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Top linemen double as top wrestlers

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Chairez, Darville, Hicks, Panzer and Strahm excel on the mat and the gridiron

  • From left-to-right: Garden City junior Refujio "Fuji" Chairez, Dodge City senior Evan Darville, Wichita Northwest senior Marcus Hicks and Lakin junior Hadley Panzer are among the state's best football linemen and 285 pound wrestlers. (Photo credit: Adam Shrimplin, Courtesy Photo, Joey Bahr, Courtesy Photo)
    From left-to-right: Garden City junior Refujio "Fuji" Chairez, Dodge City senior Evan Darville, Wichita Northwest senior Marcus Hicks and Lakin junior Hadley Panzer are among the state's best football linemen and 285 pound wrestlers. (Photo credit: Adam Shrimplin, Courtesy Photo, Joey Bahr, Courtesy Photo)

High school and college coaches are in near unanimous agreement that athletes should not specialize in just one sport. High school athletes are encouraged to run track in the offseason to improve speed, while playing baseball or softball can improve reflexes.

While many sports are complementary, many coaches agree, there are two sports that go hand in hand. Football coaches love offensive and defensive linemen who wrestle, and wrestling coaches love a 285-pounder who has experience fighting in the trenches. 

Garden City wrestling head coach Carlos Prieto, who coaches second-ranked heavyweight Refujio "Fuji" Chairez, sees parallels between football players and wrestlers. 

“Fuji, as we call him, is one of the top football players and wrestlers in the state of Kansas because he is a very competitive young man and works hard during the offseason,” Prieto said. “His first love is football and he will play football at the next level, but that doesn’t stop him from giving us 100 percent effort during the wrestling season. He will use his wrestling skills to compliment his football skills as an offensive lineman. Look for him to be even better next year in both wrestling and football.”

It’s no coincidence that Chairez, only a junior, is one of the strongest athletes in Kansas, which translated to first team All-Western Athletic Conference honors at offensive guard last fall. At 6 foot 1, 300 pounds, Chairez is a force on the field and on the mat.

“The thing I like most about wrestling is moving quick and being able to use some of my athleticism I can’t use in football,” Chairez said. “Tackling also works very well in wrestling. Finishing someone into the ground works great in wrestling as well.”

Chairez is not the only lineman from southwest Kansas finding success in wrestling. Evan Darville of Dodge City, the top-ranked wrestler at 285, defeated Chairez by a 7-3 decision last Saturday for the regional championship. Darville has already committed to play football at Southeast Missouri State next fall. He was a first-team All-State selection as a defensive lineman and was selected to play in the annual Kansas Shrine Bowl. 

“My favorite thing about wrestling is being able to dominate someone one-on-one,” Darville said. “Skills from football that have transferred are being able to use your hands quick and also running your feet to finish a tackle is similar to running your feet to finish a shot in wrestling.”

The top-rated defensive recruit in Kansas is also the No. 1 285-pound wrestler in 5A. Marcus Hicks, who is committed to play defensive end at four-time defending Big 12 Champions Oklahoma, strikes just as much fear in opposing offensive lineman as he does his heavyweight opponents. At 6 foot 6, 250 pounds, it’s no surprise why. 

“What I like most about wrestling is that it’s just me and another wrestler,” Hicks said. “If I make a mistake it’s on me and I can’t blame anyone else.”

Hicks is now 36-1 on the season after winning the Ark City Regional last Saturday. He will be the favorite to bring home state gold at Hartman Arena this weekend.

“I think I use more what I learned in wrestling on the football field,” Hicks said. “I’m able to use my leverage better, and my hands have gotten better since I started wrestling.”

It’s not just 6A and 5A schools that produce successful football and wrestling athletes. Elliot Strahm of Sabetha and Hadley Panzer of Lakin are the top-two heavyweights in Class 3-2-1A and are also standout football players. 

Strahm already has a state championship at 285 under his belt and he’s looking for more. His football accolades are just as impressive. Strahm was a Top 11 pick in the state of Kansas by the Topeka Capital-Journal, Wichita Eagle and the Kansas Football Coaches Association. Strahm was also twice picked as the Kansas Defensive Player of the Year in 3A by SportsinKansas.

Most importantly, he led Sabetha to back-to-back state football championships. 

“Knowing how to stay low and use leverage is what helps me most from wrestling,” Strahm, who recently accepted a preferred walk-on spot at Kansas State, said. “I also like the one-on-one aspect. You have to rely on your physical and mental skills, and you don’t have teammates to blame if you mess up.”

Panzer is 3-2-1A’s best chance of dethroning Strahm. As a junior, Panzer has been a three-year starter for the Lakin football team. In three seasons, Lakin has improved its win total by two games with Panzer on the offensive and defensive line. As a wrestler, Panzer has qualified for state as a freshman and sophomore and finished third at last season.

“Wrestling is a very, very tough sport; very physically and mentally demanding,” Panzer said. “I think that’s what helps with football. My coach told us a long time ago: once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy. And I thought that was so great because it is very true. If you can tough it out on the wrestling mat, on the football field is going to be a lot easier.”

Certainly Chairez, Darville, Hicks, Strahm, and Panzer aren't the only wrestling standouts who transfer skills between the field and the mat. Schlagle's Paul Beasely, Salina Central's Taylon Peters, Louisburg's Austin Moore, Scott City's Wyatt Hayes, Ell-Saline's Nick Davenport, Hoisington's Wyatt Pedigo and Strahm's Sabetha teammate Cauy Rokey are just a few of the others who found success last football season and will compete for state championships this weekend.

State wrestling kicks off this morning. Classes 6A and 5A are at Hartman Arena in Wichita, 4A is at Salina's Tony's Pizza Event Center, while 3-2-1A is at Gross Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Fort Hays State University.

Gallagher Martin is a sportswriter for the McPherson Sentinel and Kansas Pregame. Kansas Pregame covers high school sports in the Sunflower State. Know of a great story that needs to be told? We want to hear from you! Email us the next great story or video focused on Kansas high school sports at kansaspregame@gmail.com.