by Andrew Stark
Ardrey Kell used a balanced effort to win its first Southwestern 4A conference tournament title on Feb. 4.
The Knights, who had a 12-5 record entering the first round of the Class 4A state dual-team tournament this week, placed 14 wrestlers in the top four of their respective weight classes. They finished with 212 points, 45 ahead of -second-place Independence.
“The best part was that truly every single wrestler stepped up for us, and all performed their best at the same time,” Ardrey Kell coach Tim Higgins said. “The kids are walking around with their heads in the clouds right now, and they should be. It is a great way to cap off the year.”
Four Knights won individual conference championships: 152-pound junior Jassim Abtelaziz and seniors Sean Billings (145), Akio Fujiwara (132) and Alex Marbury (120).
“This win sets the bar high,” said -Billings. “It is going to change our program for the better. Next year we will probably have a bigger team and more interest in wrestling.”
Higgins said this year was the best chance senior-laden Ardrey Kell had to win the conference title. To do so, the Knights had to go through Independence, which won the conference tournament last year and hadn’t lost a league match this season.
“This was our chance, and we knew coming into the tournament we had experience and we would be ready to compete,” Higgins said. “I expected us to wrestle well and knew we could have a really good showing. But everything worked out, and we were able to do it.”
The Knights also had two second-place finishers to join five in third place and three in fourh place.
Higgins said he was especially pleased with sophomore Patrick Dickey.
Dickey has seniors ahead of him on the depth chart and was ranked seventh in his 138-pound division because he didn’t compete much during the regular season. Higgins moved Billings to the 145-pound division to address matchup concerns, and Dickey surpassed expectations and finished second in the conference tournament, losing to tournament MVP Casey Belville from Independence.
“(Dickey’s unexpected finish) is how the day went for us,” Higgins said. “Everything that (could go) right, did, and I couldn’t be happier with the guys and with how it turned out for us,” Higgins said.
The Knights lost to face defending state champion Winston-Salem Parkland in the first round of the dual-team state tournament.
Higgins said that it was a huge accomplishment to win the conference tournament and that the rest of the year is icing on the cake. At the start of the state playoffs, Higgins said Parkland had better wrestlers in most classifications but that, no matter the outcome, he is proud of how his team responded.
“We (went) into Parkland trying to survive,” he said. “We (knew) that they are really talented. We (were) trying to not show up with our tails between our legs and make sure that we (were) competitive and prepared to do well.
“The thing I was most proud of all year is that the seniors did a great job of taking the younger guys under their wings. These seniors really worked with my ninth- and 10th-graders and got them much better. That is the legacy they leave behind for me and the younger guys, no matter how the (Parkland) match (finished).”