DERBY, Kan. (KSNW) — Derby High School boasts one of the best wrestling programs in the state. But the Panthers suffered a loss before the wrestling season started.

“We have a family environment. These guys hang out together outside the practice room. They enjoy being around each other and working hard together,” said head coach Bill Ross.

Ross is in his 22nd season of coaching at Derby. He said this might be one of the deepest varsity teams he’s ever had on the mat.

“Yeah, we returned eight state placers, and since I’ve been at Derby, that’s the most I’ve ever returned as a coach,” said Ross. “We’re just hoping we can get everybody on the mat at the same time.”

“Yeah, we got a few people out right now that have some injuries or some other issues going on. But I feel like whenever we get those guys back, we’ll have our full lineup, and we’ll be really tough to beat come time,” said senior Knowlyn Egan.

Despite the injuries, the Panthers have been the No. 1 ranked team in Class 6A all season. Last Saturday, they finished second to Class 5A power Maize in their own 12-team Panther Invitational.

Senior Tate Rusher is a defending state champion. As a junior, he led Derby to within six points of 6A state champion Washburn Rural. Rusher said the state runner-up finish is one of the things lighting a fire under the Panthers this season.

“I think it’s big. Just seeing we weren’t the favorite but seeing what we could do, and we all put it on the line. And some extra motivation from us being seniors. Not all of us are going to be doing this again next year,” said Rusher.

The Panthers are also motivated by the loss of longtime assistant coach Jeremy Molloy, who passed away last August.

“It affected us quite a bit. He’s been there. His son is a senior with us. He’s been there since I moved here in third grade, and he’s been there ever since. He’s been in my corner pretty much every match ever since. So, it was really tough,” said Rusher.

“He’s somebody most of us grew up with or from whenever we started wrestling. He’s been there all our lives,” added Egan.

Derby wrestling assistant coach Jeremy Molloy (Courtesy: Jackie Molloy)

Coach Molloy’s two children have also been heavily involved with the wrestling program. Son Cole is a senior who’s battling injuries this season. Daughter Jackie was a four-year team manager before she graduated in 2021.

“He touched so many lives, and you know, he may be passed, but at the same time, his memory lives on through so many others that he touched,” said Ross.

Ross said that sometimes when he’s coaching at the corner of the mat, he looks to his side to see if his good friend and assistant coach is still right there sitting next to him.

“I look over there every once in a while and wonder if he’s not up there looking down and still being in the same corner with me.”