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Lizi Arbogast / The Outlook Benjamin Russell's Saxon Coker, top, suffered a heartbreaker in the state championship last year but will return to try to hunt down a title at 152 pounds.

Chock full of returners combined with some highly touted newcomers and Benjamin Russell is looking forward to a strong wrestling season.

The Wildcats are still tweaking things on the starting lineup with who will be at what weight class, but BRHS coach Michael Ransaw is excited about the depth that has developed.

“I think this is the most balanced team that I’ve had since I’ve been there,” Ransaw said. “We’re going to be really strong for a couple weight classes then teeter off for one or two then be really strong for a couple. Even in the slots that we’re talking about what we’re going to teeter off, we’re not really losing a lot; we just might not have the same experience but we still have good wrestlers in those weight classes.”

Three silver medalists from the AHSAA Class 6A championships return this season amongst several others who qualified for state. The three second-place finishers who return are Saxon Coker, Hezekiah Hunter and Pokey Norris and they’ll also likely be at their same weight classes at 152, 170 and 220, respectively.

Bobby Charsha was also a state qualifier and the Wildcats are looking at him wrestling at 120 with Nashaad Hannon taking up the spot at 126. Dimitri Johnson is hoping to be at 195 and Damien Lawry will try to get down to 220 but will likely get reps at heavyweight to start the season.

Devin Freeman is coming off an injury at football season but should return as a starter at 145 and a few youngsters, Sandlin Pike and Lee Leonard, should make noise at 106 and 113, respectively.

Trace McCaleb could see time at 195 and Peyton Young will try to battle to win back his starting job at 145, where he was the starter last season to begin the year. Savon Spradley should have the tall task of taking up the 160 spot, where Ryan Spradley, who graduated, was a state champion last year.

Jamarion Whetstone and Braxton Ray should be in the 120 through 132 weight classes, where Ransaw said there is the most competition.

“There’s a few guys that are going to be battling in there in the 113, 120, 126 and 132 range,” Ransaw said. “We also have some newcomers who are going to come in there and within the next few years going to do some great work for us.”

Benjamin Russell was heavy on the pins a year ago and Ransaw said the focus throughout the preseason has been on keeping that aggressiveness alive. The goal for every match for the Wildcats will be to get the first takedown.

“We want to be aggressive enough to get that first takedown and be able to ride our opponent,” Ransaw said. “We want to be aggressive in neutral and when we’re down, we want to be the first to come up. This year, we are definitely concentrating more on being aggressive and physical in the neutral position.”

Expectations are extremely high for Benjamin Russell as the Wildcats were ranked No. 2 in Class 6A in the Alabama Wrestling Coaches’ preseason poll. They are coming off a third-place finish at state and there are several who are hungry for individual titles. Although Ransaw said all the outside noise is good and he wants the boys to be confident and get the recognition they deserve, he also wants them to focus on the task at hand.

“They’re reading the papers and they’re hearing what people are saying about them,” Ransaw said. “It’s good to have people talking about you but I can’t let that determine how this season is going to be. We still have to get in there and do the work; no one is going to give it to (them).”

Benjamin Russell kicks off the season Friday and Saturday at the Gulf Coast Clash and that’s just one of many tough tournaments the Wildcats will compete in this year. BRHS’ schedule is extremely difficult this year and the home slate starts Dec. 3 as the Wildcats host rival Opelika and defending state champion McAdory.

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.