WARDSVILLE, Mo. - Season-ending injuries are always tough to stomach. But when they come when the end is in sight, then they're that much more painful.
That's the situation that faces the Blair Oaks Falcons, who begin the Class 1 District 2 Tournament today at Versailles High School missing one important piece to their wrestling lineup.
Cole Kemna, who was ranked first in the state at 145 pounds, was lost for the year when he broke an elbow in practice last week. Not only was it tough for the junior, who finished second in the state at 120 pounds last year, but for the Falcons as a team.
"That's obviously going to hurt us, both at districts and at state," Blair Oaks coach Tim Karsten said. "He was ranked No. 1 in the state, so it's a big loss for us. Fortunately for him, he's just a junior so he can come back next year, but you hate to see that happen to anybody.
"We were looking at him being a district champion and state champion, so it's hard to replace that."
The injury came just as the Falcons were peaking in expectation of the postseason. Still, emotions are high for districts.
"This is what everybody's been working for all year long, so we're excited about it," Karsten said. "We were 19-3 (in duals) and lost our last one to Whitfield when we were tied and lost on criteria. So we've been wrestling fairly well."
Even without Kemna, Blair Oaks has some tough customers in the lineup, led by a pair of Falcons ranked No. 1 in the state. Senior Eli Roberts, who sports a perfect 42-0 mark, holds down the top spot at 182 pounds, while junior Logan Mudd is 48-1 and the state's top-ranked wrestler at 138 pounds.
"They are both having great years," Karsten said. "Eli is still undefeated and Logan lost once to Chris Wilkes of Whitfield, who is a tough, nationally ranked kid. And Logan wrestled him really well and lost just 7-5. So as losses go, it was a good one."
Three other Falcons are in the state rankings. Junior John Karsten, who is 37-8 at 220 pounds, and freshman Frankie Falotico, 37-4 at 120, are both ranked fifth. Senior Payton Lackman, with a mark of 22-5 at 126, is eighth in the state.
The rest of the lineup includes freshman Dylan Bischoff (18-24 at 106), sophomore Alex Gaydos (26-22 at 132), junior Brad Thomas (33-13 at 145), senior Zach Barlow (26-18 at 152), sophomore Caleb Bischoff (8-14 at 160), freshman Tanner Luckenhoff (5-10 at 170), junior Corbin Singer (19-21 at 195) and senior Austin Wilbers (29-19 at 285). The Falcons are open at 113 pounds.
The Falcons ended up having eight wrestlers seeded during Thursday night's seeding meeting for the coaches.
Mudd and Roberts both received No. 1 seeds, while Falotico, Barlow and Karsten were all seeded second. Thomas was seeded third, while Lackman and Gaydos were each seeded fourth.
It's a group Tim Karsten thinks can make a run at the district title.
"They're going to have to wrestle up to their capabilities, and beyond," he said. "Everybody's got to contribute, everybody's got to score some points for us.
"Our goal is always to have everybody in that last elimination round and then you never know what can happen there. We've been fortunate in the past to wrestle real well then."
Still, the 14-team district is up for grabs.
"It's going to be a close battle between Seneca, us, Adrian, Holden, Knob Noster and Versailles," Karsten said. "It's going to be pretty close, we're going to have to wrestle hard.
"I think we really do have the toughest district in Class 1. Usually District 3 has a real tough one, but this year with Seneca dropping back down to Class 1 and us being in there, it's going to be extremely tough."
Seneca finished sixth in the state last year in Class 2.
"They're a solid team, top to bottom," Karsten said.
The remaining teams in the district are Butler, Diamond, El Dorado Springs, Fatima, Sherwood, Springfield Catholic, Tipton and Warsaw.
The Versailles Tigers have five state-ranked wrestlers: senior Ely Roberts is fourth at 132, senior Wesley Davidson is sixth at 285, senior Zach Vogt is seventh at 170, sophomore Nathan Long is eighth at 113 and freshman Dalton Schmidt is an honorable mention pick at 106.
The Fatima Comets, meanwhile, have three in the state rankings. Senior Ryan Strope is first at 126, senior Luke DeOrnellis is eighth at 145 and freshman Cody Huhn is honorable mention at 106.
The top-four finishers in each weight class advance to next week's state meet, which starts Thursday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
"Last year it was Whitfield and us that were above everybody," Karsten said. "This year, I think there's seven or eight teams that could be up in the top four. I really couldn't pick them. Everybody's going to have to wrestle well and get a little lucky to challenge."