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File / The Outlook Benjamin Russell's Pokey Norris, left, is ranked No. 1 in Class 6A at heavyweight in the Alabama Wrestling Coaches preseason poll, which was released earlier this week.

For the past two seasons, Benjamin Russell coach Michael Ransaw has been working with the Wildcats to put the wrestling program back on the map. If placing high in two state tournaments in a row wasn’t enough, the proof is in the pudding this season as Benjamin Russell was recognized by coaches around the state earlier this week.

The Alabama Wrestling Coaches released its preseason rankings and the Wildcats are one of the top dogs, sitting at No. 2 in Class 6A. They ranked behind only Wetumpka, which finished slightly ahead of them last year at the AHSAA Wrestling Championships.

“I think it’s just a testament to the kids and the hard work they’ve put in,” Ransaw said. “The first two years I’ve been here, they’ve really bought in and they’re still buying in. That shows by just the numbers that we have out. They’re seeing that we’re trying to build a program and not just a team.”

Ransaw said he should have between 30 and 35 varsity wrestlers this year to go along with 20 to 25 JV wrestlers. The best part of that is there should be some role players. In addition to the team preseason rankings, the coaches also put out their top three in each weight class for individuals and there were several obvious selections for the Wildcats.

But what Ransaw is excited about is those guys who might not finish in the top three but who could score important points for BRHS down the line in consolations. That’s where things seemed to go wrong for the Wildcats a year ago and had them place third at state.

“Everybody is looking for Saxon Coker, Damien (Lawry), Pokey (Norris), Bobby (Charsha) and Hezekiah Hunter,” Ransaw said. “Those are household names from Benjamin Russell. But guys like Nashaad Hannon and some of our lower weights, they could be some of the surprises. What we have over the Wetumpkas and the Oxfords is we’re going to have role players. They know, ‘Hey, I may not win it all but I’m going to get points for my team.’”

Those “household names,” as Ransaw called them, all did earn spots on the Alabama Wrestling Coaches’ list with preseason accolades. At heavyweight, Norris was ranked No. 1 overall for the top individual ranking for the Wildcats. Hunter and Coker were both ranked Nos. 2 at 170 and 152 pounds, respectively, and Lawry and Charsha earned No. 3 spots at 220 and 126, respectively.

“Our seniors and those guys are hungry for it,” Ransaw said. “They thought they had it last year and we didn’t take care of business down in the consolations. We lost in the last two rounds because we didn’t have people who finished, and they want more.”

But with higher expectations also comes more pressure and a bigger target on your back. Although Benjamin Russell has gained a lot of notoriety around the state, it means the Wildcats have to work that much harder to meet expectations.

“I kind of don’t like (preseason rankings),” Ransaw said. “It’s simply because the kids are going to look at them and think, ‘OK, this is where we are.’ I think sometimes that can work against us. But we’re going to have to keep our kids focused. What I continue to ask them to do is take one match at a time and one tournament at a time and it all begins at practice.”

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