Class D: Three schools have a chance for their first state wrestling champions

O'Neill St. Mary's Jared Atkeson, right, has a chance to become the school's first state wrestling champion Saturday.

High school wrestling programs aren’t supposed to be DIY endeavors, but such is the case for O’Neill St. Mary’s. Five years ago, Jared Atkeson helped bring back the sport to the northeast Nebraska school, and now he could become its first state champion.

Three other Class D wrestlers will pursue the same historic breakthrough in Saturday's finals at the CenturyLink Center.

Atkeson, a 170-pound senior, rode Will Howell of Morrill the entire third period for a 1-0 semifinal win Friday. He will take on Stephen Duffy of Kenesaw, a school that hasn’t produced an individual champion since 2001.

“There’s been a lot of talk at my school that I could be the first. It gives me goose bumps,” Atkeson said.

Years ago, the St. Mary’s wrestling program was combined with O’Neill, but the arrangement eventually ended when St. Mary’s wasn’t sending anybody to the wrestling room. Five years ago, when Atkeson was in eighth grade, he and his older brother, Will, had an idea.

“We wanted to re-co-op with the public school but they didn’t want to because it would bump them up to Class B, so we started our own team,” he said. “My dad started coaching, we got some volunteer coaches, and I talked a few guys into joining.”

Three of St. Mary’s four wrestlers qualified for state, but only Atkeson, third a year ago, is still standing. Will, who graduated in 2016, was a three-time qualifier whose highest finish was fourth.

Twin Loup has also never had a wrestler on top of the podium, but its story requires some explanation.

This is the third year of the sports co-op. Constituent school Sargent had six state champions on its own, the last in 2005, and Sargent spent a few years combined with Burwell before the new alignment.

That history isn’t lost on Colby Coons, a finalist at 145-pounds.

“If I could be the first state champion at Twin Loup … wow,” he said.

Coons, who started wrestling when he was 3, thought about transferring to Burwell, which won a team championship last year and leads this year’s team race, but “I wanted to stay with my friends at Sargent. I think I made the right decision.”

His older brother, Tanner Balfour, was a three-time qualifier for the combined Sargent-Burwell team. His father, Rocky Coons, is the head coach. But unlike most wrestling coaches, the older Coons grew up a basketball player.

“I played on a lot of basketball teams that were good, but you had to rely on the other four guys on the court,” Rocky Coons said. “I fell in love with (wrestling) because it was all about the one kid on the mat.”

Rocky learned a lot about technique sparring with Balfour, but such days are over.

“I used to get down and wrestle with him, but then I got old,” Rocky Coons said.

Seth Racicky of Ansley-Litchfield will also attempt to become his school’s first champion. He beat previously undefeated Preston Walker of Elm Creek in the 195-pound semifinal. Ansley had one champion, in 1993, and Litchfield had none. Schuyler Brown is in the 220-pound final, hoping to become Overton’s first champion.

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