Each year the state high school wrestling tournament is held at the Tacoma Dome. For many first-time participants, the venue alone can be overwhelming, and for obvious reasons. It is nothing like the traditional high school gymnasiums the wrestlers have grown accustomed to competing in.

In addition to its enormous stature, the usually overly excited crowd is always significantly larger than anything they have experienced, greatly adding to the intimidating atmosphere.

The building, the location, and the hectic activity which is constantly present on the floor did not faze Nolan Keesee as a freshman. He had wrestled at the Tacoma Dome a number of times before as a member of the Olympia Wrestling Club prior to entering Black Hills High School. The intensified surroundings did little to affect him.

That’s not to say he wasn’t shaken.

But the real reason wasn’t because of where he was at, but centered on the individual standing directly across from him.

“I was definitely more worried about the guy across from me than anything else,” Keesee said about his first time participating at state.

Black Hills High School Wrestling
Black Hills senior Cade Lester takes control of his match against Mark Morris. Photo credit: Grant Clark

A week before, Keesee earned the status of state alternate after competing at the regional tournament. It is a big achievement for anyone, especially a freshman.

Every weight division in each classification has a set of alternates – a group of individuals ready to step onto the mat should a state participant be unable to complete.

Usually, the alternates become spectators. But every now and then, on that rare occasion, an alternate gets the call.

This was the case for Keesee.

“Someone missed weight and I was thrown in there. To be honest, I wasn’t too excited about that,” Keesee said. “I wasn’t prepared for any of it. The guy I faced in the first round went on to win state.”

Fast forward three years and Keesee, now a three-time state participant, is no longer the wide-eyed youngster, unsure of whether or not he belongs on the same mat with some of the state’s premiere talent.

Garrett Pannkuk-ault
First-year Black Hills wrestling coach Garrett Pannkuk-ault applauds his team’s performance at a recent dual meet. Photo credit: Grant Clark

He’s right there with them.

“He’s been around the sport a long time,” first-year Wolves coach Garrett Pannkuk-ault said about Keesee. “When Nolan is wrestling his match, he’s dominant. You can’t coach it. It’s nice having wrestlers who have put the time in and it shows with Nolan.”

Usually coaching staffs need a few months, if not more, prior to the start of a new season to get everything lined up before their squad even steps foot in the mat room.

Pannkuk-ault had a little over two weeks.

“I was hired in October, which doesn’t give you much time. It takes you a little bit just to wrap your head around everything and just get going,” Pannkuk-ault said. “Our older guys have just been great leaders for this team. The nucleus of this team has been around the sport for a long time. Everything has been so fast paced since we got started. Having that senior leadership has certainly helped with the transition.”

Pannkuk-ault credits seniors Keesee, Jordan Claridge and Cade Lester and juniors Tate Elliott and Julian Kennedy for making it a near seamless transition despite the whirlwind turnaround.

Jordan Claridge
Jordan Claridge (left) is ranked as the 2A classification’s No. 4 wrestler in the 220-pound division. Photo credit: Grant Clark

“It’s been a little bit of a change for them,” Pannkuk-ault said. “With any coaching change, there’s going to be a change in coaching styles, but I think this group has adjusted nicely to it.”

It’s a talented group possessing a lot of state wrestling experience as in addition to Keesee, Claridge, Elliott, and Kennedy were all state participants in 2018.

“There’s a drive to place this year,” Keesee said. “During my sophomore year I won my first match (at state) then lost my next two. I did the same thing my junior year. So (placing at state) is obviously my goal as a senior.”

Like Keesee, Claridge and Elliott had similar state experiences last year, both losing their opening round matches and notching a win in the consolation bracket before bowing out in the next round.

Black Hills Wrestling
Pannkuk-ault addresses his team prior to facing Yelm. Photo credit: Grant Clark

Claridge, who wrestled in the 182-pound weight division as a junior, is ranked No. 4 in the 2A classification in the 220-pound division this year, while Elliott is the fifth-ranked 285-pound wrestler.

Kennedy, currently ranked fourth in 2A at 170 pounds and a standout Greco-Roman wrestler, is seeking a consecutive state placing, after finishing sixth at 160 last year.

Outside of Keesee, all four started for the Wolves’ football team this year, helping Black Hills win the 2A Evergreen Conference and advance to the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history – a pair of accomplishments Lester believes will play large roles in the Wolves’ success on the mat this season.

“Confidence is a big deal and football gave us a lot of confidence,” said Lester, who wrestles at 195. “It showed we can be successful. The goal now is to carry that over to the wrestling season and get better every single day at practice. We just want to work as hard as we can and do the best we can do.”

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