Built On Family – Totino-Grace Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

In the real world, people tend to gravitate toward others with similar interests. Socializing with people with similar interests is more comfortable and often more convenient. Also, in the real world, kids often acquire some of the interests of their parents. It is a natural thing – if a child sees their parent enjoying something, that child is usually going to at least take an initial interest. Like their parents before them – kids often find an appreciation for art, music, the outdoors, or a million other things because their parents expose them to it. Sports – specifically a passion for an individual sport – also often starts because of what kids see from their parents.

Most successful high school athletic programs have an element of family. Wrestling is no different. Programs across the state are littered with kids whose fathers and grandfathers wrestled. This is not a new phenomenon. However, one of the most successful seasons in the history of the Totino-Grace Eagles’ wrestling program was built on an extreme version of wrestling family ties.

The 2023-24 Eagles – who took home the Class AA third-place trophy (shared with the Becker Bulldogs) – were built on family.

“We had a close-knit team,” Totino-Grace head wrestling coach Doug Svihel said. It was a team we had been building for a few years. The team included five sets of brothers. Four sets of brothers were consistently on varsity.”

Having that many brothers ramped up the intensity in the Eagles’ wrestling room.

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Sticking With The Program

Trevor Mahlum and Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg

By Brian Jerzak

It doesn’t matter the activity – wrestling, basketball, choir, one-act play – the more people invested in a program, the better chance of sustained success. People love to get involved when times are good. What allows programs to sustain is continued support when times are tough.

“With smaller programs, you go up and down, and it is easy to get frustrated and walk away,” Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg head wrestling coach Trevor Mahlum said. “The past wrestlers and coaches at KMS have not given up on the program. These guys have stuck with it. They embedded that in me.”

One of those guys who has stuck with the program and come back is Mahlum.

A 2011 grad of KMS, Mahlum was coming up through the wrestling program right behind some all-time great Fighting Saints wrestlers.

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Wrestling Against Adversity, One Surgery at a Time

By Brian Jerzak

I have been writing – in some form – for The Guillotine since 1999. Eventually, that helped pave the way for other opportunities – including writing about Minnesota high school football – which I have done for another website since roughly 2002. Since then, I have written about hundreds of kids and wrestling or football programs. In all those years, I have never talked to an athlete like Rock Ridge’s Grant Benz.

Benz just wrapped up his junior season. He has never been to the state tournament or even a section final. Benz had a respectable season with a 26-19 record, but the fact that he is on the mat at all makes him – in my twenty-five years writing about high school and college sports – the most remarkable athlete I have ever had the chance to talk with. Despite what I have learned when talking to Grant and people close to him, to his family and friends, he is just Grant.

“The last time I counted, I was at 43 surgeries,” Benz said, “but it might be closer to 50 now.”

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Northfield’s Graber makes history – in 89 seconds

By Brian Jerzak

89 seconds.

That is how long Northfield’s Caley Graber took to make Minnesota high school wrestling history. Wrestling in the first round of the boys’ Class AAA 107 bracket, she quickly got a takedown and locked up a turn to get a fall late in the first period. When the referee slapped the mat, Graber became the first girl to win a boys’ state tournament match. Although it only took 89 seconds of mat time, it is a goal Graber has been shooting for much longer.

“It has been a goal of hers (winning in the boys’ state tournament) for a long time,” Northfield head coach Geoff Staab said. “This year, that was her goal from day one. She has competed with the boys her whole life. She has been our 107-pounder all year. She placed second at the Rumble (on the Red) this year. She has shown she can wrestle with the boys and beat them.”

When match day arrived, Graber and the coaching staff had a plan.

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Apple Valley returns to State in a tension-filled 2AAA team tournament

By Brian Jerzak

One of my favorite weekends on the Minnesota high school sports calendar is wrestling’s team section tournament weekend. The state tournament is great, but there is something magical about watching a team make it to state. While looking for a section tournament this weekend, I found a section where I thought I could get three great dual meets. I looked at Section 2AAA with three teams in The Guillotine top twelve.

After an evening of wrestling, my hunch was correct – I saw three great duals. A total of eleven points decided the two semifinals and the finals.

Prior Lake, Farmington, New Prague, and Apple Valley cruised into the semifinals.

Although they were unranked, Prior Lake would push the number one-seeded Apple Valley Eagles to the brink. The Lakers’ number one ranked 107 pounder – Liam Collins quickly put the underdog Lakers in front 6-0. Three matches later, Apple Valley’s Louis Prouty’s second-period fall tied the match at nine.

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The North Shore Pin Machine

By Brian Jerzak

On December 1st, in Cloquet, Proctor/Hermantown’s Zak McPhee stepped on the mat with a chance to make history. The 2023 189AA state runner-up moved to 285 for the dual against Superior High School. McPhee was heavily favored and wasted no time with a fall in 56 seconds. Although the six team points were not enough to give Proctor/Hermantown the victory, it moved McPhee within striking distance of 200 career wins. The fall completed a wrestling pin cycle that I am sure has happened before but is extremely rare. During McPhee’s varsity career, the senior has recorded at least one fall at every weight class.

“It is not a state championship or anything like that,” McPhee said, “but I thought ‘why not’? If I am this close, why would I stop now? Let’s see if I can do it.”

“Towards the end of my tenth-grade year, we became aware of it,” McPhee continued. At that point, I had wrestled from 106 to 160. To begin my junior year, I was wrestling at 220 and 195. I realized I only needed 170 and 285. There was one meet during the year where I cut to 170 (to fill in for an injury) to get a pin.”

“We were in summer practice, and a kid from Superior (WI) was over,” Proctor-Hermantown head coach and Zak’s dad – Eric – said. “He mentioned he thought some kid from Wisconsin was trying to accomplish this. I thought – I wonder. Later that summer, I started looking back at old records, and sure enough, he had one match at 120 in his seventh-grade year. That was the one weight he didn’t have multiple pins at. All of that happened organically.”

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Teamwork Triumphs: The Story Behind St. Francis Wrestling’s Turnaround

By Brian Jerzak

When St. Francis head wrestling coach Kurt Werk took over as the head coach of the Saints wrestling program, he knew getting the program on track toward a team state title berth would not be a one-man show. He knew it would take time, and more importantly, he knew he would need help from the community. When Werk took over, the program was in a good place, but after some initial success, the results would fall off.

In the last two seasons, the program has returned to where Werk thinks it should be. Although they have yet to make that team state tournament appearance, the program is on the upswing. The reason starts with the kids, but behind those kids is a dedicated group of alumni and community members making sure the St. Francis wrestling program is community-built.

Werk wanted to start building his wrestling career before he was even able to get into a youth program.

“I started wrestling in first grade,” Werk said. “I was itching to get into it because my brother wrestled, but my parents wouldn’t let me start until first grade. I have been a part of wrestling ever since.”

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