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When talking about the chances of his Anderson County wrestling team, Tom Castle manages a bit of a smile, then says, "We're rebuilding."
A year ago, the former Woodford County assistant coach made the jump across the Kentucky River for his first head coaching job, taking over a program that had established itself as one of the up-and-comers in Kentucky wrestling circles but was facing a major graduation hit.
The Bearcats adjusted nicely, qualifying five wrestlers for the state meet, a bit down from the previous year but a respectable showing for a team plugging new people in at least half the weight classes.
Only one of those state qualifiers, 152-pound Kevin White, graduated.
But as the Bearcats' season opens Saturday in the Wayne County Duals, Castle is almost right back where he started. Only two of those state qualifiers, Corey Vincent and Sammy Isaacs, who finished fourth in the state last February, returned to the team. Several other grapplers who showed promise elected not to hit the mat.
When he took the reins of the program, Castle challenged his charges to strive to become Anderson Countys first wrestling champion. A former state champion himself, Castle invoked the Woodford County name, reminding the Bearcats that the program that has won more state titles than any other is just one county over.
"I know what it takes to get to the top," Castle said.
And even with some of the defections, he believes the current Bearcats have demonstrated they might possess the most important traits of a champion.
"These kids want to be here," Castle said. "They have perseverance. Physically, they might not be there yet, but they have stuck it out."
One who is physically there is senior Isaacs at 140 pounds. Isaacs marched through last year's state meet to equal the highest finish for an Anderson wrestler. He should be ranked as one of the state's top competitors in his class.
Junior Corey Vincent, another state participant, also returns at 119 pounds but could move up the 125-pound class.
"Corey worked all summer and I have seen a lot of improvement," Castle said.
Another Bearcat, Ben Joseph, also has state meet experience, qualifying at 103 pounds two years ago.
Last season, Joseph got bumped to a higher weight class and finished fifth in the Region 2 tournament. Castle said the junior has the ability to go back at 112 or 119 pounds.
"Ben has been working hard, learning to stay in better position," Castle said.
Sophomore Hunter Lilly and freshman Patrick Dozier are both showing promise at 103 pounds, and senior Tom McNaughton (160) and sophomore Marcus White (171) also have some varsity experience.
Sophomores Ricky Kaelin (135) and Dylan Hughes (215) are expected to fill varsity spots as are freshmen Johnny Powell (152) and Zach Cotton (285).
"I am real encouraged," Castle said. "They are working very hard to get better."
Part of Castles mode of teaching comes from Olympic gold medalist Doug Blubaugh, who took the top spot in the Rome Olympics of 1960. Blubaugh coached Castle at Indiana University and traveled from Oklahoma to conduct a one-day clinic last Wednesday.
"He brings a lot of knowledge," Castle said. "I wish I could use him every day."
But right now, the daily task is to find a way to take Anderson County wrestling to the top. Castle said it is not a coincidence that the same programs -- Woodford, Campbell County, LaRue County, Union County -- are at the top of the state meet leader board year in and year out.
"It's a community culture," Castle said. "It has to start in the grade schools, getting kids interested in wrestling."
Castle hopes to start a wrestling club for elementary students and sees many good things happening. "I am really encouraged by the middle school. They have about 60 kids out," he said.
If those foundations continue to build, Castle hopes the rebuilding will eventually transform into reloading.
"I am real excited about this year and the kids are working hard," Castle said.