Rubek: Five teams bringing reasons for optimism to Omaha for Nebraska state wrestling meet

All five Tigers in the Huskermat rankings are juniors, including unbeaten Damen Pape at 170 pounds.

Downtown Omaha will turn into the land of opportunity at the state wrestling tournament.

Since three classes, maybe all four, have potentially close team races — a rarity in recent years — there may be more teams coming here with title aspirations than ever.

Some of those teams are in Class B. Finally.

Omaha Skutt is the proud owner of all but one of the past 21 team titles in the class, but the SkyHawks bring five to the show after a disastrous district weekend.

That opens the possibility that a team other than Skutt could take the Class B title for the second time since 1997.

Enter Hastings, a team that went through a coaching change two weeks ago and thought its best chance at dethroning Skutt might be a year from now. All five Tigers in the Huskermat rankings are juniors, including unbeaten Damen Pape at 170 pounds.

Brian Laux, who coached Hastings from 2009 through 2015, returned to the Tigers’ corner just before the postseason began. He replaced Austin Weidner, who was no longer in the position as of late January. When reached, Hastings Public Schools Superintendent Craig Kautz, citing a personnel matter, said Weidner is no longer employed by HPS.

So Laux, the school’s assistant principal, could be just the kind of presence needed for a veteran group, especially one on the cusp of the school’s first state championship since 1998.

Where would Laux have been had he not gotten that call to return as coach? Either in the stands at his son’s baseball tournament in Oklahoma City or a seat inside the CHI Health Center watching as a fan.

“These kids deserve the best chance, the best opportunity, to continue with the great season that they’ve had,” Laux said. “My job is to prepare them with the knowledge and experience that I have.”

Hastings will have company in trying to plant its flag in Class B. Second-ranked Wahoo has three top-ranked wrestlers in its contingent. And don’t completely dismiss Skutt. All five who qualified are capable of scoring points. The SkyHawks would need big-time contributions from each to make things interesting.

Class A has a favorite, albeit a slight one. Top-ranked Millard South is bringing all 14 in its lineup, including eight in the ratings. It’ll be a strength-in-numbers effort for the Patriots, who won three team titles in a row before last year’s fifth-place finish.

“There’s going to be some teams with a lot of state champions, but I think it’s going to be our depth that can put us over the top,” Millard South coach Nate Olson said. “I don’t think any other team can match our depth. I know our studs are going to score a lot of points, but I feel like it’s going to take much more than just that to win it.”

Second-ranked Omaha Burke has already shown its capable in a tournament format. The Bulldogs won the Metro tourney, ending Millard South’s run of five straight conference crowns. Defending champion Lincoln East and its high-end firepower — five wrestlers ranked first or second in their weight class — may have something to say about the Class A race, too.

Class D might be the truest toss-up of the classes, with its haves and have-nots battling it out.

Top-ranked Plainview never has won a state team title and No. 2 Fremont Bergan never has finished in the top three. Behind them are Amherst, which reigned in Class D from 2010 through 2016, and Burwell, the winner the past two years.

Maybe the surest bet of the weekend comes in Class C, in which top-ranked Valentine has eight ranked wrestlers, including a trio of No. 1s. The Badgers will be looking for a third straight team title.

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