MHS wrestling team – and a former team member now competing around the world – are each starting 2020 strong
Feb 05, 2020 11:56AM
● By Carl Fauver
Former Murray High School wrestler Elleni Johnson and her MHS head wrestling coach father Theros tour her new high school campus in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy Johnson family)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
Life as Murray High School’s head wrestling coach was a bit easier for Theros Johnson last winter, when he enjoyed the luxury of following and guiding his team – and his wrestling daughter, Elleni – simultaneously. Not yet actually attending MHS, Elleni competed on her dad’s team as a Hillcrest Junior High ninth grader.
At the time, Theros assumed that was simply his first of four seasons Elleni would be with his Spartan group.
Then – in a nutshell – she went out and got “too good.”
As the only girl on that 2018-19 Spartan team, Elleni was not a particular star, competing almost exclusively against boys. But as she began to enter more and more girl-only wrestling tournaments, the then 14-year-old developed into a bona fide standout.
Within a few months, Elleni received an athletic and scholastic opportunity she and her parents could not pass up, due to her growing wrestling prowess. And along the way, coach/dad had to adjust to the reality that he would only have Elleni on his Spartan team for that single season. Then she moved 2,075 miles to the east.
So, this is actually two almost completely unrelated stories wrapped into one: a look at this year’s all-male Murray High School wrestling team, along with an update on the “one who got away,” to a prestigious private school in Pennsylvania, with a world-class, all-female wrestling team.
2019-20 MHS Wrestling
The Spartan wrestling team showed steady improvement over each of Johnson’s first three seasons at the helm. But he’s the first to admit, that trend is being tested in this fourth season as the MHS head coach.
“We did very well to start the region 6 (class 5A) dual meet schedule, beating East, Hillcrest, Skyline and Olympus before the holiday break,” Johnson said. “But we have also had a few key injuries – and we lost some good seniors off last year’s team. So, improving on what they accomplished will be a challenge. We are improving; but we are young this year.”
Foremost on the injury list is one of the Spartans’ three team captains, senior Tyler Sparks. Persistent pain in his shoulders and arms led doctors to discover bulging discs in his neck. At last report, Sparks was doing physical therapy to try to return to the lineup.
In his first season as head coach, no Murray wrestlers placed in the class 5A state tournament. The following year they had one, and last year, two. But Johnson admits, continuing that steady progression up to three state placers this month would require a Herculean effort.
Undoubtedly the team’s best shot at a state placer this year comes with another of the team captains, junior Conway Christensen. He placed third in state last year as a sophomore, and is Murray’s only returning state placer. He’s competing in the same weight class, 138 lbs., for the second straight year.
“I had a 42-6 record last season and am 24-2 (as of press deadline) this year,” Christensen said. “I would really like to wrestle in college next year. I have received two letters from the Stanford wrestling program, along with a couple from Oregon schools. I am trying to finish the season as strong as I can, for my team and for next year.”
Johnson said other MHS wrestlers who could make some noise at the state finals (Feb. 12 and 13 at Utah Valley University) include his third team captain, senior Adam Stringham at 138 lbs. and 113 lb. sophomore Ethan Lund.
“I have a good group of kids this season,” Johnson added. “With more experience, the returners will be even stronger next year. I am proud of how hard they are working.”
Johnson’s daughter, Elleni, literally went to a “whole new world” last summer, after accepting a scholarship to attend the prestigious Wyoming Seminary in rural Kingston, Pennsylvania.
“I really like the school, particularly the work ethic all the students have in athletics and academics,” Elleni said while back in Utah to visit her family over the holiday break. “It’s fun and interesting having a roommate. The food there is really good. My biggest challenge has been adjusting to the workload from all my classes.”
In addition to juggling wrestling practices and a busy schedule of tournaments, Elleni also earned a 3.2 GPA while taking classes like chemistry and Latin.
“She’s had a tremendous amount of growth and development,” Johnson said of his daughter’s first sophomore semester away from home. “My wife and I think the school is phenomenal. The academics are top notch; she’s getting a wonderful education. Obviously, we were nervous about sending our 15-year-old daughter across the country to attend school. But she has an internal drive and is doing very well.”
In her first semester at Wyoming Seminary, Elleni traveled some 5,000 miles for her first international wrestling meet.
“It was really cool to visit Russia; the buildings were so old,” Elleni said. “We had one 9-hour flight and another 3-hour flight, going each way.”
Also, during her fall semester, the Wyoming Seminary girls wrestling team hosted national teams from Canada and Mongolia for spirited workouts. Even over her holiday “break,” Johnson flew to Phoenix (Dec. 27-31) for a team-mandated wrestling camp, featuring female wrestlers from Wisconsin, California and elsewhere.
“My dad was the best wrestling coach; but I also have definitely improved a lot since moving to school,” Elleni concluded. “I still hope to qualify for the Olympics in the future. I’m working hard for that.”
So, no, Johnson cannot watch his daughter and his Murray High School wrestlers compete at the same meets and tournaments anymore. But the coach said he’s glad to have his team to work with all season and Elleni to offer advice by phone and during her school breaks.