Eli Paulson – Finding The Fun

By Brian Jerzak

If you are Anoka's Eli Paulson, you were almost pre-determined to be a wrestler. His dad – Brandon Paulson - is an Olympic Greco Silver medalist, and his grandfather – Doug Paulson – is a long-time wrestling coach. Eli was never pressured by anyone, despite his family connections, into athletics. When he needed time off, he got it. When deciding what to do in college, he was encouraged to look outside the family business and go his own way. Now, he is a state wrestling champion and a future Division I football player.

"I was first in wrestling rooms when I was two years old when my dad would go into Anoka or something to run a practice or Augsburg to run a team camp," Paulson said. "When I was three or four years old, I was in what Pinnacle calls the 'tough guy group.' It was a bit of a rough start because we were all about five, just trying to learn wrestling and not knowing what we were doing. I was just trying to get to dodgeball at the end of practice."

Before ever competing, Eli would go with his dad once or twice a week to work out at PINnacle Wrestling School, which his father co-owns.

"It wasn't all wrestling," Paulson explained. "We did a lot of agility and gymnastics – cartwheels and round-offs. When you are four years old, you don't have a lot of life experience and don't know what toughness means. I did a lot of crying and had to learn how to deal with it."

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The Fun of Creating a Wrestling School

Joe Puncochar and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

When Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted head wrestling coach Joe Puncochar looked into the Xcel Energy Center stands early during the program's first state tournament appearance, he couldn't help but reflect on how far the Lakers' wrestling program had come.

"The biggest thing that hit me and helped push us was that we had so many people there," Puncochar said. "When I took over, there were meets where we didn't have fans. I remember a tri in Holdingford my first year. We only had twelve kids on the team, and one or two were varsity-level kids. When we were about to start wrestling, I looked up into the bleachers, and we didn't have anyone there. Then looking up into the stands in the Xcel Energy Center and seeing a couple of sections with your team colors cheering you on meant a lot to me."

Seven years after that night in Holdingford, Puncochar no longer sees empty bleachers. The road to the state tournament had its share of ups and downs, but Puncochar ensured the road was paved with one thing in particular – fun.

The future Lakers' head coach is a third-generation wrestler.

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Rockin’ the Xcel Energy Center

By Brian Jerzak

One day after the Minnesota State High School Wrestling Tournament concluded, the Xcel Energy Center transitioned into a concert venue to host Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. The 'X' has hosted countless rock groups over the years. But with all due respect to The Boss, the best rock performance of the weekend wasn't a group from New Jersey – it was from a group from Luverne.

Two of the hardest-working non-wrestlers in attendance during the individual tournament were Davey and Shayla Rock. Following one kid at the state tournament is stressful enough. The Rocks were tracking not one, not two, not three, but four of their kids during the two-day tournament. None of those kids would help out their parents by going one and done either – all four kids placed. Each kid wrestled about as many matches as possible at the individual tournament. As hectic as it was for the four kids and two parents, they would not have had it any other way.

"It was a lot of fun," Davey said. "The boys are 160 and 170, so their wrestling overlapped or at least back-to-back for most matches. When we got to the placing round, the girls were wrestling at the same time as the boys. We were literally watching three matches at the same time. It was really exciting. Just one match is exciting, but three matches – it was a big infusion of adrenaline."

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A Special Moment, A Special Place – Hastings Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

If you follow wrestling in Minnesota, unless your WiFi has been out the last few weeks, you know about the drama that unfolded on day one of the 2023 state wrestling tournament. In the Class AAA team finals, the Hastings Raiders were down 32-9 against the number one ranked St. Michael-Albertville Knights with five matches to go. The Raiders had already lost to the Knights twice in the regular season – by 25 points and then by 29 points. What happened over the next thirty minutes shocked the world – at least the Minnesota wrestling world.

"Ian Pepple led our pre-match prayer before that match," Hastings head coach Tim Haneberg said. "He said, 'we are about to shock the world.' Thinking about it still gives me chills."

Pepple would start the improbable comeback by winning 3-1 – over a guy who majored him twice in the regular season. Two matches later, Derrick Steinke – who was pinned by his man at The Clash – turned the tables on another match by getting a second-period fall.

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Readers’ Choice: Wrestling Rivalries

One of my favorite things about athletics is the rivalries. The Vikings against the Packers, enormous in my baseball-crazed house, the Twins vs. the White Sox, the Gophers against Iowa – in any sport but for my money, football and wrestling, and some personal favorites from my youth that still gets my blood boiling: Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota in hockey (go Bulldogs), Milaca against Foley in anything, but especially wrestling, and Milaca against Princeton regardless of the sport.

As noted a few times, wrestling is saturated with great rivalries. A few months ago, I thought it would be fun to ask you – the reader – who you thought were the best high school wrestling rivalries in Minnesota. I decided to post a question on my Twitter page. What is the best high school wrestling rivalry in Minnesota? The rivalry that got the most votes would be the subject of my next story for The Guillotine. I got a great response from across the state. Here are the results:

1 Simley vs. Kasson-Mantorville
2 Albert Lea vs. Owatonna (tie)
2 Minneota vs. Canby (tie)

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Community Raised – Dan Wagner and New Prague Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

I haven't talked to many coaches of successful high school programs – wrestling or otherwise – that haven't had great support from their community. Wrestling programs around the state are littered with alumni – both paid and volunteer – rolling with the kids on the mat or raising money to help pay for those mats - doing what they can to help the program they grew up loving.

The New Prague wrestling program has a very similar story – with one key difference. Not only was the Trojans' wrestling program raised by a passionate wrestling community, but so was their head coach.

Dan Wagner was born and raised in New Prague. He got involved in wrestling early.

"Dr. John Berg had started a youth wrestling program before my time," Wagner said. "My dad asked me if I wanted to try wrestling, and that is where it started. I didn't have much wrestling background in my family, but New Prague was a small town, and the doctor in town was running some youth practices."

Success on the mat didn't come immediately for the future coach.

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Following In The Footsteps – Koy Buesgens

By Brian Jerzak

New Prague senior Koy Buesgens has a chance to enter some rare air when it comes to high school wrestling in Minnesota. He has an opportunity to become a three-time state champion. Like most successful wrestlers, Buesgens' parents have played a huge role in his success. For Koy – his dad – unintentionally gave his son even more motivation to become one of Minnesota's best.

"Winning a state championship was always one of my goals," Buesgens said. "One, because winning a state championship is awesome, but two, my dad took second at State, and I always have wanted to one-up him."

The former state finalist introduced his son to the sport early.

"I was born in Tennessee, and when I was four years old, my dad introduced me to wrestling," Buesgens said. "He was a wrestler at Belle Plaine high school. So, I just wrestled in the little community program. Then we moved to Minnesota, and it continued from there."

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Thinking Globally – Skylar Little Soldier

By Brian Jerzak

Well before Hastings' junior Skylar Little Soldier knew there would be a state championship to be had at the Xcel Energy Center, Little Soldier had her sights set high. She wasn't thinking of dominating at the state level; she was thinking globally.

"Ever since I was a kid, I would tell my parents I was going to win an Olympic gold medal. That has always been the goal."

The seed was planted for her Olympic goal because of her little brother.

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