You want blue-collar? A rags to riches story?

In the town of Pleasant Hill, just southeast of Kansas City, high school wrestlers practiced in the basement of an elementary school after several years of calling the stage of a gymnasium home. And in the late 1970s, an assistant coach who had no wrestling background would be promoted to head coach, and then take it upon himself to learn every facet of the sport.

“One strategy was to be in better shape than your opponent and out-work everyone else,” coach Steve Leslie said. “Our motto would be, ‘Believe in Yourself When Others Don’t.”

Turns out, the Roosters eventually made believers of many during a string of seasons that still inspire. That’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted the 1986-1996 Era of Pleasant Hill High School Wrestling with the Class of 2023.

Overall, the Roosters earned nine top-four finishes in that span in Class 1-2, winning state championships in 1989 and 1996. They were the runner-up in 1986, 1988 and 1995, and placed third in 1987 and 1994. Pleasant Hill also placed fourth in 1992 and 1993.

Along the way, the program produced 11 state champions in that era: Pete Gilbreth (132 pounds in 1986), Clint Dinges (185 in 1987), Scott Ponder (heavyweight in 1987), Mark Palmer (112 in 1988), Travis Gustin (152 in 1988, 160 in 1989), Clint Redwine (130 in 1991), Shez Tucker (130 in 1992), Jay McClintock (112 in 1993), Drew Kirchner (135 in 1994), Blaine Bunch (140 in 1994) and Travis Callahan (145 in 1995).

In the era, the Roosters had 104 state qualifiers and earned 65 state medals. They also won six district championships.

Leslie, who coached from 1977 to 1998, still beams about it all. The program began in 1968 an2023Pd, in its first seven years, had a total of seven state qualifiers and two state medalists in a sport treated as a second priority.

However, Leslie made it a priority. Practices lasted roughly 2 ½ hours a day, and the early 1980s eventually set up success for the era. In 1980, Pleasant Hill had multiple state medalists, including its first state champion. Eight qualified for state the next year, with two winning state.

“We were strong on our feet, better conditioned than most of our opponents and mentally tough,” Leslie said. “Technique-wise, we tried to concentrate on what was best for each individual. Some were good with the cradle, some were good with arm bars, and some wrestled on their feet almost exclusively.”

The community rallied behind the program, too. In the mid-1980s, a group of parents successfully led an effort to build a dedicated wrestling room that held two full mats. The program caught fire from there.

“The 1986, 1987 and 1988 teams definitely fueled the fire to try to win the whole thing (in 1989),” Leslie said. “The 1986 team came of out nowhere and was 30 points out of first place going into the last day. The kids (in the consolation rounds) had wrestled hard and, after Pete won the championship at 132, we were in first place.”

The 1986 team finished three points behind state champion Richmond, and inspired many.

“Watching my oldest brother, Troy, and that group of guys inspired me,” said Trent Gustin, a 1990s wrestler. “I remember seeing those men down on that mat at the state tournament and thinking they were the baddest gladiators I had ever seen.”

In 1989, the Roosters finished the job, besting Oak Grove by 13 points thanks to four finalists and seven total medalists: Travis Gustin won his second state title, Tucker, Redwine and Matt Gustin placed second, while Mark Palmer and Brian Flint placed third, and Mark Wayman was fifth.

The 1996 team also beat Oak Grove by 13 points, winning state thanks to Justin Gower, Matt Rosanbalm and Rick Hoover placing second, Phil Kassel third, Justin Bass fourth, Jeremy LaFountain fifth, and Ben Tucker and Jake Callahan sixth.

So many played a role in the era’s success: coaches, administrators, student-athletes, parents, and the community as a whole. Assistants were Gary Hancock, Ron Franklin, Bob Flint, Jeff Savage, Phil Dorman and John Dollins.

“As a coach, I am extremely proud of our accomplishments,” Leslie said. “Once you have established a culture of winning, others want to continue or to do better. But more importantly, I have maintained a friendship with many of my wrestlers and have seen them grow into fine men. Several have helped their sons carry on the tradition.”