Putting Your Toe On The Line – Maple River

The program was a consistent winner before Dan Robbins became the head coach of the Maple River wrestling program. When Robbins took the head job before the 2013 season, he kept the program rolling. They have only had one losing season since Robbins took over. In the last two seasons, the program has won a total of 37 dual meets. How have the Eagles done it? They have done it by being ready to go the second they put their toe on the line.

Robbins was raised in a wrestling hotbed and was exposed to the sport by a young man placed in charge of the future coach.

“I grew up in Blue Earth, and we had a good wrestling following,” Robbins said. “I had a babysitter who was a wrestler, and he got me into it when I was five or six years old. We went to the same church also; he would talk to me about it. When he was baby-sitting, sometimes he would show me a double leg or a stand-up or something. I kept going from there.”

With the help of his babysitter, Robbins started in on a life-long career in wrestling.

“I took to wrestling pretty quickly,” Robbins said. “I wasn’t a great wrestler, but I enjoyed it. I had moderate success in elementary school. I enjoyed the team part of wrestling.”

Robbins worked his way up the Buccaneers’ wrestling program.

“I wrestled for Blue Earth Area. I got a little bit of varsity experience in tenth grade and then was a starter on varsity as a junior and senior. I wasn’t an all-star or anything, but in my junior year, we were in the section final. It came down to the heavyweight match, and I beat their heavyweight in double overtime to send Blue Earth to State. That was the biggest accomplishment of my high school career.”

Although his active wrestling career ended in high school, Robbins stayed active in the sport.

“I went to college at Mankato State. I worked with the athletic training office. (Mavericks’ head wrestling) Coach Jim Makovsky would have me help him with things sometimes.”

After college, Robbins would be out of wrestling for about four years. In 2007, an opportunity to get back into the sport presented itself.

“I missed wrestling. I was living in Mankato, and with my job, I had winters off at the time. I saw an ad for a junior high coach in Maple River, and I jumped on it.”

He jumped into the junior high position, but he wouldn’t be there long.

“At Maple River, we all practice in the same room at the same time,” Robbins said. “I was the junior high coach, but I am a bigger guy, so I started working with the 170 pounders and up, and then I would go to all the junior high meets. After two years of that, I moved up to be the varsity assistant and basically did the same thing – going to a junior high meet here or there, but obviously going to all the varsity and JV events. This is my seventh year as the head coach. (Former head coach) Jeff Soma stayed on for one year and coached the junior high, which was a big help.”

Soma was not the only coach who helped Robbins early in his career.

“Jack Eustice was the head coach at Blue Earth, and Randy Wirtjes and Dave Pfaffinger were the assistants. I do all I can to mimic those guys. They put the love of wrestling in my head. They pushed us to the limit, but they were also there for you if you needed it. Jeff Soma hired me and is a great guy. He showed me how to deal with athletes and how to work with them from seventh grade all the way to senior high.”

Coach Soma didn’t just coach the junior high; he helped coach Robbins.

“As an assistant coach, you are worried about day-to-day stuff, but you don’t have to deal with the administrative stuff,” the former Blue Earth Buccaneers’ wrestler said. “There is an abundance of things that go on behind the scenes that I didn’t know much about. It was nice to have Jeff there that first year.”

Soma made sure he gave his assistant a chance to succeed early.

“The program was in pretty good shape,” Robbins said about his first year as the head coach. “We were coming off a season where we were a couple of wins over .500. Jeff left at a time when he knew the cupboard wasn’t bare. He left me with some good leaders. My first year as head coach, we went 14-4, and that has to do directly with the number of kids we had and the senior leadership we had.”

The high school room was in good shape, but Robbins knew there were changes to be made.

“We struggled with youth numbers in the last ten years. For the most part – seven through twelve, we have had pretty good numbers. It wasn’t in bad shape, but we didn’t have any teachers in the school system. I wanted to make sure we at least had a face in the building.”

Many years, the program would make up for a lack of numbers in the youth program outside of the feeder program.

“We have had some good luck later in their careers,” Robbins told The Guillotine. “It is not unusual for us to get a couple of eighth or ninth graders, who are sick of sitting on the bench in basketball, come out for wrestling for the first time.”

Getting older kids to come out can work in the short term, but not the long term.

This article also appears in the February 14, 2020 issue of The Guillotine.
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“The philosophy in the youth program is work on technique and keep it fun,” Robbins said. “Jeremy Walters has been our youth coach for the last five or six years. He keeps the kids out for wrestling and is a good technician.”

To get kids in the youth program – or the varsity program – without coaches in the schools, Robbins had to get creative.

“My first year, I did a presentation at each of the two elementary schools. The two captains came with me and passed out information just to make sure that they had something they could go to if they were interested in wrestling.”

Any kid could go to Robbins at any time.

“I am always open to talking to anyone, and we are willing to give anyone a try. In the last few years, we have had pretty good football teams, and we have done a good job of letting those guys – especially the linemen – know the benefits of wrestling.”

Robbins and the coaching staff have done what they can to make up for not being in the schools.

“We make a lot of phone calls. I spend a lot of time in the school when I can. Late in the fall, I can get down there a little more. I try to make myself as accessible as I can. I have a great relationship with the principal. He has kids in wrestling, so the kids know they can go to him too. He can talk to them and hook them up with me. He has been a great help.”

The Eagles don’t just have support from their principal.

“We have always had great support,” Robbins explained. “Our fans travel well. It is not rare for us to have more fans at away meets than the home team. We are known around the area as a basketball school, but our administration gives us the support we need.”

On the mat, opponents better be ready to go from the opening whistle.

“Before me, and I am sure after me, we have and will stress scoring first,” Robbins said. “When you put your toe on the line, you have to be ready to take the first shot. If you don’t take that first shot, you are going to hear about it during the next practice.”

Being ready once your toe is on the line came from Soma. Robbins gives a ton of credit to his predecessor – not only for that philosophy but for the entire program.

“Maple River was a doormat, a ‘look past them’ kind of dual meet. When Coach Soma took over, things changed. He stressed accountability. You are going to be at practice. You are going to be at dual meets. You are going to pass your classes. You are accountable to your team. I think that was a big part of turning the program around. He also got the youth program moving in the right direction.”

The new coaching staff is mostly homegrown.

“Terry Ochsendorf does most of the technique for us. This is his first year with us,” Robbins said. “He was the head coach at Madelia-Truman and took them to the state tournament. Ochsendorf was a youth coach at Blue Earth for a while. He has been great for us. Our junior high coach is Paul Sonnek. He wrestled for Maple River and graduated in 2012. He was one of those guys we picked up late. His first year wrestling was his junior year. He was .500 as a junior, and then as a senior, he made it to State. He has been with us for four years. Zach Kuhns is a volunteer. He graduated from Maple River and was a four-time state entrant and a two-time state placer. Kyle Sieberg was a long-time assistant who is taking the year off and will be back with us next year.”

In recent years, the coaching staff has put an extra emphasis on the wrestlers believing in themselves – so much so that they make sure everyone can see it.

“I think what defines us is our ‘believe in yourself’ attitude. We put BIY on all our clothing and even put it on our new wrestling mat to remind us to Believe in Yourself.”

This year, that coaching staff will be believing in a team with an interesting mix of experience and inexperience.

“We have four seniors – Nathan Trio, Wyatt Simon, Trevor Pearson, and Caden Ochsendorf,” Robbins said. “All four of them are captains and the guys we lean on in the wrestling room and the classroom. Whatever you need from those guys – they are there. We have a total of seven guys back who had at least thirty wins during the 2018-19 season, but then five out of the other seven are going to be on varsity for the first time. They certainly have good leadership to look up to.”

Those seniors have bought into getting to the next level as wrestlers. According to Coach Robbins, more of that type of commitment is needed to improve the program.

“We need to get kids to buy into wanting to get to the next level. It takes that little bit extra to get to where we want to be. It takes more than one or two guys wanting to get there. It is going to take twenty guys to want to get there.”

Robbins doesn’t think that has to mean forgoing other activities and focusing just on wrestling.

“Getting better at wrestling is going for runs in the summer, it is getting into the weight room in the summer. That is going to get you better at wrestling. That is going to get you better at football and baseball. We have been going to a team camp every year. We usually get ten kids that go. If we could get twenty kids to go, maybe that would be that little bit of extra. Most of what they do in the off-season is going to help them in wrestling and whatever sport they are doing.”

Most of what they do in the wrestling room and in preparation for the wrestling room translates into the program’s real focus.

“When a kid leaves our wrestling room, we want him to be a better man than when he came in,” Robbins concluded. “I think a lot of kids need wrestling more than wrestling needs them. If we can take some of those kids, some of those kids that love the sport and mesh them together; by the time they are seniors and walk out, they are going to be productive adults.”

The Maple River kids will be ready as soon as their toes hit the line of adulthood.