With a deep, talented squad and one of the state’s brightest (and most unlikely) stars in senior Justin McDaniel, the Mustangs, ranked No. 4 in the state by Kentuckywrestling.com, have reason for brash optimism.
After transferring to Moore in 10th grade, the sturdy 6-foot-1 McDaniel was spotted by wrestling coach Mike Thomas, who wasted no time in extending an invitation to join up – no experience necessary.
Over the next two years, McDaniel would toil his way from the bottom of the Mustangs’ junior varsity squad to the upper echelon of Kentucky wrestling.
From a know-nothing rookie, to a savvy, technique-driven grappler now ranked No. 2 statewide in the 182-pound class.
“His growth is due to work ethic,” said Thomas. “He’s the hardest working kid I have. He just doesn’t stop.”
Already this season, McDaniel has compiled a 25-2 record and claimed individual titles at the Lafayette Classic and Woodford County Invitational. He was runner up at the Jefferson County Tournament of Champions earlier this month, where he dropped the final 4-2 to St. Xavier’s Brandon Pledger. It was McDaniel’s first loss to an in-state opponent this season.
“He manhandles quite a few kids he wrestles,” explained Thomas. “He’s too strong to hold down, he escapes quickly and he’s very good on top.”
McDaniel wasn’t always so dominant.
He posted a 7-8 record in his sophomore season and struggled with the physical and cerebral demands of the sport.
“It took me maybe two months to get the feel of it,” he said. “I thought wrestling was one of the hardest things ever, just remembering all the moves and everything.”
Once the tactics became second nature, the wins started to pile up. McDaniel posted a 49-11 record in a junior year capped by a sixth place finish at the State Meet.
The progress has extended beyond wins and losses, according to McDaniel’s mom, Kimberly.
“I like the fact that Justin picked wrestling as a sport because it’s helping him grow into a man,” she said. “(Wrestling) has been teaching him discipline, how to win and lose, and how to control all of that emotion and come out on top.”
Along with his own wins, McDaniel takes pride in the progress of his sparring partner Smi Smith.
A sophomore who competes at 160, Smith is ranked No. 6 in his weight class and took an individual title at the Tournament of Champions.
McDaniel earned all-district honors at linebacker for the Mustangs football team and recorded a team-best 88 tackles and an interception this season. Several small college programs in both football and wrestling have shown interest and McDaniel said he will pick one school – and one sport – at the conclusion of the state wrestling meet.
In addition to McDaniel and Smith, Moore boasts three other top-10 wrestlers in junior Jason Hall (No. 1 at 113) and seniors Jesus Rosado (No. 4 at 132) and Sam Willbanks (No. 5 at 170). Injuries have sidelined Rosado (knee) and Willbanks (neck), but both may return to action in the coming weeks.
“(Despite the injuries) this is still definitely the best team I’ve ever had,” said Thomas. “If those guys get back and they’re as good as they’ve been in the past, then we’ll make a run at (State).
“We’ll be right up there at the top.”
*Holy Cross senior Jacob Thomson, winner of nine state cross-country and track state titles, has committed to North Carolina State.
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.