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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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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Childhood Bouts to Coaching Showdowns

The Unique Wrestling Journey of the Timmerman Brothers

By Brian Jerzak

From the outside, it was just another early January dual meet in Minnesota. It wasn’t even all that competitive, with one team destined for a twenty-win season and a top-four finish in a very competitive section and the other struggling through an under .500 season that would see them knocked out of their section in the quarterfinals. To the head coaches – it was much more. St. Peter and Tri-City United have faced off on the mat enough in the last half dozen years that it is no longer a novelty, but when brothers and head coaches Ryan and Shaun Timmerman stare across the mat from each other’s corner, it means a little bit more.

With a wrestling coach as a dad, both brothers grew up around the mat. In older brother Ryan’s case – on the mat.

“Ever since a young age, wrestling is just what I did,” Ryan said. “I didn’t go to daycare after school. I went to practice. I grew up in the (St. Peter) wrestling room. There are still parents of kids now that say, ‘I remember when you were running around the wrestling room when you were three or four years old. It has been an important part of my life.”

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From Undersized Eighth Grader to Three-Time State Champion: The Inspiring Transformation of Nolan Ambrose

By Brian Jerzak

Jackson County Central three-time state champion Nolan Ambrose didn’t walk into the JCC wrestling room and immediately dominate. He only got a handful of varsity matches in seventh grade and was an undersized 106-pounder as an eighth grader. Although the results weren’t there, Ambrose knew he was better than he was showing. For Minnesota high school wrestling fans, it was worth the wait.

“It was rough,” Ambrose said about his eighth-grade year. “I was 95 pounds. I think my record was around .500. I remember knowing I was better than most of the guys I was wrestling, but I was losing because I was lighter than them.”

“That off-season, I grew physically,” Ambrose continued. “I made big jumps in my technique and mentally. Something clicked. I found a new love for wrestling that summer. I knew I was right there – that pushed me.”

Ambrose focused on excelling in a different sport as a young kid.

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Promoting Bemidji Wrestling

Rance Bahr and Bemidji Girls’ Wrestling

By Brian Jerzak

Rance Bahr is the most successful wrestling coach in Bemidji High School history. He has been in the Bemidji area, the Bemidji school system, and the Lumberjack wrestling program nearly his entire life. He could have coached the boys’ wrestling team for as long as he wanted. When it boils down to it, professionally, Bahr wants nothing more than to promote and grow the sport of wrestling in the community.

During the offseason, after fourteen years as the head coach, Bahr felt the best way to promote the sport in the area was to step away – well – not away – more like over a few steps. He decided to become the head coach of the girls’ wrestling team.

“I have a passion for Bemidji wrestling,” Bahr said. “When we started the program, it never occurred to me to become the girls’ head coach and discontinue being the boys’ head coach. It was an opportunity to promote Bemidji wrestling. When people were putting up roadblocks, that motivated me to push harder (to get a girls’ program). I am thankful to those people that put up those roadblocks because, without that, I might not have been so motivated.”

“My son recently graduated, and I was looking at getting out of coaching wrestling,” the first-ever Lumberjack girls’ head wrestling coach continued. “With my daughter on the girls’ side and things going well there – I feel I have done what I am able to do with the boys’ program. It is in a good place, and I want to see the girls’ program improve. We are ranked in the nation, and the girls are excited about that.”

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Keep Swinging The Axe – Ella Pagel

By Brian Jerzak Although she is one of Minnesota’s most decorated girls’ wrestlers, things have not always gone smoothly for Northfield junior Ella Pagel. Sure, she is a two-time state high school champion and has won, among others – the Pan-Am Games, Super 32, and Fargo. To do that, she has had to change her … Continue reading →

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