LIBERTY – Walk into the Liberty High School wrestling room shortly after school and you might see Jeremiah Reno, Greyden Penner and Easton Hilton all losing.
In spikeball that is. That’s about the only time anyone can get the best of the ultra-talented trio on the mat these days.
“It’s become the warmup to our warmup at practice,” Liberty head coach Dustin Brewer said of the backyard game that has found a place in his wrestling room. “Our guys love it, and they play all the time. It’s funny because they brought me a sheet last week for a spikeball club, and I said, ‘For sure, let’s do it.’ It’s definitely bragging rights for the day for whoever wins.”
And needless to say, few people have those over the likes of Liberty’s fearsome threesome.
Juniors Reno and Penner have been force in the Missouri high school wrestling community for three years running. Now the freshman Hilton has added his name into the mix.
Liberty made all kinds of program history this season. Ranked No. 1 in the MissouriWrestling.com Class 4 state poll most of the year and No. 13 in Intermat.com’s season-ending Fab 50. Single-season team record eight individual medalists. But most impressive: three state champions. Reno. Penner. Hilton.
“Those three guys are pretty special,” Brewer said. “Personality-wise, they’re all pretty similar. They’re quiet, and they all work hard, in the classroom and in practice. They’re great kids.”
And now they’re state champions. Together. All three entered last weekend’s MSHSAA Wrestling Championships in Columbia as favorites to win their respective weight classes, and each of them took care of business.
For Reno, the accomplishment was nothing new as he claimed his third state title in as many years. But what really jumps off the page is his 135-0 career record after a perfect 48-0 mark this winter. If he can run the table one more time next season as a senior, Reno will become only the third wrestler in state history all-time to produce four perfect seasons, joining the exclusive club along with Parkway Central’s Scott Schatzman (1992-95) and Father Tolton Catholic’s Jaydin Clayton (2012-15).
“I’ll have to strap up my shoes again and put in more hard work,” Reno stated. “I’ve got 360-some days until I have to be ready for the next (state tournament). I feel like I can still accomplish new levels of wrestling, and I’m wanting to get there so that I can reach higher in my wrestling career.”
How much better can Reno become? He currently ranked No. 4 113-pounder in the nation by Intermat.
It’s a similar story for Penner, who’s ranked No. 11 in the country in the 170-pound division and third among high school juniors. He became a three-time state finalist this year, winning the second state championship of his career – the blip on his resume being a runner-up state finish last year as a sophomore. Penner posted a 49-2 record this winter with his losses coming against elite national competition, making him 141-6 for his career.
“I wanted to be a four-timer,” Penner admitted. “That was one of my goals coming into high school. There’s nothing I can do about it now except try to win three. It’s just about adjusting goals and going after them.”
Hilton adjusted his goals midseason. The freshman suffered two losses in his first tournament of the season but wound up losing only twice more the rest of the way, finishing 46-4.
“It’s a privilege,” Hilton said. “Those older guys in the room definitely pushed me to become a state champion.”
None more than Reno. Serving as a practice partner to one of the top wrestlers in state history, Hilton became the most dominant 106-pounder in the state, regardless of classification.
“I pushed him a lot,” Reno said. “He did not like me all the time. I was hard on him. But at least it paid off.
“… I was able to watch some of his state championship match while I was getting ready for mine. When I saw that he was going to win, I was happy for him and, I told myself that now I had to make it two in a row.”
Although they’re state champion teammates, their coach was quick to point out their contrasting wrestling styles. In the simplest of terms, Brewer described Hilton as a slick wrestler with plenty of room to grow, Reno as the grinder, and Penner as the most athletic and technically sound.
But the road to their state title was the same: one of dominance. None of the three Blue Jays surrendered a single offensive point during the postseason run at the district and state tournament against the most talented opposition.
At the state tournament, Reno made sure Missouri knew he was the head of the class in his weight bracket. After pinning his first two opponents of the tournament (Carter Wilhelm of Northwest Cedar Hill in the first round and Jesse Hahs of DeSmet in the quarterfinals), Reno dusted off Jalin Reese of Lafayette-Wildwood (26-11) in the semifinals and James Homfeld of Lindberg (20-5) in the state championship bout in lopsided affairs.
“I don’t think it’s still really sunk in yet,” Reno said. “I just can’t believe the season’s already over. It went so fast.”
Penner’s run to the title turned out to be equally as impressive. He needed all of 32 seconds to pin Jake Callahan of Lee’s Summit West in the first round and 61 seconds to pin Austin Smith of Francis Howell Central in the quarterfinals. Then in one of the most highly anticipated semifinal matches of the state tournament, Penner overwhelmed Robert Weber of Belton, 19-5, in a bout that featured two wrestlers with a combined three state titles and five state finals appearances. Penner completed his journey by demolishing Blake Hopkins of Park Hill, 25-10, in the finals.
“I just wanted to get better this year, and I thought I did that,” Penner said. “I did a better job of finishing.”
Although it was his first high school state tournament, the much-less-experienced Hilton wrestled flawlessly. Like his teammates, Hilton won his first two state matches by fall (against Mason Apple of Francis Howell North in the first round and Orion Bowers of Lee’s Summit West in the quarters. His toughest test came in the semifinals against Colton King of DeSmet, recording a 4-1 decision in what turned out to be the de facto championship match, before shutting out Nixa’s Peyton Moore, 10-0, in the finals.
“Those guys really do push each other,” Brewer said. “It’s not like they talk about it or discuss it, but they definitely feed off each other. They want to outdo each other every time they go out there at every tournament.”
It certainly seemed that way at state.
When it was all said and done, Hilton did not lose a single match over the final six weeks of the season. Penner went undefeated after dropping his only two matches of the campaign at the nationally acclaimed Kansas City Stampede in late December. Reno did not have a single offensive point scored against him in the final 20-plus matches of the season.
All of it is simply staggering.
But none of the wrestlers is looking back on their accomplishments. Each of them insists on looking forward.
Fargo All-American honors remains a goal this summer. Making a world team this offseason is another. For the juniors Reno and Penner, they have hopes to make commitments on college careers later this spring. Yet one ambition stands above all the rest, the one the Liberty wrestling program has never achieved.
“There’s things I want to accomplish this summer, things everyone wants to accomplish,” Penner said. “… But what I really want is the state team title next year. I think everyone on this team wants that, and that’s what’s going to drive us.”
As if this trio needed any more motivation. Obviously, all three of them are extremely talented and driven to be successful, and now they have another reason to be inspired. Will anyone be able to beat them next year? The chance exists, but maybe only if they’re challenged in spikeball.