Senior Rylie Steele, right, placed third last year at the state wrestlign meet and returns to lead the Bearcats this winter.

KEARNEY — It’s been really good ride for the Kearney High School wrestlers.

Last year’s fifth-place finish at the individual state wrestling meet ended a three-year run of runner-up finishes for the Bearcats. However, they kept alive their six-year run of finishing in the top three at the state duals.

State champions Phillip Moomey and Nick James have departed to wrestle for Cornell and UNK, respectively, and “losing two state champions, two great leaders who were super important to our team, is not an easy thing for us,” said KHS coach Ty Swarm.

Competing for a state championship might be out of reach for this year’s Bearcat squad, but they should be competitive with most teams they compete against.

Swarm has 60 kids out for the team and believes, it’s easier to try to build through depth and a strong legacy.

The top of the lineup includes five state placers from a year ago:

n Senior Rylie Steele, who was third at 120 pounds;

n Senior Gage McBride, who was third at 138;

n Sophomore Archer Heelan, who was fifth at 106 pounds;

n Senior Hunter Nagatani, who was fourth at 113;

n Junior Carter Abels, who was sixth at 160.

About half of those guys “are banged up” and haven’t started wrestling yet, but Swarm said they are expected to return soon, possibly as early as the season-opening Kearney High Invitational on Dec. 7.

“That’s our leadership, that’s the guys that understand the program, the values and the things we do. ... Those guys who have been underneath Phillip and Nick’s wing over the years are emerging as leaders themselves. That’s a good role for them to be in as they grow into young men,” Swarm said.

The Bearcats also anticipate the return of senior Brayden Smith, who did not compete most of last year after winning the 113-pound championship in 2018.

The returning state medalists give Kearney a solid lineup in the lower weights, and Swarm hopes to see great improvement in the upper weights. Last year, Kearney didn’t qualify anyone for state above 182 pounds.

It’s a challenge to fill those spots as young kids who are bigger, find themselves going against experienced juniors and seniors and the results often are discouraging.

“If we can get them to stick around and stay with it, that’s when those guys in the upper weights are doing really well,” Swarm said.

That’s the case this year as all of the Bearcats in the upper weights last year are back.

“They’ve had a whole year of varsity and that will really play dividends for them,” Swarm said.

As in the past few years, the highlights of the Bearcats’ season are expected to occur in the dual meets.

Kearney has home duals with Columbus on Jan. 24 and Grand Island on Feb. 26 — both top-five teams. The Columbus dual will be on the stage in the KHS auditorium, which builds on the success of recent “stage matches” with Lincoln East. The Grand Island dual will be a side-by-side event with UNK on the other mat.

On the road, Kearney takes the short trip to Amherst to battle the Broncos on Jan. 2. Yes, it’s a match the Bearcats are expected to win but have everything to lose, but Swarm believes it’s something that is good for the wrestling community.

“I think going to their place is appropriate because you get a feel for a small-town atmosphere. I think that will be very cool for our guys,” he said.