High School Sports

Meet the Kansas City Star’s Fab Five from the high school winter sports season

From left: Oak Grove’s Connor Brown, Blue Valley North’s Sam Disette, Staley’s Zach Elam, St. James Academy’s Clay Lautt, and Lawrence Free State’s Jordan Portela
From left: Oak Grove’s Connor Brown, Blue Valley North’s Sam Disette, Staley’s Zach Elam, St. James Academy’s Clay Lautt, and Lawrence Free State’s Jordan Portela

The Kansas City Star’s Fab Five from the winter sports season were selected by members of the high school sports staff, who consulted with coaches before making their decisions.

An athlete must participate in at least 60 percent of his or her team’s competition to be eligible.

The Star’s annual All-Metro boys and girls basketball teams will be published Sunday.

Connor Brown, Oak Grove

When he was in middle school, Oak Grove wrestler Connor Brown attended the Missouri high school state championships as a fan. He watched a capacity crowd stand to applaud a newly-crowned four-time champion in what has become a tradition at the state wrestling meet.

Before he had even taken part in one high school match, Brown had suddenly obtained his goal for the next four years.

It all came to fruition in his senior season.

Brown became the 26th four-time wrestling champion in Missouri high school history last month, completing his third straight undefeated season when he won the Class 2 120-pound division.

On a day in which 56 wrestlers departed Mizzou Arena as state champions, the lone standing ovation was reserved for Brown.

“I had been thinking about that for a long time,” Brown said. “Obviously, when it’s your last one, that’s when you start thinking it might actually happen. It was an amazing feeling to see it.”

The final championship run provided Brown with the greatest test, he said. After a combined 85-0 record as a sophomore and junior, Brown noticed opponents often simply trying to avoid a pin rather than win the match. It wore on his patience, he said.

But that went unnoticed in the results. Brown finished 47-0. He will attend South Dakota State.

“There were some guys who didn’t want to go out there and compete, so that was something I had to work on preparing for,” Brown said. “That was a new challenge for me.”

Sam Disette, Blue Valley North

He’s only been swimming competitively for three years, but Sam Disette’s career as a Blue Valley North swimmer is one of the best in school history.

He capped his senior season with a pair of record-breaking performances in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 freestyle. Disette, who set a state record when he swam the 50 freestyle in 20.71 seconds at last year’s Class 6A meet, beat his best time in prelims shaved off a touch more to win the title in 20.09 seconds.

Then he won the 100 freestyle in 44.15 seconds, beating Shawnee Mission East’s Hayden Linscott by nearly two seconds and breaking the state record of 45.20 that was set in 2013. He also swam the anchor leg of the winning 200 freestyle relay in 19.7 seconds, allowing BV North to come from behind for another record-setting victory over SM East.

“I went far beyond what I expected,” Disette said. “(The 100 free) being my last individual race of my high school career, and thinking about what really shaped me into who I am today, I just wanted to go out with a bang.”

Disette, who qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 50-meter freestyle over the summer, is tied for 53rd in the recruiting class of 2017 by College Swimming. He’s also ranked the top recruit out of Kansas by the same outlet.

Disette will take his sprinting talents to the Southeastern Conference, where he’ll swim at Alabama.

Zach Elam, Staley

The lower bowl of Mizzou Arena was nearly full when Staley junior Zach Elam jogged onto the mat last month. As the music blared and the lights dimmed, he spotted his cheering section in the corner.

The atmosphere can be overwhelming. It can supplement the pressure of competing in a state final match.

And that’s precisely what Elam loved about it.

“I put as much pressure on myself as possible, because when I’m under pressure, my (instinct) is just to work harder,” Elam said. “And when I work harder, I perform better.”

The pressure this season actually commenced in November, when Elam returned as a defending state champion. He was ranked atop his class all season.

But true to his word, he performed better under it. Elam won his second straight state championship — the latest coming in the Class 4 195-pound division.

It capped an impressive season. Elam finished the year 53-1. His only loss came in overtime of the prestigious KC Stampede championship match. Nixa’s Donovan Benetti was the culprit. Elam came back to pin Benetti in the first period of the state semifinals.

“Coming in, you want to expect the same result you (accomplished) last year, but there are a lot of people who come try to knock you off,” Elam said. “So there’s a lot more focus on staying mentally sharp and keeping after people. You can’t get comfortable.”

Clay Lautt, St. James Academy

Clay Lautt suffered one loss his senior season wrestling for St. James Academy and he remembers it well.

During the 59th Rocky Welton Invitational in Garden City, Kan., in late January, the 182-pound University of North Carolina commit advanced relatively easily through his part of the bracket, winning all four of his matches by fall. Then he met Salem Harsh of Nebraska in the championship bout, a senior who earned a bye in the first round and won two matches 8-0 and another 2-0 on his way to the final.

Both were undefeated at that point in the season. Only Harsh retained a perfect record, as he beat Lautt in a 5-4 decision.

Lautt, who represented the United States during the 2016 Cadet World Championships overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia, didn’t take the loss too hard. But he knew that if he was going to return to the top of the podium at the Class 5A championship for a third consecutive year, he had to build up his endurance.

Lautt won that third state title in a 17-9 major decision over Newton’s Wyatt Hendrickson, adding to his already stacked senior resume that featured his first championships at Council Bluffs Classic and KC Stampede.

“My coach Mike Medina and practice partner Sammy Cokeley (the 5A 160-pound champion who’s going to wrestle at Cornell next year) are the best you could have,” said Lautt, who went 48-1 this season. “Medina’s worked with me so much on and off the mat. He’s always pushing me to watch videos and lift and run and do everything I can to become better.”

Jordan Portela, Lawrence Free State

As a kid, Jordan Portela tried to resist the pool. The Lawrence Free State senior hailed from a long line of competitive swimmers and he wanted to forge a unique path to success.

Ultimately, Portela’s DNA won out — and what a coup that’s been.

Portela won gold in the 100-yard butterfly and the 200-yard freestyle at the Class 6A championship in February, marking a sweep of the eight individual state races he’s entered over the years.

In the process, he lowered the state record, which he set last year, in the 100 fly with a personal best time of 48.66 seconds. He also beat Disette in the final leg of the 400 relay to give Free State a second-place finish.

Portela, the second-best recruit in Kansas according to College Swimming, will head to the University of Minnesota, where his siblings Anthony and Chloe both swam in the past 10 years. In a way, he is following in their footsteps.

But Portela’s four straight state titles in the 100 fly and 200 free, which he swam in 1:39.01 this year, are hard to equal. He’ll try to continue that blistering pace with the Golden Gophers in the fall.

“When I started the recruiting process, I said Minnesota and Alabama (where both parents swam) were out of the question,” Portela said. “But when I went on my recruit trip and started looking into it, I felt like I could set my own path even though I followed in the same direction they went.”

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