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Whitfield, the defending Class 1 state champion, has dominated Missouri's small-school competition for nearly a dozen years.

Since 2007, the Warriors have won six state titles and finished second in four other season. The lone “down” year came in 2010, when Whitfield placed fifth.

There are no guarantees, obviously, but judging from the returning talent and accomplishments, the Warriors seem to be a good bet for defending their team title.

Back to lead the way are potential four-time state champion Mike McAteer and fellow three-time medalist Max Darrah, who has two state titles after placing fourth as a freshman. McAteer and Darrah have committed to continue their careers at Army.

“I can't say I expected them to go to the same place, but getting an opportunity to go to West Point is special,'' Whitfield coach Charlie Sherertz said. “They're both the perfect combination of student, athlete and citizen.”

Other key squad members back from last year's title team for Whitfield are two-time medalists Noah Elmore (fifth in 2016, third in 2017), Wade Raeman (second in 2016, fourth in 2017) as well as 2017 medalists Zac Russell (second), Connor McAteer (third) and William Boldt (third). Legend Alicea, Ethan Hovis and Matt Schueddig also made the state trip a year ago.

“We only have 19 on the roster, but the ones we have are pretty good,'' Sherertz said.

Whitfield also returns senior JR Ditter, who won the state title at 113 as a freshman and has seen the last two seasons ended by injuries.

Ditter hurt his elbow at MICDS as a sophomore and suffered a hip injury last season at Granite City.

“You feel for JR and what he's had to deal with,'' Sherertz said. “Last year especially, you could see how disheartened he was, having to sit out again. But he's healthy, he's looking strong and we're glad to have him back with us.”

The Warriors will be challenged early, competing this weekend at Fox's Ron Sauer Duals and taking part in the Kansas City Stampede and the Red Schmitt at Granite City later this month.

“If any of our guys can come out of December without a loss, they will have earned it,'' Sherertz said.

MISSOURI STRONG

The University of Missouri , ranked fourth nationally, features a starting lineup with six wrestlers from the home state. Included in that group is 2015 Post-Dispatch All-Metro wrestler of the year Connor Flynn, a sophomore from Francis Howell who sat out last season after transferring from West Virginia.

Holt's Colby Smith, the 2016 wrestler of the year, also is on the Mizzou roster. He's sitting out this season after a transfer from Appalachian State. As a freshman last year, he qualified for the NCAA tournament at Scottrade Center.

Mizzou coach Brian Smith continues to recruit nationally but always has put an emphasis on keeping top Missouri athletes at home. Last month, Mizzou announced its early signees and the group of nine featured eight from Missouri, including three-time high school champion Malik Johnson and Cevion Severado from CBC, three-time state runner-up Cameron Fusco from Seckman and three-time medalist Jack Flynn from Howell. Jack is the Connor's younger brother.

“It's the most we've ever signed in the early signing period,'' Smith said.

The Tigers also received an early commitment from Edwardsville High junior Noah Surtin, who placed fifth at 113 in Class 3A at the Illinois championships last February and went on to capture a freestyle national title over the summer in Fargo, N.D.

“After winning in Fargo, I was getting calls from a lot of schools," Surtin said in a phone interview earlier this week. "My coach (Jon Wagner) runs our program very similar to the way Mizzou runs theirs and I really felt comfortable during my visit there. I loved the campus, got along well with the people I met there and I like that it's fairly close to home, which means my parents will be able to come and see me wrestle.

“It's a program I want to be a part of.”

Joining Surtin in Edwardsville's lineup is talented sophomore Luke Odom, who placed third in Class 3A a year ago at 106 pounds.

TALENTED RETURNING GROUP

Last February, Oak Grove's Connor Brown became just the 26th four-time champion in Missouri prep wrestling history. And that group includes just four from the St. Louis area — Normandy's Vernon “Hap” Whitney (1949-52), Ritenour's Ray “Buzzy” Bergfeld (1951-54), Parkway Central's Scott Schatzman (1992-95) and Whitfield's Rodney Hahn (2011-14).

Schatzman, by the way, joins current Mizzou sophomore Jaydin Eierman from Father Tolton High in Columbia, as the only four-time unbeaten wrestlers in state history.

This year, St. Louis boasts a pair of potential four-timers in CBC's Malik Johnson and Whitfield's Mike McAteer.

But that's just the beginning. The area features a large number of top-level competitors who've enjoyed major success and parlayed that into Division I scholarships:

 Chaminade's Danny Conley, who placed sixth in Class 3 as a sophomore, captured the Class 4 crown at 220 last February. He's headed to the Ivy League and will wrestle at Columbia.

Seckman junior Kai Orine improved on his third-place finish in 2015 to capture the title at 113 a year ago. His Jaguars teammate, three-time runner-up Cameron Fusco, recently signed a letter of intent to wrestle at Mizzou.

A three-time medalist and two-time champ, CBC's D.J. Shannon will wrestle next year at West Virginia. The Cadets' Joshua Saunders won the Class 3 title at 132 as a freshman in 2017.

The area's other returning Class 3 champ is Eureka senior Kyle Dickhaus, who won the title at 182 last February.

 Althoff, ranked No. 2 in Class 1A by the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association, is led by three-time state finalist and two-time champ Chase Bittle, who entered the season with a career record of 137-2 and with a scholarship to North Dakota State, which competes in the Big 12.

The Crusaders' roster also includes a pair of University of Illinois recruits in twins Danny and Zac Braunagel. Danny was a state runner-up in 2016 and won the 1A title at 152 a year ago while Zac placed sixth at state as a freshman, second as a sophomore and brought home the title at 170 last February.

Althoff junior Max Kristoff placed fifth at state in 2016 and 2017.

 In Missouri Class 3, Jacob Warren rallied late to become Windsor's first state champion last February. He placed fourth as a sophomore. Owl teammate Ryan Yarnell took third at state a year ago. The area's other returning Class 3 champ is Summit junior Sam Frankowski.

 Ranked third in Class 2A, Cahokia has reached the state dual tournament in three of the last four years, finishing fourth in 2014 and again last season. The Comanches, coached by Tom Reed, return the bulk of last year's squad and feel like they have a chance to challenge for the team title in February. Key returnees include seniors Martel Boone, who placed sixth at 145 at individual state last year, Rodney Evans and Rozell Baker and up-and-coming junior Jacob Bullock.

 Ryan Herman, the Class 2 state champ at 138 as a sophomore, leads a St. Clair squad with hopes of earning a state trophy at Mizzou Arena later this season. The Bulldogs also return two-time medalist Jason Landing (fifth in 2016, fourth in 2017) as well as 2017 medalists Josh Richards (fourth) and Dalton Thompson (fifth).

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Joe Lyons is a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.