In the Eye of the COVID Storm

When the COVID19 pandemic hit the United States in full force – nearly everything was affected. When ‘everything’ included high school sports, State High School League media specialist John Millea became the public’s on-line window into the High School League’s every significant decision. The outbreak had the MSHL and Millea caught in the middle of a COVID storm.

March 11th was a day no one in athletics will forget.

“I will remember that forever,” Millea said. “The girls’ basketball tournament was going on, and on day one of the tournament, we started hearing rumblings that an NBA player had tested positive. I don’t remember thinking much of it – it is a Utah Jazz player- how is that going to affect us? That night, I got home, and I started seeing the NBA got shut down, and we started to see all these leagues get shut down. On day two of the girls’ tournament, I didn’t watch any basketball. I was in our tournament headquarters room at Williams Arena. We were on conference calls with the office, we were watching the news, and by the end of day two, the decision was made that we were going to keep the season going, but each team will get 100 fans because we didn’t know what COVID was. By Friday morning, the plug had been pulled. The girls’ tournament had been canceled. The boys’ basketball section tournament games that had not been played were not going to be played. That was like an earthquake. We had never seen anything like this. Not long after that, the spring season was canceled.”

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High School Coaches Wrestling With COVID-19

By Brian Jerzak

The 2019-20 high school wrestling season just got in under the wire before the sports world came to a screeching halt. Since that week in March – while we are nowhere near back to normal – the sports world has slowly come back. Some have been able to compete, while others wait – impatiently – for their time to get back to competition. Based on timing, the high school wrestling world has not lost any competitions, but as we have all seen, we do not know what is going to happen two days from now – much less two months from now. How have high school coaches approached an offseason like no other, and what – if any – plans have they made going forward?

I talked with the head coaches from four of Minnesota’s top high school wrestling teams to find out their thoughts on wrestling with COVID-19.

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The Sound of Silence

By Brian Jerzak

Sometimes silence is a terrible sound. During the 2020 Class AA state wrestling semifinals, the more than 12,000 parents, fans, athletes, coaches, referees, and staff members sat in complete silence. Mats were not reloaded as matches finished. The only sound was a referee's whistle as the surrounding matches were completed. Even before the mats cleared, all eyes focused – not on a match - but on a corner mat where there had been no wrestling for several minutes.

When the other matches completed, the only sound I could personally hear was the sound of a couple of grown men quietly sobbing behind me. We all sat in stunned silence - staring at the group of emergency responders working behind some makeshift walls held up by workers.

I have no idea how long the Xcel Energy Center remained silent. The cheer that went up when Becker's Brayden Weber gave the crowd a thumbs-up as he was being rolled away by the paramedics was more powerful and heartfelt than any during the entire weekend.

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A Program and Community on the Rise – Stillwater Wrestling

High school wrestling is a sport of numbers. Get that last takedown, extend the margin of victory, work hard for the pin, fight off your back; it all helps your team win. All those numbers lead to team victories. Numbers drive youth, middle school, and varsity success as well. The more wrestlers that try the sport, the better chance of finding the right kids to help the team. Stillwater head coach Tim Hartung has numbers in all the right places. Possibly the most important number is his number of community members that have gotten involved in Stillwater’s rising program.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Hartung’s start in the sport was an escape, an escape from doing his daily chores.

“We grew up on a dairy farm, and my uncle asked us if we wanted to come with our cousins to a local tournament,” Hartung said. “My brother and I looked at each other – anything to get us out of chores, and we are in.”

It didn’t take long before Hartung was hooked.

“We were strong farm kids, so we did well right away, and my love of wrestling grew from there. I liked the physicality and the sense of individual accomplishment. Being out there all by yourself and beating another competitor – it was a feeling that was so different and rewarding from other sports.”

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Ponce Trained – In Wrestling and In Life

Before high school, Orlando Ponce wasn’t going down the best path. When introduced to wrestling, his path started going in a positive direction. After high school, when he thought wrestling was out of his life, Ponce began to go down some troubling roads again. Wrestling would get re-introduced into his life, and he has never looked back.

“My high school coach and the people who influenced me through wrestling,” Ponce said, “if not for them, I would be in a much different situation.”

Now, Ponce has devoted his life to influencing kids through his faith and through wrestling.

Ponce didn’t grow up in a wrestling hotbed.

“I was born in Nicaragua and was raised in South Florida. It was not a big wrestling community. I got a later start in wrestling. My brother started wrestling but dropped out of high school. He encouraged one of my other brothers to wrestle. This brother was a state champion and went on to wrestle for Lock Haven in Pennsylvania. I was a ninth-grader when he was a senior. My brother encouraged me to wrestle.”

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An Evolving Culture of Wrestling – Kasson-Mantorville

Regardless of the sport, coaches understand the importance of developing a culture for their particular activity. The wrestling program in Kasson-Mantorville is no different. Although the wrestling culture was growing when future head coach Jamie Heidt joined the staff, he helped accelerate that culture. Now, the KoMets are one of the best programs in Minnesota.

Heidt grew up in a state rich in wrestling culture - Iowa.

The sport of wrestling was first introduced to Heidt by one of his middle school teachers, who happened to be the high school coach at the time.

“He was a great promoter of wrestling. He would see us in the hallway and encouraged us to come out for wrestling. From youth wrestling to high school, I had great coaches that made wrestling fun, and it was a great sport to be part of,” Heidt said.

Success on the mat didn’t come early for Heidt, but he was in a good atmosphere to develop his love for the sport. He grew up in a small town – Humboldt, Iowa. The town was rich in wrestling history and was the hometown of Frank Gotch – a true pioneer in the sport of wrestling. Heidt continued to develop as a wrestler in a community and state that has a deep passion for this sport.

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A Team From Top to Bottom – Minneota Wrestling

Minneota head wrestling coach Matt Myrvik has been involved in Minneota athletics his entire life. He grew up wrestling under long-time Minneota wrestling coach Joel Skillings. Before he graduated from high school, he started the transition into coaching. This year, he took on the task of replacing a Minnesota coaching legend – Skillings. How does Myrvik plan on keeping the Minneota Vikings’ wrestling legacy going? He will continue to make the program focus on team – from the highest levels of the program to the last wrestler in the youth program.

“I started wrestling around third grade,” Myrvik said. “I don’t know how I got into it, probably there just wasn’t much to do at the time. I don’t think basketball started until 4th grade, so I tried wrestling. My family didn’t have much to do with wrestling, I just kind of found it.”

“I wasn’t the greatest wrestler,” Myrvik admitted. “I liked the hard work and that it was up to you how good you were going to be. The coaches I grew up with – Coach Skillings and some of the youth coaches at the time – did an outstanding job helping the program grow. I was fortunate to make the state tournament as a senior. I always had a winning record, but our section was tough. A lot of it was team-related for us, and that was the reason I was involved with it.”

Myrvik was involved in coaching even before he made the state tournament.

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Committed to Football, With a Little Help from Wrestling

More and more, elite athletes specialize in one sport. Even those that don’t just participate in one sport, they have a sport that is obviously primary and secondary. For Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale/Parkers Prairie senior Craig Orlando – the sport he considers his secondary sport – wrestling - is possibly his best. Although football is his passion, wrestling helped build him into a Division I football player and helped him get noticed by his future school.

Orlando just finished a perfect 50-0 senior season – complete with his third straight 285A state title. The route to three state titles started early.

“My older brother used to wrestle,” Orlando said. “I don’t remember it, but my parents said I really wanted to do it, so I got started in pre-school and have been doing it ever since.”

It didn’t take long for Orlando to find success on the mat.

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