by Michael Smith
Before the season started, first-year head coach Donald Horner and his team set a goal to earn a team trophy at the Missouri State High School Wrestling Championships in 2023.
To do that, the Eagles will have to finish in the top four as a team to take home a plaque for the first time since 2017.
They will have a chance to do that next Saturday after qualifying seven wrestlers for state during the Class 4 District 4 Tournament Saturday at Liberty North High School.
Dru Azcona (132), Tanner Barker (165), Justin Deweese (157), Gavin Parks (120), Zac Bleess (113), Brock Smith (126) and Tyler Groves (144) will all represent Grain Valley at the state tournament.
Barker and Azcona, who were the Eagles state medalists in 2022, led the way with first-place finishes on Saturday. Azcona pinned his first three opponents to earn a matchup with Oak Park senior Jamiseon Tunstill in the finals in which he earned a 5-0 decision.
The Grain Valley senior faced Tunstill earlier in the season in the finals of the Suburban Conference Championships, which resulted in a 4-3 victory.
“It feels good, but the job is not done,” said Azcona, who improved to 27-1. “I got to go to state and win some more matches.”
“It’s a battle when you wrestle the same guy over and over again. We start to learn each other's moves. It’s about getting your mind right beforehand and finishing the job.”
Barker will try to finish the job at state, as well, as he will go into the tournament with a 33-2 record. He faced one of the top wrestlers in his bracket, Staley sophomore Merrick Murray and used a pair of takedowns for a 5-3 decision.
“My feet were in motion for most of the match and I was able to use my fakes to get some takedowns,” Barker said. “It feels good to get a No. 1 seed. It makes my chance better at state.”
Parks, a junior, will make his first state appearance since his freshman season. Last year, Parks couldn’t compete at districts because of a concussion. He was able to make it back to Columbia after taking third place.
He fell to defending state champion Hunter Taylor of Liberty in the semifinals but rebounded with a pin of Blue Springs sophomore Travis Birkenmaier and a 5-1 win against Liberty North senior Michael Domino.
“I feel like we have the toughest district in the state,” Parks said. “To be able to punch my ticket to state here is a really good deal. There’s a lot of great wrestlers in my bracket like Hunter Taylor, Miller Sipes and Michael Domino, they are all dogs.”
“They are all really good. It felt amazing (to qualify).”
It felt that way for Groves, too, who had to overcome a pair of deficits to take third place and qualify for his first state appearance. He lost to Oak Park senior Kaleb Peterson 11-7 in the semifinals but rebounded for a 11-9 decision in the bubble match vs. Shad Hassan of Park Hill and a pin of Fort Osage’s Grayson Moore in the third-place bout.
Groves had a pin reversed by the match official and had to continue his back-and-forth affair with Hassan. He trailed for much of the match but used a near fall and escape in the third period to send the match into overtime where he got a takedown for the win.
In his match with Moore, he trailed 7-3 before he was able to work a pin in 3:48.
“In my third-place match, I got him in a Turk, which was pretty good,” Groves said. “I got a leg in there and was able to turn him and get some back points and get the pin. My high C to a double worked out really well. That’s what I specialized in.”
Smith took fourth after getting a 6-1 victory in the consolation semifinals against Truman’s Ian Chapin. He fell in the third-place match 1-0 against Liberty North junior James Lovelady.
Deweese was third following a 5-2 victory against Park Hill’s Will Tetu in the bubble match and a pin of Liberty North senior Alex Craig in the third place bout.
Bleess took second after defeating Fort Osage freshman Antonio Martinez 7-1 in the semifinals and falling to Liberty sophomore Devon Harrison 11-3 in the finals.
Grain Valley senior Tanner Barker stands atop the podium after taking first place in the 165-pound weight class at the Class 4 District 4 Tournament Saturday at Liberty North High School. Photo credit: Michael Smith
Grain Valley senior Dru Azcona, second from left, took first place in the 132-pound division. Photo credit: Michael Smith