When Jackson County wrestling coach Jason Powers looks back on his 2008 team, he realizes he didn’t fully appreciate that bunch at the time.
As a first-year head coach, the Panthers finished a program-best third place in Class AAAA in the traditional state tournament that year. He somewhat assumed more of those finishes would be forthcoming.
“I didn't realize how hard it would be to get back at that moment and back to being a state contender,” Powers said. “So, I didn't appreciate how good we were at the time, but I definitely have found memories of that team now.”
The 2008 wrestling team, still one of the highest-finishing teams in the school’s history regardless of the sport, will be inducted into the Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame Oct. 26 along with John Boone, Ramey Bowles, Clarke Rainwater, Ashley (Hines) Reynolds, Wesley Wheeler and Phil Thurmond.
Powers, who will enter his 13th year on the job, said he still talks about that team to his current-day wrestlers.
“There were some amazing wrestlers on this team that accomplished greatness that year or in the future,” said Powers, who will become a two-time inductee into the hall of fame after being enshrined in 2015 for his individual wrestling efforts.
The 2008 team produced its top-three finish a year after Jackson County Comprehensive High School was divided and East Jackson formed, taking some quality wrestlers with it. But a strong nucleus remained for the Panthers.
Six state placers powered the 2008 lineup, none more impactful than Ben Lesniak, who won the 125-pound state title. Andrew Blackwell took second in the 152-pound class, while other placers were Jose Carrillo-Garcia (third, 285 pounds), Justin Best (fifth, 135 pounds), Kevin Spicer (fifth, 145 pounds) and Ryan Howe (fifth, 189 pounds).
Lesniak was the team’s first state champion in five years, while Blackwell added key points as a finalist. Carillo-Garcia dropped a tough match in the semifinals but battled back to finish third. Justin Best persevered through knee dislocations during the area and state tournaments and avenged a tough loss early in the tournament to a Stockbridge wrestler to take fifth place. Spicer, described by Powers as a technician on the mat and “a methodical thinker,” lost a close semi-finals match en route to his fifth-place finish. Howe was a sophomore in 2008, and that fifth-place finish was his first state medal. Howe went on to win a state title later in his career and was inducted into the hall of fame in 2017.
The team included wrestlers who enjoyed success in the later in their careers. Charles Smothers went on to become a state finalist, while Austin McDonald ended up winning a state title.
Jackson County finished just half a point outside second-place Stockbridge, which had a wrestler pick up an escape and takedown in the closing seconds to rally for a state title. That individual state title shifted the point tally and knocked Jackson County out of second place. Eastside won the state title as part of a multi-year run of championships.
The successful season was meaningful Powers as a young coach, giving him early confidence. But Powers praised his father Roger, the assistant coach, for his efforts in building that team. Roger had served as head coach of the program up until that season when Powers (a former assistant) and Roger swapped roles.
He said the 2008 season “would not have happened” without his father. Roger will enter the hall of fame with this team.
“He provided so much in years of experience and knowledge of how to coach kids early in my career that set me up to be a successful coach,” Powers said. “No way I could have helped this team accomplish anything great without him. So, more than anything, this team helped establish my dad and I as an excellent coaching duo and it put Jackson County back on the map in the wrestling world and we have never left since this team. This team helped be a catalyst for greatness in Jackson County wrestling.”
Powers said he looks forward to reuniting with those wrestlers at the induction ceremony, set for Oct. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Panther Indoor Stadium.
“They are a special group, and they hold a special place in my heart, and I look forward to seeing them and their families again soon,” he said. “Wrestling is about family. I am looking forward to seeing the parents of these wrestlers again as well. So many of them supported me as a very young head coach. I am so grateful to everybody that was involved with this team. They helped me jump start my career and helped start a tradition of success in Jackson County wrestling.”
This story is part of a series of profiles on the 2019 Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame class.