 seconds left in the second period and it was a bad, bad move on my part,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell lost 1-0, and spent the third round trying to earn one point with an escape. The third round was “really just him hanging on and me just trying to go all out for two minutes, trying to get that one point,” he said. “That last 30 seconds, it was close for me to [score]. I stood up, turned in, almost got the reversal, but he was just hanging onto my toes, just long enough for time to run out.”

Last season’s runner-up finish spurred O’Connell to hit his off-season training hard in preparation for his junior year. How will he approach his senior year during the next few months?

“I’m going to just try and go even harder this year. It definitely worked last year. The competition (this season) didn’t seem like competition, I was just prepping so hard in the off-season,” O’Connell said.

Wyatt George returned from the state tournament with a sixth-place medal and a new appreciation for what he can accomplish in the sport.

“At the beginning of the season, everybody has those goals: they want to be that state medalist, that state champion. But I’ll be completely honest, I was just hoping not to go two-and-out at districts, and I ended up medaling at state,” George said of his pre-season expectations.

One he got to the state tournament, he realized a medal was within reach, especially after winning his first match.

“I wasn’t really nervous. I was just kind of numb. [State] is just so big, so you have to put things aside and just think about what you’re going to do,” he said. “That first win, it boosts your confidence all the way, knowing that I came in as a four seed and beating a one seed, that boosts your confidence.”

George says he’ll also be adjusting his off-season workouts after realizing what he can accomplish.

“It’s definitely going to affect [the off-season]. I knew I was going to do some off-season stuff, but after my last match at state, the coaches brought me in the tunnel and talked about how I needed to do freestyle and Greco … just to get mat awareness and mat time, and I think that’s really going to help,” he said.

For senior Michael Taylor, the state tournament ended in disappointment. Despite qualifying for state four times and being Republic’s winningest wrestler, he never managed to make the medal stand. This year, he was one win short of a medal, and he was eliminated in a close match. In the days after the tournament, Taylor wasn’t yet able to appreciate the other successes of his career.

“I think it still stings too much that I didn’t [medal], and just knowing I was one point away from going into overtime, and two points away from winning the match, it really gets to me,” Taylor said of his elimination match.

But even in his disappointment, Taylor talks more about the team than himself.

“If I would have medaled, that would have made three medalists [for Republic], and that would have been the most in Republic’s history. So I’m still pretty disappointed,” he said.

In fact, the team aspect of wrestling, often overlooked by outsiders, remains important to Taylor, even as he prepares to wrestle in college at Hannibal-LaGrange.

“I’m going to miss it a lot. The next team I’m going to, I don’t know how they work and how good their friendship is, or how much [the team aspect of wrestling] means to them. I’ve got a lot of friends on the [Republic] team, and I’m not going to have them in college, so I’ll have to make new friends.”

Taylor and O’Connell have been mat partners for the past several seasons, and Taylor says he was glad to play at least a small role in O’Connell’s success.

“I was happy to go out and warm Jon up on the mats before the finals, because it’s such an amazing feeling when you’re down there–even if you’re not in the finals–seeing the best wrestlers at their weights down there, warming up, and me getting to warm up with one of the best kids in the state,” Taylor said. “It’s just been great knowing that I have a partner who’s that good and can perform that well.”

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