No one is disputing that Bishop Hendricken is the favorite heading into this weekend's state wrestling tournament. The Hawks have dominated all season and figure to have nine wrestlers in the mix for medals.
But Hendricken will have to take care of business, because there's a chase pack ready to pounce on their opportunity.
Johnston heads that group.
"If we come in and have a good day, I think we can be right there," said Panthers head coach Matt Mancuso.
Johnston has reason to be confident. The team ended up winning the Division I-South regular-season championship outright when second-place Mt. Hope, who had been tied with the Panthers, lost its season finale. More importantly, the Panthers were a fierce tournament team throughout the season, with three championships to their name.
It all adds up to a contender. The Panthers haven't been in the mix for the title since 2003, when they finished third. They'd like to get at least that high again - or better. The school's only state wrestling title came in 1999.
"People are saying we'll fall in the second or third range, but we've got a shot," Mancuso said. "You never know what's going to happen."
The Panthers have wrestlers qualified in 13 of the 14 weight classes, and their top standouts plan to make a lot of noise.
Senior Justin Caparco is coming off an unbeaten regular season, and he'll be one of the favorites at 170. Last year, Caparco made a run to the state finals at 145.
"Justin has been awesome," Mancuso said. "He's been wrestling a lot better than he was at the beginning of the year."
Sophomore Marc Conte is another returning place-winner. He surged to third place last year at 152 when he was just a freshman. He'll be looking to contend for the title this season.
Freshman Jon Soto has had a big season at 106 and is likely to place. Senior Chris Gelardi, who moved down to 145 this season, has been dominant since a few early losses.
"Chris Gelardi hasn't lost in a dual meet since the first week of the season," Mancuso said. "He wrestled four or five of the top kids in his weight class right off the bat. He had some tough losses but he's been wrestling great. He's going to make some noise."
A host of other Panthers are among the top seeds in their weight classes, including Tim Tedesco at 132, Dylan Bessette at 160, Devin Soares at 195 and Corey Coehlo at 220. Others like Isaiah O'Brien, Nick Giammarco, Jesse Ribezzo, Mike Caparco and Rich Lonardo are seeded a little lower, but will be looking to make runs.
"I think Hendricken has nine guys who will place," Mancuso said. "We should have eight. It all depends on where everybody falls. I think we have a few more wildcards than they do. They've got their nine and that's it. I think we've got a couple of kids who could surprise some people."
The state tournament begins Friday at 5 p.m. at the Providence Career & Technical Academy. Wrestling continues Saturday at 11 a.m., with the finals scheduled for Saturday night.