SIKESTON - The Sikeston Bulldog wrestling program was one of the area's best for a number of years until a recent decline in the late 1990s.
But the once-proud wrestling program hit a high point last year with two state tournament medalists and a top 15 finish in Class 2.
But the Bulldogs graduated several top seniors, including state placer Lance Berry, and on top of it all they lost their coach, Chris Hodgkiss.
In place of Hodgkiss, Sikeston hired Ivan Robison of Park Hills.
While Robison returns one of the state placers, heavyweight Joe Johnson, the rest of the team will be one of the youngest in school history.
Johnson is the only senior in the starting lineup while the rest of the lineup will include seven freshmen and four sophomores. Two positions -- 171 pounds and 189 pounds -- haven't been filled.
"We're going to be exceptionally young," said Robison. "If we can get four people through to state then that would be tremendous. We're going to have seven or eight freshmen and the remainder will all be sophomores except for Joe Johnson.
I don't think I can remember any team saying they had seven or eight freshmen starting on their varsity. Being so young may be discouraging for some people, but building a new program, I kind of like the idea. They're all coming in and getting on my program and seeing how I do things. And believe me, the way I do things is a lot different than what they've done before."
The Bulldogs qualified five wrestlers for state last year, which was the most the team has had in several years.
Johnson leads the way for the team as he is currently ranked No. 2 in the state after an exciting fourth place finish last year.
Johnson captivated the state tournament fans last year by knocking off two heavily favored competitors, including an improbable pin with three seconds to go, became a Hearnes Center crowd favorite.
Johnson, who also placed fifth in the state as a sophomore, went 40-10 last year, which tied graduated teammate Kyle Weeks for the most wins in a single season.
Johnson also has the single season pins record with 28.
"I'm hoping to see him in the state finals," said Robison. "Joe works hard with me in practice and we go at it all day long. I've got two freshmen heavyweights behind him that are in there banging heads with him. Joe's working with those kids and making them better too."
Robison has been working with Johnson and trying to transform him into a more technical wrestler, instead of a brute that can only throw opponents around the mat.
At 5-foot-10, 265 pounds, Johnson is rather small for a heavyweight compared to the 6-3, 275 pounders regularly seen in state competition.
"Joe can no longer throw in practice," said Robison. "He has to wrestle me in practice and he is learning how to try to take shots. He'll tell you that he can't take me down yet. But he's working on his quickness and you're going to see a different side of Joe. We're going to work to stay out from under those real big guys, which is what got him in trouble at state."
Despite their youth, Robison is counting on big things out of some of his freshmen.
"I look for Dee Bizzell, Cody Anderson and Craig Burton to make some noise," said Robison. "All of them, really the majority of the freshmen bunch, were all in here in the summer working out. Those three in particular I expect some big things. I don't have a slacker in the bunch. They've all come in and they've been hitting it hard. People will see what we're doing here and it may take us a year or two for it to pay off."
Ashton Cantrell, Gavilan Bland, Seth Baker and Zack Friend are other freshmen competing for varsity spots. Ben Powers, Logan Berry, Logan White and Chris Northern are sophomores looking to start this year.
Robison also has improved the schedule difficulty this year, adding some top tournaments along with a state-mandated change in playoff format.
Instead of a sectional competition after districts, the Missouri State High School Activities Association ruled that the top four placers in district will advance to the state tournament.
Sikeston's district has also broadened with the change, including teams such as Washington, Union, Pacific, Eureka, North County, Hillsboro and Webster Groves.
"Our district is now pretty well loaded with what I consider a lot better teams than what we've had in the past," said Robison. "We've got a lot tougher schedule this year. Coach (Brent) Keefer allowed me to do some shuffling. We're in the Farmington Tournament, which is new. We'll see Excelsior Springs and Odessa and several others from the other side of the state and that's what Joe needs to see.
"One of the problems before is Joe never saw anybody but here locally until he got to the state level. Ordinarily we wouldn't see some teams and we'd walk into the district tournament and get bad seeds because we couldn't compare anything. Now we'll have a chance to beat some of these teams."