The woman and the sprint that changed Minnesota wrestling history

By Brian Jerzak

If anyone writes a book covering the history of high school wrestling in Minnesota, the driver of the Murray County Central High School wrestling van needs to be a footnote in that history. If that driver had not followed the rules of the road one November afternoon and decided to run the stop sign just outside the high school, he would have inadvertently changed the history of Minnesota high school wrestling.

"When I got to sixth grade, I had to choose between basketball and wrestling," former Fulda/Murray County Central wrestler Elissa Reinsma, now Elissa Wieneke, said. "I had a lot of friends on the basketball team that I played volleyball with. I played with them all the way through youth. "I was kind of doing basketball because I love volleyball. We had a group of girls around me – we were good at volleyball. I thought we would be successful at basketball too. They were trying to talk me into basketball. I didn't really like basketball, but they talked me into going out for basketball."

Elissa had been wrestling in the area youth program for years, but she was still going back and forth with her winter sport decision.

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Toughing it out as long as he can – Medford’s Charley Elwood

By Brian Jerzak

Medford junior Charley Elwood worked his way through the 138A bracket at the Minnesota High School wrestling tournament in March on his way to another state title. He capped the weekend off with a 15-0 tech fall in the finals. The now three-time state champion was considering not even competing in the section tournament just three weeks earlier.

"Two weeks before this year's section tournament, I considered stopping because I was in so much pain," Elwood said. "I could hardly get through practices. It was a hard decision. I love wrestling, and I wanted to win another state title, but I have to live the rest of my life. I sat down with my parents, and I decided I am going to tough it out as long as I can."

Toughing it out started as a freshman.

"I was wrestling my partner in practice. He got in on my legs and took me down. I ended up landing on my tail bone. I remember I knew something had happened. I couldn't move, but I got up and finished practice. I don't know how I finished practice. The section tournament and the state tournament were coming up. I won the section tournament pretty handily. In the state tournament, I remember I couldn't even hold my stance. I didn't have any strength. At this point, I didn't know what was wrong. I was determined to finish the season out, and then I will figure out what is wrong."

The state tournament would become a preview of what Elwood would have to go through the rest of his wrestling career.

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First-Time Wrestler, First-Time Champion

Apple Valley’s Grace Alagbo

By Brian Jerzak

Many first-time champions were crowned at this year's Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament. Years of wrestling practice was undoubtedly the route nearly all the wrestlers who stood on the top of the podium – or even lost in the first round – took to the Xcel Energy Center. One notable exception was girls 145-pound champion Grace Alagbo. After her first season ever, the Apple Valley sophomore ended with a gold medal hanging around her neck.

"I had never watched a wrestling match before," Alagbo admitted. "I didn't know anything about it. I didn't learn the scoring until later in the season. Once we got to some bigger tournaments, coaches would yell 'TWO,' so that is what I went with."

While she was not familiar with wrestling, she was not unfamiliar with competing in a predominantly male sport.

"I have two brothers and no sisters. I am naturally an aggressive person," said Alagbo. "I like physical contact sports. I started playing football when I was little, and I started really playing football in middle school. I wasn't going to play my freshman year, but it would be a high school experience that I wanted. I decided to join the team."

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Deciding To Be Great – Cole Konrad

By Brian Jerzak

When former Wisconsin state champion, Gophers' national champion, and MMA champion Cole Konrad started wrestling as a child, he was immediately taken by the sport. Coming up through his feeder program and during his junior high and varsity career, he was a solid, reliable wrestler. After falling short of a state title his junior year of high school, a switch flipped in Konrad's mind.

"I decided I was sick of losing, so I wasn't going to do it anymore."

Konrad decided good wasn't good enough. He decided to be great. He took more losses during his career, but they were few and far between from then on.

"I started in a youth club in my hometown," Konrad said. "It was just what we did as kids. My dad and uncle wrestled in high school; they loved the sport, which led me to get involved. That got me wanting to be around it."

Konrad found enjoyment in the sport right away.

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Doing It On Their Own

Dennis Whitman and Medford Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

In wrestling, whether you are three deep at every weight or starting duals behind 18-0 every night because you can't fill every weight class, Jimmys and Joes will always be more important than Xs and O's. The head coach can be the best tactician in the country, but if he doesn't have the bodies in the wrestling room, he will not have much success.

Many small schools have dealt with this problem by combining with other programs in their area also struggling with numbers. The thought is – one solid program is better than two programs that might be in danger of being cut every year.

Medford head wrestling coach Dennis Whitman does not subscribe to that theory, not for the Medford wrestling program.

"I think I can speak on behalf of my athletic director and my assistant coaches – that is not a road we will go down," Whitman said. "As long as I am the head coach here – if I have five bodies that I can go out and wrestle with every weekend - we are going to be on our own."

Before taking over the Medford wrestling program, Whitman started his wrestling career in North Dakota.

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Finding Balance – Max McEnelly

By Brian Jerzak

The sports world is littered with stories of athletes who focus so much on their sport that everything else takes a back seat. The media loves to champion how focused elite athletes like Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback Tom Brady is. Waconia two-time state champion Max McEnelly is one of those rare athletes who is an elite athlete who strives not to be laser-focused on one thing but who strives for balance in his life.

"I have to have a balanced life. Wrestling can't be the only thing I think about," McEnelly said. "I try to have fun outside of wrestling, so it is not the thing I am thinking of all the time. When it is time to do my work, I do my work, but when it is time to hang out, relax and be a teenager, I can do that too. I think you should have a balanced life with wrestling."

Make no mistake, McEnelly strives for balance in his life but is also focused on results.

"The goal is to be a four-time state champion," McEnelly said. "No one has ever done it at my school. It would mean a lot for my hometown and my family. I go out there with the mentality that I am going to win every match, but I have to stay humble."

McEnelly's wrestling career started humbly.

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Building a Family Atmosphere

Travis Holt and Becker Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

Wrestling is such an individual sport. There are tons of wrestling tournaments – even if a team score is kept – the winner is based on how well each athlete does outside of a team setting. Team national championships at all levels of college competition are based solely on the individual. Each year at the Minnesota state wrestling tournament, the individual finals – not the team finals – draw the most people into the arena. New Becker Bulldogs' wrestling coach Travis Holt – working within that team concept - is trying to bring a team and family atmosphere to the program.

The importance of building the family or team atmosphere in the wrestling room was engrained in Holt's mind early in his wrestling career. Cambridge-Isanti wrestling coach Neil Jennissen and St. Cloud State wrestling coach Steve Costanzo ensured that.

"They instilled a team sport mentality," Holt said. "You can get so caught up in the individual aspect of wrestling – you can forget to build those teamwork skills and building a family-like atmosphere. Being part of a family was huge when wrestling at Cambridge and St. Cloud State. All the guys I was competing with were like my brothers. That is the same philosophy I try to instill in my wrestlers – we compete for one another – not just for ourselves. It makes wins feel more special because you can celebrate them with everyone else, but also, you know your teammates have your back in every situation."

Although supportive, Holt's family had very little to do with his start in the sport.

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A New Direction – Apple Valley Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

When Dalen Wasmund decided to step away from the head coaching position at Apple Valley High School, he was not only leaving a program that was coming off a state title. He was leaving a program that set the standard for high school wrestling – not just in Minnesota but also in the nation. Following Wasmund and former Eagles' coach, Jim Jackson would take someone willing to step into a program with an impossibly high standard, and it would take someone willing to take the program in a new direction.

"Expectations were definitely high, but I felt like if you were afraid to go after things because you only worried about the potential negative outcomes, you are going to miss out on a lot of great opportunities and experiences, you can't live your life with that type of mindset," Apple Valley head coach Josh Barlage said. "You wouldn't enjoy the process if you were just worried about those things. Those things ran through my head before I took the job. Some good advice that Coach Wasmund gave me was not to get too caught up in the winning and losing – that stuck with me. Obviously, we are striving to win every day, but winning will never be the sole gauge of whether we are successful or not."

Success for Barlage and the Eagles' program comes from winning in a different way than they did in the program's heyday.

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