The Main Event – Bemidji and Mora Make History

By Brian Jerzak

As far as we can figure out, on December 2nd, Minnesota high school wrestling history was made at Bemidji High School. The Lumberjacks’ wrestling team hosted a triangular with Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton and Grand Rapids. The Lumberjacks’ grapplers rolled to two comfortable victories – winning by over forty points in both duals. However, that was far from the main event.

“There was a lot of excitement in the gym,” Bemidji head wrestling coach Rance Bahr said. “During our dual with DGF – one of my wrestlers – Seth Newby (ranked 5th at 170 pounds in AAA by The Guillotine), leaned over and said, ‘Coach, we are the JV dual tonight.'”

Newby felt like the 7th ranked team in AAA was on the undercard for a good reason. Bemidji’s newest high school team was making its debut.

“Everyone’s eyes were on the girls’ match,” Bahr said about the Bemidji versus Mora girls’ dual meet. “That side of the gym was packed. Everyone was screaming. We were even looking over there to see what was happening.”

“The boys’ varsity was going on one mat, and then the girls were on the JV mat,” Bemidji girls’ head wrestling coach Kristin Weidemann said. “The crowd was insane. Once the girls started wrestling, it was so loud in the gym. Once they were done, the crowd kind of cleared out.”

“The road trip was fun, and the dual was amazing,” Mora boys’ wrestling coach Tom Youngblom said. “Hats off to Bemidji, their gym was full, and their fans gave the girls all of their attention. Bemidji’s boys JV wrestlers were behind the bench cheering their girls on.”

“There were so many emotions that I can’t put it into words,” said Bemidji 135 pounder Jadyn Kelly. “I was so jacked and excited. It was unexplainable. The atmosphere around that night was insane. You couldn’t even hear the coaches because the crowd was so loud. It was crazy. There was so much energy in the crowd. After I won, I was going to go with a flex, but I forgot to flex. I was tired, but everyone was so excited – it was fun.”

Kelly and the Lumberjacks ripped off five straight wins – all by fall – to win the historical match 30-16.

One of those pins came from the Lumberjacks’ 140 pounder – Kylie Donat.

“There were nerves, but most of it was excitement. I was ready for it and was pumped,” Donat said. “The crowd was wild – it was great.”

Since the High School League sanctioned a girls’ state tournament in May, Bahr knew there was a chance a team would be possible but didn’t know if there would be enough interest.

“I was hoping we would get four or five wrestlers,” Bahr admitted. “We had a sixth-grade girl at the middle school level. She was someone I reached out to. I let social media do its thing. We put signs up in the high school and in the announcements at school. I have two daughters – a senior and a sophomore; they talked to a lot of their friends. We did one summer camp that included three girls, and it blossomed from there. One night, I hopped on the varsity volleyball bus and handed out some Bemidji wrestling tee-shirts. The next thing I knew, one or two girls were thinking about it, two or three said they were going to do it. Pretty soon, we were up to thirteen wrestlers. As the girls started talking about it, there seemed to be more interest – especially if the girls were wrestling other girls.”

“I heard rumors about girls’ wrestling last track season,” Kelly said. “I had zero knowledge – outside of knowing you were supposed to try to pin them – I just thought it looked cool, and I wanted to try it, but I wasn’t sure. When I heard my buddy Kylie was doing it – I had to do it.”

“My brother wrestled, so I got exposure that way,” Donat said. “I have always wanted to wrestle, but I didn’t feel comfortable wrestling with guys. When this opportunity came, I thought it was a great challenge. Wrestling is hard, so I was going to take the opportunity.”

With a possible roster coming together, they had to find a coach. The future wrestlers knew who they wanted.

“I was a manager in college and had been around sports,” head coach Kristin Weidemann said. “I moved to Bemidji and accepted a Phy Ed position in the middle school. I coached some of the girls in volleyball. Once the MSHSL approved wrestling, a bunch of the girls came up to me and told me, ‘you’ve got to coach us.’ I told them I had never competed in wrestling. I have no experience coaching wrestling. Are you sure you want me to do it? They said absolutely.”

“Coach Weidemann coaches several other teams in our district,” Bahr said. “She is an assistant volleyball coach for my daughters’ volleyball team. Several volleyball players were going to wrestle, and my daughter suggested (Coach Weidemann) be the coach. We talked back-and-forth, and she applied and got the job. She does a great job and is an amazing coach.”

Weidemann wasn’t the only person in the program without wrestling experience.

“Out of our thirteen girls, we only have one girl who had some wrestling experience before this season,” Weidemann explained. “Macie Webb has been wrestling since elementary school, and in middle school, she broke her wrist. From that point, she thought she was done with wrestling, but when the opportunity came about, she wanted to do it. Our other twelve girls have no experience outside of watching.”

Like the Lumberjacks, most of the Mustangs’ roster was light on experience.

morabemidj team
Bemidji and Mora girls wrestlers having a great time.

“We started getting girls out last year,” Youngblom said. “We currently have eleven girls (7-11th grade) coming to practice. We have four girls that have been working on getting better since last year. Lindsey Nosbush, Lindsay Sigstad, Nora Houglum, and Violet Peterson have been training with Gabby Skidmore from Augsburg and have gone to Emily Shilson’s free clinic. They even went to Malecek Team Camp with our boys.”

Although most of the wrestlers didn’t have the experience, they were quick learners. The wrestlers with the experience – the boys – were supportive from the start.

“We have some really good captains on the boys’ team – Thad Osburne and Seth Newby,” Weidemann said. “They took it upon themselves to show the girls step by step what is going on.”

“In the beginning of the year, we split our room, putting the more experienced wrestlers on one side and the freshmen boys and the girls’ wrestlers on the other side of the room,” Bahr explained. “Our assistant coach Byron Willard ran things on that side of the room for the first few weeks, slowing things down and working on basic positioning and moves – much like in an elementary program. They started at step one and kept moving forward from there.”

“I had no idea what was going on,” Weidemann admitted. “I thought I was going to be a sounding board for the girls. But I got the opportunity to work with the girls and do some demonstrating. The biggest challenge for me was learning the technique and doing it correctly. That way, I could show them, and we wouldn’t get called for clasping or full Nelsons or anything like that.”

As Weidemann learned, so did the wrestlers.

“We started with things like, ‘how do you start a wrestling match. How do you score, how many periods, how long are we going?’ Then we broke down techniques,” Weidemann continued. “What does a single leg look like? What does a stand up from the bottom position look like? It was starting from the beginning and teaching those basics.”

“We practice with the boys,” Weidemann explained. “The majority of the girls are comfortable wrestling with the boys – it is a better experience for them overall.”

Most of the girls picked up on the basics quickly.

“The first few practices were captains’ practices, so we did a lot of cardio,” Donat said. “Since I had a little bit of a wrestling background, I picked it up pretty quickly. Getting on the mat and doing it took some time, but I took to I pretty quickly.”

“The first couple of days, it was hard work, but good,” Kelly explained. “I have longer legs, so I had to work on getting low. The easiest thing for me was learning to snap the head down and get on the head.”

The girls have been putting in the time, and so have the coaches.

“The coaches have been putting in a lot of extra time,” Bahr said. “Coach Weidemann shows up before school three times a week to work with the girls who compete on other sports teams (in addition to wrestling) in the winter.”

The coaches have also been putting in extra time finding opponents.

“We reached out to see who had a significant number of girls who could wrestle,” Bahr said. “It has been difficult, but Mora head coach Tom Youngblom reached out. We couldn’t get our first two dates to work, but finally, it worked out that December 2nd would work.”

“I am finding it hard to find all-girl duals or tournaments,” Youngblom said. “I have an outstanding coaching staff with Ryan Sjodin and Brent Schroeder. They have allowed me to pick up the girl’s cause more than other programs. So, when Coach Bahr offered an all-girls dual, I had to jump on it.”

Once the dual was finalized, the buzz in the Bemidji wrestling room ramped up.

“The girls were excited. The excitement of doing something the boys have been doing forever, and now we can be on an equal playing ground,” Weidemann said. “The excitement around making history got the girls going.”

With the match set, two days before the match, Weidemann knew the kids were ready.

“We have a senior on the team – Allie Lillquist,” Weidemann told The Guillotine. “Excitement was building, and Allie showed up and said she wanted to wrestle off for a JV position. No one in the room knew if she was actually going to do it. She did, and Allie went three periods and lost by one point. After two weeks, she almost won. It was the realization that we could do this. That was a real momentum turner.”

Momentum would not have mattered for the newest Bemidji High School program if the wrestlers hadn’t put in all the work.

“The girls were excited and nervous, but they were ready,” Weidemann said. “They knew they were well equipped for that match.”

They were well prepared with something the girls learned right before the match.

“They all got pins with half Nelsons,” Weidemann said about the five falls the Lumberjacks got to put the match away. “It is something they had learned the day before.”

That they won put a cherry on the top of the night, but even if the Lumberjacks had lost, the night would have been an overwhelming success.

“It was insane,” Weidemann said. “The amount of pride and excitement I had – I couldn’t stop thinking about the match – even over the weekend. This really happened – we can do this.”

Before the state tournament – aside from wrestling boys – they will only be able to do this again if they can find more schools to wrestle.

“We are calling schools all the time to see if anyone has any girls we can wrestle with,” Weidemann said. “We are also calling schools to see if any schools have boys that wouldn’t mind wrestling girls. We are taking it step-by-step, day-by-day.”

“It has been a struggle,” Bahr admitted. “Mora is the only team that has reached out. They are the only team we have come across with enough girls to make a dual atmosphere. We will be going to Mora in January and dual the Mora girls again so their fans can have that experience too.”

Like Bemidji, Mora is also finding it difficult to find matches.

“It was one of the top moments of my coaching career,” Bahr said of the December 2nd dual. “The girls put in so much time and effort. The match highlighted Bemidji wrestling as a whole. In our community, Bemidji wrestling was the buzzword around the town for those two weeks – everyone talking about girls’ wrestling and the excitement that it brought into our school and our gymnasium.”

Despite not having a guarantee that that excitement will be back before state competitions begin, the Lumberjacks’ wrestlers will keep grinding away – waiting for another opportunity.

“If I don’t get a match, I don’t get a match,” Kelly said. “I just keep going to practice, getting ready. I know I will get a match eventually.”

Hopefully, this is only the start, and the word ‘eventually’ can be removed from girls’ wrestling vocabulary. Hopefully, there are countless other times when the sport is the main event. Until then, the girls from Mora and Bemidji will know they did something that has never been done before.

“They are only going to be the first ones one time,” Bahr said. “This was their moment to shine, to step out of their comfort zone and be a part of Minnesota wrestling history.”