TAMPA — The Jesuit High wrestling team finished as the Class 2A state runnerup to Lake Gibson and had a school-record four individual state champions last season.
The Tigers want more — much more.
Unlike some schools that would be thrilled with such achievements, the Tigers, who felt they easily could have had six individual champions, head into this season with a state-title-or-bust approach.
“Lake Gibson is the team to beat,” said assistant David Mason, a two-time state champion at Bloomingdale in 1999 and 2000 who also has coached at his alma mater and for the past two years at Jesuit. “I go to bed and wake up every day thinking about how we’re going to beat them.”
Jesuit, which also was a state runnerup in 2014 and placed third in 2016, appears well-equipped to make a run at a strong team title it has never won. Three of the four state champions are returning sophomores in Kai Owen, 106-pound category; Braden Basile, 113; and Tom Crook, 120. Basile’s brother Ethan, a senior, won a state championship at 145.
Mason Arnold, a junior heavyweight, narrowly missed last season when he finished as the state runnerup at 220. Another wrestler who came close to a state crown was Jack Crook, Tom’s twin. Jack settled for third after being ousted in the semifinals.
“He’s just as tough,” Jesuit coach Sal Basile said of Jack in a comparison of the Crook brothers.
Since being pulled out of the doldrums by his brother, Jack is intent on winning it all in the 145 class. He has a solid start in having been named a Fargo All-American this summer and last week was named the outstanding wrestler for winning a title in the U.S. Army Indian Classic in Tennessee.
Last year’s disappointing finish at state is something Jack does not intend to forget. In fact, it’s what drives him.
“You train the whole season with those (teammates who won at states),” he said. “I grew up with those kids and it was pretty heartbreaking for me. That’s what motivates me. After losing at states I was at my low point. My brother really helped bring me out of that.”
Coaches Basile and Mason speak frequently of the team being a family and that notion is enhanced by strong bloodlines. Aside from the Crook twins, Sal got to coach his two sons to state championships in the same season.
“Those are special memories that will never go away,” said Sal, a former Springstead High coach who arrived at Jesuit in 2015. “It’s a day we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
Sal, who in 2011 was named the USA Wrestling National Assistant Coach of the Year, also guided Jesuit to a sweep of the traditional district tournament and new district duals in 2018 and 2019. He welcomes the challenge of leading the Tigers to what would be their first-ever state title.
“It’s just a matter of getting the kids committing,” he said. “There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s just a lot of hard work and dedication.”
That is not to say there is a magic formula for success in the Basile handbook. Not everything in his coaching acumen can be used for every wrestler.
“Every kid’s different and you have to figure out how to push their buttons, but they also have to realize that on their own,” he said.
Taking his team to Tennessee for an early-season match that included a handful of state championship schools is exactly what Basile felt was in order.
“In those high-pressure situations, most of them do pretty well,” he said, adding: “When you’re goal-oriented, you should stay focused on that goal.”
The Tigers were focused enough to come away from that out-of-state tourney with seven individual champions: Owen, 106; Braden Basile, 120; Tom Crook, 126; Jack Crook, 132; Ethan Basile, 145; Andre Mortensen, 195; and Arnold, heavyweight.
Assistant coach Mason put it rather succinctly when discussing the team’s focus on this season’s ultimate prize: “We don’t talk about it. We do it.”