Derby has become the home of some of the most magnificent poets of our generation.
Ask them if the goal is a 6A state wrestling championship this season, and anyone will dance around an answer in a way that would make Walt Whitman proud.
“It's implied,” said senior Jeffrey Morrow. “As for me saying we're going to do it, that's hard for me to say.”
The way with words has been passed down from head coach Bill Ross. As he describes it, in the past 10 years, Derby has collected seven state trophies – and all have the numbers two or three on them.
“We want the lowest possible digit you can get,” Ross said. “Not a whole lot of messing around or talking. They've all got one goal in mind.
“They know what the big picture is.”
The perspective is a kaleidescope of disappointment and optimism. The Panthers have been unable to conquer the state mountain. A year ago they finished fourth. In the three years before that, it was second place twice and third once. This season, Derby takes the No. 2 preseason ranking.
“We don't mind too bad at all. We never have been the favorite,” Ross said. “We kind of welcome that. We try not to put too much stock in those rankings.”
Morrow may be an individual microcosm of the team angst. He placed as a freshman, but could not duplicate it as a sophomore. It fueled his 30-11 record and fourth place showing a year ago, but it cannot fill the void felt from leaving team points unfulfilled as a sophomore.
“It almost seems like the past 10 years, in multiple sports, Derby has fell just short,” Morrow said. “That feeling sticks with you.”
Morrow will tackle the 120 weight class this year. An individual title is well within the realm of possibility, but talk always drifts back to the team goal.
He won't go at it alone. Derby brings back eight state qualifiers.
The most decorated is Ben Becker (160 pounds). He lost a 4-2 decision to Gardner-Edgerton's Dustin Williams in the state finals, leaving a bitter ending to a 32-9 season.
“I think the first half of the match, (Becker) was a little intimidated,” Ross said. “He just has to have that mentality to know that going into the match, he can get the job done.”
Sophomore Cody McDonald (113) finished third at 106 pounds with a 32-14 record. After taking fifth, senior Chandler Ayer (152) brings the No. 1 ranking into the season.
“The switch just came on in that kid, and he's now a beast,” Ross said. “The main thing with Chandler is we have to make sure he doesn't fall back into the category of losing confidence. I think those days are over for him.”
Jared Suppes, Matt Kissinger, Jose Santillon and Caleb Gash all return with state experience. Sophomore Braden Dipman slides into the 106 pound class. He was not a state qualifier as a freshman, mostly because he was stuck behind McDonald and Morrow. This year, he takes the No. 3 preseason ranking in his weight class.
Derby knows its most glaring weakness. The Panthers must pick up more wins on the first day of the state tournament to position itself for a run at the team trophy.
But right now, the expectations, the goals, the preseason accolades – it all falls on deaf ears until late February.
“We try not to focus on the rankings - just go out there and wrestle,” Morrow said.