It was a homecoming party and celebration for members of the Abilene Cowboy wrestling teams that won back-to-back state championships in 1998 and 1999.
Last weekend, current Abilene head wrestling coach James Stout and the 2019-2020 Cowboys welcomed back team members and coaches that obtained the feat ascending to the top of Kansas Class 4A best teams in back-to-back seasons. Hall of Fame coach Bill Christner and members of his coaching staff of those teams, including Stout who was an assistant at the time, was on hand to greet former teammates William Isom, Nate Smith, J.C. Norman, Lucas Wilson and Dustin Tovar. Also on hand was team manager Nick Whitehair.
Christner, Stout and long time assistant coach Tom Taplin also recognized long time Abilene Middle School coach George Havice and Kids Wrestling coaches Dave Robison and Curtis Rein for their contributions to the success of the high school program.
In the 1998 state tournament, the Cowboys won in a dramatic fashion with a one-point victory over Goodland (98-97). It came down to the very last Cowboy qualifier to determine the championship. In 1999, the team overcame a tough semifinal round advancing only one of six into the finals. Trailing big going into the second day, they had a dominant performance on the consolation side having the tournament mathematically locked up before the finals took place.
Smith wrestled 152 during his final year as a Cowboy and won his state title and his win was key to the Cowboys winning the 1998 title.
“I had to win my match to get us ahead of Goodland,” Smith said. “We also needed the kid from Santa Fe Trail to win at 160 for us to preserve the win. Everything worked out for us that day.”
Smith works full time for Missouri Army National Guard as AGR solider at Fort Leonard Wood. After high school Smith wrestled at Central Missouri State.
“We worked our butts off under coach Christner,” Smith recalled. “We made sure we were in better shape than anyone we were wrestling against. My senior year we actually lost a couple of overtime matches to Wamego. We ramped up practice to make sure that didn’t happen again.”
Tovar, who now lives in Omaha, remembers the sea of Orange that traveled to the state meets from Abilene.
“Abilene loves their Cowboys and Cowgirls,” Tovar remembered with a big smile. “They are a very supportive community. We wrestled our first state meet in the Coliseum with a couple of other classes and I just remember that sea of Orange on the final day of the tournament.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already since we were here,” Tovar chuckled. “It really does seem just like yesterday. Whenever you can do something special like that it creates a since of pride for a community. I can tell you that the support we were getting at that time made it a lot of fun to be a Cowboy wrestler.”
Tovar was a three time state finalist and he owns two state championships. He wrestled 103 his first two seasons and then 112 and finally 119.
“We had great coaches, great teammates for us to win,” he said. “There was a lot of support from the school and the community and that is what made it all possible.”
Smith and Tovar both had fond memories of growing up in Abilene and capturing their desire to be successful in wrestling by being members of the Kids Club. They both had fond memories of the coaching they received at AHS.
“Coach Christner’s work ethic is what I remember most about him,” Tovar said. “He was going to put in the time and do what it takes for us to be successful. His intensity, you can’t match it.”
Tovar remembered a time when Christner loaded up about five wrestlers during his freshman year in his van and drove them to a wrestling camp in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“That was really cool, really special,” Tovar said. “That was one of my favorite memories from high school. Just being with the guys and getting to experience that.”
Following his graduation from Abilene, Tovar wrestled at the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he got to be on two national championship teams earning a Division II finalist and twice was an All-American.
“I got to enjoy a pretty good college career,” he said. “It took me a couple of years to get the hang of college wrestling and to see it really pay off. I actually started a pipeline of wrestlers going to Nebraska-Omaha. I went there first and then there were about five guys that followed me. That was cool.”
Since college Tovar and his wife have opened and ran CrossFit Omaha. They own the gym in Omaha.
“My life’s work is trying to get people healthy and eat better,” Tovar said. “I try to get people to move and all that good stuff.”
Smith and Tovar spent the day reconnecting with teammates and coaches and both were happy for the neat opportunity.
“Most of us grew up wrestling together in the Kids Club and then we played football and baseball during the off seasons,” Tovar recalled. “None of us really traveled around to do other things we were always together. And we stay in touch now too.”