FULTON, Ill. — Fulton wrestling coach Chris Grant is no stranger to taking athletes to the state wrestling tournament, and this year he has three going.
Seniors Taylor Fleetwood and Tyler Fleetwood are repeat qualifiers, while junior Eli Pannell is making his first trip to Champaign.
“I am proud of what they have done in their career,” Grant said. “These are amazing kids. We’ve broken darn near every school record other than the team record. Arguably, they are some of the best athletes to come through Fulton.”
Tyler Fleetwood is a two-time state champion, looking to make a three-peat. The difference is this year he’s gone up two weight classes, now wrestling at 132 pounds.
“The kids are a little more mature there and definitely stronger, but I think I’ve adapted to it,” Tyler said. “It’s been a good season. I’ve taken some losses but I think the losses have helped me learn where I can improve and get better with every aspect of my position.”
He says he feels a little pressure because people know what he is capable, but he’s also confident in the preparation he’s put in.
“Everybody going for me, because I’ve been back to back state champ so they’ll be shooting for me,” Tyler said. “I had a good week of practice, worked on moving my hands and feet and getting to my attacks so I think it’s going to be a good weekend for me.”
Tyler is called “Sunshine” by coaches and teammates, dating back to when he moved from Florida and came in with long blonde hair. Opposite to him is “Moonshine”, his fraternal twin and fellow state qualifier Taylor.
“It’s a little weird. We’re fraternal and almost as far apart as you can get,” Taylor said. Taylor qualified for the state tournament at 285 pounds compared to Tyler’s 132. “It’s different and we both make each other mad quite a bit but we push each other.
“It’s also a lot of fun. A lot of people would think that we would get mad at each other if one of us does better than the other, but honestly it’s all love. I’ve never been mad that he’s had state titles and I haven’t. There’s a lot of love going around.”
The twins aren’t the only ones who see the bond.
“Even being complete opposites, they are very tight and they look out for one another,” Grant said. “They want to see each other have success.”
Taylor has certainly had a successful career of his own. The same years Tyler won his titles, Taylor finished fourth and then second in his own weight classes. Now, he’s looking for a title of his own. If you ask him, though, it’s not just the title he wants to win.
“My goal wasn’t to get a state championship, but the goal was to get a state championship with my brother this year,” Taylor said. “It makes it a lot more meaningful.”
Taylor also isn’t bothered when people refer to his brother and him as one unit, because he knows that when someone says ‘the Fleetwoods’ it’s a good thing.
“I love it when someone says the ‘Fleetwoods’. They know we’re very different—they can tell if it’s Taylor or Tyler just because of our weight difference,” Taylor said. “When people refer to the Fleetwood twins, I’ve never heard anything bad about that and it’s cool around a small town.”
The seniors are looking at colleges and considering attending the same one in order to continue a wrestling career together. With their experience and confidence, neither is feeling a lot of nerves heading into the state tournament this weekend.
Plus, the brothers have inspired the third Steamer headed to state, Eli Pannell.
“It’s amazing wrestling with them,” Pannell said, referring to the Fleetwood twins. “They’re really talented and it makes me better as a wrestler. I always strive to be like them, and I’ve been working to be where they’re at all my life. They’re one of the reasons I got into wrestling.”
Pannell is making his first trip to the State Farm Center. Still, he isn’t really feeling the nerves. He credits that to his light-hearted attitude.
“I like cracking jokes about random things, and anything to really get a laugh in. I like to goof around, I like to joke with people,” Pannell said. “I am always pretty confident in my abilities as a wrestler and like to keep it loose.”
Coach Grant thinks this is important for getting through the mentally grueling wrestling season.
“He likes to goof around. We have a great coaching staff and a great group of guys and we like to use the humor to lighten things up and keep them on task,” Grant said. “They all have their moments, they really do. It helps them to regroup and focus and have a little fun with it. It gets to be a grind because it’s a long season. If you’re having fun it makes it go by a little faster.”
Just because he’s making his first trip down to Champaign doesn’t mean Pannell hasn’t had his own success. In fact, this year he broke the Fulton High School record for pins in a single season. He has the chance to get four more pins this weekend.
“I’ve been having a really good season, taking down a lot of tough competition and having some really good matches,” Pannell said. “Breaking the record felt really good. My coach was the one who had the record previously and he was coaching me during the match.”
He’s staying calm and staying confident.
“I just take it one match at a time, and I’d like to get on the podium,” Pannell said. “I just try to go out there and work my moves and hit anything that’s there, I don’t risk anything. I just try to outwork my opponent.”
After seeing state titles and places and records fall, Coach Grant has seen some fantastic wrestling come through the halls of Fulton High School. He wants to see his athletes enjoy the weekend and perform like they have been
“I hope they bring home some medals and I hope they bring home championships. The way the brackets are lining up all three of them have real possibilities to bring home the title or a medal,” Grant said. “It’s a great group. I’m going to miss them. It’s really an end of an era and thankfully I have Eli to keep things going.”
He says the three are really testaments to what it means to be a Steamer wrestler.
“They’re great kids,” Grant said. “They just love it. These guys love getting together every winter and just doing what they do and it pays off.”