Third, second, second.
Those are Benjamin Russell’s team results at the AHSAA state wrestling championships the past three seasons.
Three times, the Wildcats were in contention to take home Alabama’s ultimate high school team prize. Three times, they fell just short of that goal.
This year the team has just one objective in mind: climb over that final mountaintop.
“We’ve had a couple of second places over the last few years, finished second, finished third,” Benjamin Russell coach Michael Ransaw said. “We’ve been in the top three those years since I’ve been here, and what we’re trying to do is bring that back.”
Ransaw was a key part of the previous Benjamin Russell team to win a state championship in 1983.
That team dusted off a three-peat of state crowns that began in 1981. Twelve years prior to that Benjamin Russell won no less than 11 championships in a row from 1959 through 1969.
Every single year of the 1960s, no team could challenge Benjamin Russell’s supremacy on the mat. For those counting, that makes 14 total state championships for the Wildcats’ wrestling program. No other team in the school’s athletics department has more than one.
“Benjamin Russell has a tradition of winning state championships,” Ransaw said. “When you hear ‘Benjamin Russell,’ if you’re from the state of Alabama, you think of great wrestling. And that’s what we’re trying to bring back. We would love to be the team that brings it back here.”
It’s Ransaw’s goal to bring that tradition back. This year, he may have the team to do it.
Headlining the team is a stockpile of juniors, many of whom are ranked statewide by TrackWrestling.
Cousins Savon Spradley and Jamarion Whetstone, both of whom are ranked, make a dynamic one-two punch at 170 pounds and 160 pounds, respectively. Lee Leonard joins them as another ranked wrestler, carving out his role at 132 pounds.
“We have some veterans coming back, a very seasoned team,” Ransaw said. “Seven or eight juniors in the starting lineup, we’ve got a couple sophomores that are going to be in the starting lineup, probably only going to have one senior in the lineup this year. But all those players I just mentioned were in the state tournament last year.”
That one senior is Trace McCaleb, the team’s 220-pound star who placed eighth at the state championships last season. He’s ranked third in that class to start the year.
The top underclassman may be sophomore 120-pounder Sandlin Pike, who’s already recorded a couple podium finishes at this point in his young career, Ransaw said.
Below him is where a lot of greener faces will fill in, however. The upperclassmen are putting in time with those younger players to pull them along.
“It’s going to take hard work in here to get a state championship,” Whetstone said. “We’ve got a lot of younger guys, and a lot of freshmen, maybe one or two middle schoolers that we’re depending on to get points for us in the 106 to 113 type of range.”
Ransaw noted that the Wildcats may not look like a state championship contender in the early stretches of this season, however. That time is key for experimentation and experience.
“We’re probably not going to look like a whole lot,” Ransaw said. “People wrestling out of weight classes, people just not in condition. I’m going to put people on the mat just to get mat time.”
Benjamin Russell opened its season with a dual meet against Chelsea Saturday.