As if following a legend whose teams won 11 state championships wasn’t enough, new Arab wrestling coach Kyle Routon also has to deal with a pandemic and a brand new classification breakdown that has nudged the Knights out of the favorite’s role entering the 2020-21 season.
Coaching a defending state champion team would bring enough pressure on any first-year head coach, but this time Routon and Arab have to try to repeat in perhaps the toughest classification the state has seen in years.
Class 5A-6A will have 21 returning individual state champions, 70-plus state placers and lots of contenders for the coveted blue state map.
“There are going to be some wrestlers who won a state title last year that will struggle to make the top six this year,” Routon predicted. “There are going to be some feelings hurt.
“It’s going to be tough.”
Routon isn’t shying away from the challenges ahead of him and his team. And he’s embracing the championship legacy former coach Michael Pruitt has built at Arab. Soon after his football coaching duties were finished, Routon did some rearranging in Pruitt’s old office.
One thing he did was hang Arab championship car tags on the wall behind his desk.
“You’ve got to embrace it, don’t you,” he asked, smiling. “One thing’s for certain: Arab will have a head wrestling coach from Southside.
“That hasn’t changed.”
Routon also hung a Southside-Gadsden championship plaque from 2010 in his office. He was a graduate assistant on that team. He later became the head coach at his alma mater, from 2012 to 2018. His teams finished as state runner-up to Pruitt’s Arab squads three times during that stretch and one more time overall.
He then became the Oxford head coach for two years, winning a state duals title there. That plaque also hangs in his new office.
“But there’s more Arab stuff than anything else,” he said Monday.
That was one day before the team held its annual Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage involving all 40-plus wrestlers in the program, including junior high. The actual season starts with a road match at Hartselle today.
But don’t read too much into what happened Tuesday and what happens today. It’s still 2020, remember?
Because of lots of uncertainty, caused by ongoing quarantines at Arab and elsewhere, the Knights will be “interchangeable parts for a week and a half or so,” Routon said. “Then we’ll have wrestle-offs.”
That should coincide with the teams’ first home matches. The varsity and JV play at home on Dec. 5. The junior high wrestlers (seventh through ninth grade) open at home on Dec. 4.
Matches themselves will be different. The Knights under Pruitt played in lots of tournaments and hosted quite a few, too. That won’t happen at least until after Jan. 1. For now, events are restricted to just four teams.
The situation will be re-evaluated during December, but frankly the numbers are heading in the wrong direction, not getting better.
That doesn’t mean the competition will be restricted – far from it. On Dec. 5, Arab will host a quad match that features returning Class 7A champion Thompson, returning 7A runner-up Vestavia Hills and 7A returning No. 10 Bob Jones.
The competition will be more challenging for the Knights in 5A-6A, but they’re still a team to be feared. In the first coaches poll of the season, Arab is ranked No. 2 in 5A-6A, behind Gardendale but ahead of (3) Oxford, (4) McAdory, (5) Wetumpka, (6) Benjamin Russell, (7) Mountain Brook, (8) Jasper, (9) Clay-Chalkville and (10) Chelsea.
Arab returns two defending state champions in Cabe Dunn and Jacob Holland, plus three others who got beat in the finals last season: Josh Roe, Patrick Lawler and Caleb Roe.
Caleb Roe lost in the final second in his match. Also back is Austin Silva, who roared back from an unfortunate DQ in the early rounds to finish third.
State qualifiers Christian Eaton and Kaden King also return, as does Bronson Jackson, a former state placer who missed all of last season with an injury.
Routon said, as of Monday, no team member has tested positive for COVID-19 – “Knock on wood” – but several are in quarantine. “We got one back today,” he said.
Uncertainty appears to be the name of the game for all sports these days, and wrestling is no exception. It’s just something every team and every coach is going to have to deal with, Routon said.
“We’ll go with what we’ve got every day,” he added.