NORMAN — Jay Gibson had a long and good run as Norman North wrestling coach. For years the Timberwolves were the dominant team in town, annually one of the state’s best Class 6A grappling programs and one that crowned a pair of state champions in Josh Kennedy at 125 pounds in 2010 and Caleb Cline at heavyweight in 2011.
This is Greg Henning’s first season as North coach. A many-time state champion skipper at Tuttle, Henning came out of retirement to take over the T-Wolves after a rare down season and has a legitimate shot at crowning a couple of state champions by Saturday night.
Both 126-pounder Hayden Hansen and 160-pounder Levi Berry earned regional championships at Midwest City last Saturday, and one of them had no idea he’d even have the chance.
That’s Berry, who two years ago, as a Tuttle freshman, won the Class 4A 140-pound title and last year finished second at 145 pounds.
After transferring to North, he didn’t think he’d be cleared to participate until his senior season. Instead, he was cleared just in time to win a regional title.
“We have a house out here off of 92nd and Franklin. It was kind of a process with the OSSAA to get them to come out and look at the house, to get Mr. (Norman North principal Bryan) Young to come out and make sure everything’s good with the residence.”
But they did, and he was cleared.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Berry said.
Also, he loves North.
“It’s bigger, it’s a different environment,” he said. “It moves a little faster and it definitely fits my personality.”
Already a state champ, Berry will nonetheless take the mat with a chip on his shoulder.
“I won it my freshman year in 4A and that’s two classes down from 6A and you kind of had everybody saying, ‘Yeah, he’s good, but he only won state in 4A,’” he said. “Now, to move to a 6A school, which is the top of the game, it doesn’t get any tougher.”
He’ll be joined by Hansen, who had a bead on last year’s state tournament but was derailed by a dislocated rib.
“I felt like I could have placed last year,” he said. “I never got a chance. It’s kind of been motivating me ever since.”
Then there’s Blake Bassham, a first-time state qualifier at 145 pounds, who finished third at the Midwest City regional, but thinks he should have finished first.
“I should have finished first because the kid that finished second, I already beat earlier in the season,” he said, “and the kid who got first, I definitely shouldn’t have lost to. He beat me by two points (3-1).”
Henning likes what his trio’s made of.
“All three are tough mentally,” he said. “Guys that you want to have in your foxhole when you’re at war.”
Other stars: Beyond Norman, the Transcript area is sending young wrestlers to the state tournament. Noble and Southmoore lead the way with dive qualifiers each, the Bears sending Trevor Symes (106), Shelby Greeson (126), Tristan Rabe (138), J.E. Bailey (152) and Dakota Boxwell (170) into the Class 5A draw and the SaberCats sending Connor Dooling (113), Zac Damico (120), Nathan Marek (170), Zac Moore (182) and Jakoby Walker (195) into the Class 6A draw.
Beyond North’s Berry and Hansen, the area counts one other regional champion and that’s Southmoore’s Marek, who’s also the only area guy ranked No. 1 at his weight by OKWrestle.com.
There are, though, a couple of second-ranked guys: Westmoore’s Dalton Duffield (106) and North’s Hansen (126).
Nigel The Natural: NHS junior Nigel Jolliffie, who qualified third in the 106-pound draw at Midwest City last Saturday, has been wrestling for less than two years.
Tiger coach Bo Maynes’ story is that Jolliffie’s father told him he had to take up a sport and offered baseball and wrestling as options. Jolliffie began with baseball, didn’t like it and moved over to the mat. Now he’s at the state tournament.
“He’s such an amazing athlete and has such a feel for the sport,” Maynes said.
Special breed: One good question to ask any wrestler is why they do it. Here’s the back and forth with North’s Bassham:
Why do you wrestle?
“I ask myself the same question,” he said. “I think you’re just born to do it. Not everybody can be a wrestler.”
Follow me @clayhorning