Finding success is becoming a habit for the Thayer Central wrestling team. It’s all they’ve known for the past five weeks.
Thayer Central won the Sutton Duals on Dec. 21, took fourth at the Aquinas Invite on Jan. 5, claimed the team title at the Elm Creek Invite on Jan. 11, and were runners-up at the Gibbon Bill Foster Invite on Jan. 12.
After having two weeks off, Thayer Central continued their winning ways on the mat with a runner-up finish at the Southern Nebraska Conference Tournament on Saturday in Hebron. The Titans ended the meet with 145.5 points. Class C No. 5 David City took the tourney title with 203 points and Class C Milford finished in third with 130 points.
“Overall they did a phenomenal job and I didn’t expect anything less from these guys. We had two weeks off. We’ve been up in the room practicing hard. You always have the jitters coming back out after being off the mat for so long,” Thayer Central head coach Josh Bowers said. “They came out that first round ready to go. They were mentally just eager to get back on the mat and show everybody what we got at home.”
Thayer Central put five wrestlers in finals of the 10-team event in Brenner McLaughlin (113), Keegan Casey (126), Damian Stewart (132), Dominic Stewart (138), and Andrew Engle (170). McLaughlin, who is ranked sixth as a freshman in Class D, earned the team’s lone individual championship with a 6-3 decision over Eli Vondra of Milford. 
The victory is McLaughlin 18th consecutive win after starting the season with a 3-3 record. The underclassman gave insight into his growth this season after claiming a title at 113 pounds on Saturday.
“It was tough taking some losses at the beginning of the season but now I’m starting to get into a rhythm these last few weeks. It’s getting better and it’s a lot more fun now. I think just turning it on in practice and just going hard every day has made the biggest difference from the beginning of the season until now,” McLaughlin said.
Thayer Central’s Josh Bowers added his thoughts on McLaughlin’s improvement during his first year with the team.
“Brenner’s done a great job this season. Like you said earlier in the year we took a few losses. The thing with Brenner though is he really processes those matches and thinks about those matches. He’s gained confidence in a few positions and he knows where he wants to go on the mat. And when it’s his choice to make a decision he knows where he wants to be, and you know he’s going to score from there,” he said.
Another Titan grappler that drew a rave review from Bowers was senior 132-pounder Damian Stewart. He entered the tournament as a four seed and in the semifinals the three-sport athlete upset top-seed Cory Carlson by the score of 11-4. Carlson entered the match with a 35-3 record.
“If I had to say one match out of all of them (that stood out) it was probably Damian’s match against Carlson from Sutton. We had lost to him I believe 6-5 earlier in the year and so seeing him comeback and get that confidence level back up of competing with these guys. Because he’s an excellent wrestler and we really did well with him today,” Bowers added.
Third-ranked Casey fell to top-ranked Class C Lee Carlson of Sutton for the third time this season in the 126-pound finals via a 6-3 decision. Casey pinned Class C sixth-ranked Ethan Zegers of Milford in the semifinals.
Thayer Central had five additional placers outside their five finalists. Jackson Feulner placed third at 160 pounds, while four other Titans placed fourth in Ashton Sinn (106), Treyton Waldmeier (120), Jarod Hergott (152), and Leyton Mumm (182).
York, Firmanik Earn Titles, Only Jeff Placers
As a whole, Fairbury head coach Derek Garfield admitted his team has their fair share to work on following Saturday’s SNC wrestling tournament.
Only two wrestlers placed – Ace York (170), Seth Firmanik (182) – but the upperclassman duo came away from the meet with the highest honor you can claim at the tournament.
Ace York walked through the 170-pound bracket with two pins in under a minute in the first two rounds, before defeating Engle of Thayer Central in the finals by major decision (12-1).
Since Winter moratorium, York has accumulated an 18-2 record with his only losses coming to Class A No. 1 Isaiah Alford of Lincoln High and Class B No. 1 Damen Pape of Hastings.
“Honestly I think he’s wrestling probably as good as anybody in the state right now, especially at 170,” Garfield said of York. “I mean we know there’s two top big guns there (Pape of Hastings, Canoyer of Waverly). They’re in our district but we like where we’re at. He’s wrestled down the stretch run about as good as you can ask. We got to keep on par the next three weeks but as of what he’s done since Christmas, we’re very excited about what he’s accomplished.”
Firmanik had similar success at 182 pounds for the Jeffs. He tallied a pin in the semis and then followed with his first victory over a ranked opponent this season with a 12-7 decision over Class C No. 5 Spencer Allen of David City. Firmanik is now a two-time conference champion after accomplishing the feat in 2018.
Fairbury finished in seventh place as a team at the 10-team meet.
Nine of Fairbury’s remaining 10 wrestlers outside of York and Firmanik were one match away from placing. Garfield felt that at least a few wrestlers out of that group should have been on the podium, but with under two weeks left until districts, the Fairbury head coach knows there is still time to fine tune a few things before postseason time.
“It seems like three or four matches we got beat in the blood and guts round we scored the first takedown. They we just aren’t finishing matches. So you can equate that to being young, inexperienced. At this time of year there’s no such thing as young or inexperienced. Our guys in that round, we got to take a step better and we didn’t do it today,” he said.
“We got to go back to work and figure out a formula that’s going to get us to the next level with some of our guys who were not medalists today. That’s on me. We’ll correct it, we’ll fix it, we’ll keep working. We’re close but we’re not where we need to be yet.”
Short On Numbers, Wolverines Still Find Success
Without four varsity wrestlers in their lineup -- Tommy Lokken, Isaac Smith, and Collin Hajek (sick) Sawyer Kunc (injured)-- Wilber-Clatonia entered the SNC tournament on Saturday with only nine wrestlers in the lineup.
The Wolverines proved that quality is better than quantity, or at very least that they can still succeed with reduced numbers.
Nathan Patak, Wilber-Clatonia’s lone returning state qualifier, earned his first SNC title with a major decision (15-6) over Centennial’s Ryan Payne in the championship round at 120 pounds.
The sophomore’s record this season improved to 25-4 with his 3-0 record that he posted at Saturday’s meet.
“Nathan has been working hard.  He has a great practice partner in Tommy Lokken and those two really push each other every day.  What I really liked about his performance Saturday was how physical he was. He was aggressive and really wrestled hard the whole time.  He is a great competitor,” Wilber-Clatonia head coach Jamie Bates said.
Conner Schmitt (113), Tad Moldenhauer (152), and Colby Homolka (145) earned bronze medals by way of 3-1 records. Moldenhauer fell to Thayer Central’s Hergott in the opening round by fall. He avenged the loss just a few hours later with a 5-3 win over Hergott in the 152-pound third-place match.
Schmitt was put in the consolation side of the bracket with a semifinal loss to Vondra of Milford (11-6), before rebounding with a pair of pins in the consolation semis and third-place match at 113 pounds.
Homolka registered two pins and a major decision victory to place third at 145 pounds.
Freshman Trevor Kvasnicka (195) and heavyweight Eric Escobar finished in fourth place.
The six placers guided their team to a fifth-place finish as team, ending the meet with 82 points.
While he wasn’t necessarily pleased with how his team started the meet, Bates was satisfied with their strong finish to Saturday’s conference tournament.
“I did not have us ready to go and we just did not compete.  Now having said that I was really happy with the way we finished the day. Tad beat a kid from Thayer who had beaten us earlier in the day and even though Trevor lost he really came back in his 3-4 match and wrestled the kid much tougher the second time through. We really competed well and won some really tough matches,” he said.