West Valley Preps
It’s like Kaden Dodge never stepped away from the Liberty wrestling program.
Both the senior and his coach Eric Brenton said his return to the sport has been relatively seamless. Since Dodge only decided to come back in mid-November, the ease of the transition qualifies as a surprise.
Only a month after his Liberty football career ended and a few weeks after rejoining the squad, Dodge was atop the podium for the 220-pound weight class Dec. 3 at the 16-team Liberty Classic tournament — which includes one California and two Nevada schools.
“The first couple days you could tell there was a lot of rust. He knocked off a lot of that. I think the Liberty Classic really did it and helped it all come back. Everything with wrestling is feel, so for him it was just a matter of getting that feel back,” Coach Brenton said.
Now, a wrestler with zero state tournament appearances and a year-long hiatus has stamped himself as one of the state title contenders at 220 in Division II.
As a sophomore, he wrestled in the 182- and 195-pound classes that year but did not reach state as the Lions were stacked in those weight classes in 2015.
With Miles Nuessle (182 pound champion), Blake Smith (195 pound champion) and Chase Hulbert (fourth place 220 pounds) the mix was even more crowded last year. But Dodge sat out more to prepare for his senior year of football than because of a log jam at his natural weight.
“My junior year after football season, I kind of knew that I wasn’t going to continue wrestling. I was just going to focus on football,” Dodge said.
He said he does not regret not being part of the Lions first state title team, and instead was more happy for his former teammates.
As a three-year starter for the Lions, Dodge began his career as a safety and was the only sophomore starting for Liberty during its 2014 state title game against Centennial. He grew into a linebacker his final two years for coach Mark Smith’s program.
His best year came as a junior, as injuries kept Dodge out four early season games this fall. But even at 210 pounds, he retained the athleticism of a former defensive back.
Dodge also realized he still enjoyed wrestling. He talked to Coach Brenton a week after the football playoff loss and decided only good things could come from wrestling again.
“After this last year, it started to settle in that this was going to be the last year of high school sports. I was like why not just go back for my senior year. There would be no real pressure. I could go have fun,” Dodge said.
Brenton said that athletic ability is unusual in the second highest weight class
“A lot of the things he was able to do when he was 170, he’s doing now. But I think he’s having more success with it because these guys are bigger and he is more athletic. A lot of upper body stuff, plus foot sweeps and foot trips — he’s stayed the some because I think that’s what’s comfortable to him,” Coach Brenton said.
More than anything, Dodge said he is having fun wrestling with kids he has known for years.
While he was a good wrestler as an underclassmen, the physical advantage and ability to compete stress free has made Dodge a different competitor entirely.
“I’m a lot stronger than I was. Taking the break re-energized me. And now I was looking forward to it,” he said.
Coach Brenton — and Coach Smith — said Dodge’s personality allows him to fit into the framework of any team very easily.
“Dodge brings a leadership quality. Everybody likes him. I don’t think there’s a person on this campus that can say anything negative about Kaden. I think he helps strengthen the bond we already have,” Coach Brenton said.
His presence also fills what looked like a hole for a program looking to defend its first state title. A reconfigured Division II features new challengers in Queen Creek, Marana Mountain View and Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge.
While his success may be a surprise around the state, Dodge thought he could have a breakthrough year.
“I didn’t come out here to have an average year. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with not making state or not placing. The early success hasn’t changed anything. I’m out here to compete,” Dodge said.
Dodge wants to study exercise science in college, to prepare for a career in physical therapy. Football-wise he is in a bit of a holding pattern — waiting to see what four-year schools offer and considering the community college route.
A good showing in wrestling should only help his football recruiting. And right now Dodge is already No. 2 with a bullet, behind Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain senior Jacob Kidd.
“I think he can be right there. He wrestled the No. 1 kid last week and lost to him. But the kid who is No. 3 — he beat by major (decision) in the finals of our tournament. We told him when he came back that 220 is wide open and that if wrestling can help with the recruiting process with football, why wouldn’t you. I think he’s in the top four and I would not be surprised a bit if he makes the finals,” Coach Brenton said.