Maybe you know Austin Morris from the football field. Maybe you know him from the baseball field.
But the Keene High senior’s main focus at the moment is on the wrestling mat, where he soon embarks on a journey to defend his state title from 2019.
With no individual postseason tournaments last season because of the COVID pandemic, Morris had to wait an extra year to compete again for that top spot in the state. Now at 170 pounds, he certainly expects to be on the podium again at the end of this year.
“I feel really confident,” Morris said at Tuesday’s practice. “I feel as though my preparation has been really good. The last four weeks have been really productive in terms of drilling, conditioning and just mentally being healthy. My freshman year, I cracked under the pressure, but I don’t feel that this year.”
His freshman year, Morris finished third at the Meet of Champions, losing to Pinkerton Academy’s Jack Mackiernan in the quarterfinals. Mackiernan — now also a senior — beat Morris again early the following year when they were sophomores.
Morris got the last laugh that season, beating Mackiernan, 3-2, in a triple overtime match at the Meet of Champions to decide the state champion.
“I knew I was going to compete with [Jack] in the championship match, it was just a matter of getting there,” Morris said. “It was just a matter of being healthy and performing. Match-by-match.”
Keene head coach Peter Runez was in his first year when Morris won the state title at the 2019 Meet of Champions and remembers that match well.
“It was a tough finals match,” Runez said. “It was really close. Very gritty match and Austin was just able to pull that through, which was really exciting for the whole team and all of Keene to have a state champion.”
Morris and Mackiernan could meet again Wednesday, as Keene travels to Pinkerton for a season-opening tri-meet against the Astros and Exeter High School.
“He’ll probably be looking for revenge,” Morris said. “It’ll be fun. It’s really about who’s more conditioned right now, not so much about who’s the better wrestler. It’s the beginning of the season, so it’s a matter of who can go all three periods. I’m just looking for a good match. That’s my competition this year, so it’ll be nice to see where I’m at.”
Runez said he’s not sure what weight class Mackiernan will be wrestling on Wednesday, but he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pinkerton senior up at 170 pounds no matter what, just to face off against Morris again.
“Even if [Mackiernan] is still at 160, [Pinkerton’s] coach might just bump him up to 170 so we can have a good show,” Runez said. “It’s great for the two kids to have someone like that in the state of New Hampshire so they can get better and feed off each other’s energy.”
It’s difficult to measure what the New Hampshire wrestling scene will look like this season after having a significantly condensed season in 2020, but if Mackiernan is wrestling at 170 pounds, there’s a good chance that wrestling fans will get an early-season preview of what could be an important postseason individual matchup down the road.
And Morris is ready to jump right in.
“I think [being the defending state champion] kind of gives me an edge because people know me as a state champ,” Morris said. “They’re like, ‘Okay, he’s good.’ It’s a mental thing. If you come into a match thinking you’re going to lose, then you’re going to lose. But if you have the right mentality — like, ‘Hey, I’m the state champ. The pressure is on him.’ Then that gives me the mental advantage.”
“[Austin is] definitely athletically gifted, no doubt about that,” Runez said. “But more importantly he’s a student of wrestling. He studies his matches and he’s able to see his mistakes and capitalize on them in future matches. He always seems to come out ahead when he does that. You always see him watching tape, asking questions, and learning from past mistakes which is what we want all our wrestlers to do.”
Led by Morris, the Blackbirds team will be leaning on its senior leadership to try and compete with teams like Concord High School and Timberlane Regional High School, two teams that have gone head-to-head for the Division I state team title in each of the past six years. Timberlane is the six-time defending D-I champion.
“I took Austin aside and talked to him about how we need some really strong leadership form the seniors,” Runez said. “And he stepped up tremendously to help guide this team. He’s been really essential in developing a culture shift with Keene wrestling to be a top-tier team in New Hampshire.”
Keene has seven seniors on the roster, including seniors Gavin Gruber and Matt Peate, who Runez also expects to have successful individual seasons and help bump the team score during dual meets.
“Look for all the Keene guys out there,” Runez said optimistically. “They’re all working hard and you never know when someone is going to hit that next level.”
Morris said this year’s wrestle-off — the preseason intrasquad competition to help decide the varsity lineup — was competitive up and down the lineup, something he hasn’t seen much of over the last four years.
“It was really nice to see us be competitive as a team,” Morris said. “I feel confident in this team. I think we’re building a good culture here.”
“Just excited for the season,” Runez said. “It’s been a long time since we had a full season, so the most important thing is just getting out there, competing and doing our best and working hard.”