Wrestlers take state by storm
The Bluejay grapplers had enjoyed a fine season but one that held a strong scent of disappointment, since it didn’t quite match up to overwhelming expectations.
Wausau West had denied the Jays’s shot at the state team tournament with a regional title, and several Merrill boys just missed state qualification at sectional, two by a mere point.
But that unfulfilled scent turned rose-petal sweet in last weekend’s WIAA State Individual Tournament.
Three of Merrill’s four entries reached the state finals. Junior Tyler Schmidt took the 220-pound title handily, and senior Garrett Schmelling (126) and junior David Pophal (170) battled valiantly with two-time state champions before collecting second-place finishes. Sophomore Mason Reinhardt (160) bounced back from a semi-final loss to lock down a strong third.
“A 14-3 record at state, four place finishers, all in the top three,” MHS coach Scott Arneson said. “That says it all right there. Holy crap!
“We took four to state and placed four. Usually you’re hoping for 50%. We had 100%. That’s a pretty good test.
“We look like a great coaching staff when the kids perform like that. We were a little down because we had some pretty high goals. Obviously if you can’t participate in team state, we topped it off with a big exclamation point.
“If you can’t leave state feeling good about Merrill wrestling this year, there’s something wrong.”
The fantastic showing rivals 1987 (firsts from Joe Ramsey and LaVerne Voigt, second from Tom Weix, sixths from Craig Josiger and Andy Lehman) as the best ever in MHS wrestling,
The Jays took a big step in the right direction by capturing all eight matches in Thursday’s opening rounds, six by pin, one by major decision and another by near-major.
“On Thursday, everybody was like, ‘How did you do?’ Arneson said. “We said, ‘Our guys won their matches.’ ‘How many do you have here?’ ‘Four.’ ‘All your guys won their matches?’
“You want to be in the hunt, and all four of them were definitely in the hunt.”
Schmidt–who completed a 45-0 season–pulled pins over Union Grove’s 24-13 Cole Ryan (1:16), Menasha’s 38-6 Zeek Hooyman and Neenah’s 36-3 Mitchell Ledwith. He handed top-ranked Dakota Johnson, Elkhorn, his first loss of the season in 37 tries with a 6-1 decision in the finals.
“Tyler wrestled exceptional,” Arneson said. “He definitely had the goal to be a state champion. He beat the third-ranked kid, fourth-ranked kid and #1 kid to do it, so it wasn’t an easy road, but he came through with flying colors.
“He was our first state champ since Brad Welter (2007). We hang plaques of state champs on the wall, and we wanted to make (former head coach) Roger (Wendorf) expand the case on the wall of fame. ‘Let’s expand the wall’ was our motto all weekend.”
Schmelling and Pophal both won their first three matches before bumping up against the #1-ranked grappler in their classes. In Schmelling’s case, it was Wausau West’s 50-0 Colin Baine, meaning the top two from the Marshfield Sectional were also 1-2 at state.
“The level our guys were getting beat at was the highest level,” Arneson said. “Garrett and David put together a great last month and they turned it up all the way to the state finals. It was especially great to see Garrett, a senior, drop a (weight) class and ice it.”
Schmelling (38-11) pulled a pin in 2:26 and an 8-1 win, then reached the finals with a 2-1 win over Green Bay Preble’s 42-6 Evan Garcia. Baine took an 8-2 final.
Pophal (46-4) took a 14-5 major over Sun Prairie’s 49-5 Wesley Schultz, a pin in 5:42, and a 15-6 major in the semis. But Elkhorn’s 46-1 Jake Stilling pulled a pin in 3:24 in the final.
Reinhardt (47-4) fashioned pins over Kimberly’s 39-6 Blair Mulholland and Madison East’s 36-6 Rudy Hernandez, before losing 7-2 to Waterford’s 45-5 Cody Nannemann. He rallied to third place with 8-2 and 2-1 wins.
“Mason had a great tournament,” Arneson said. “He had a little let-down in the semifinal. But he was fifth last year and third this year, a two-time state place-winner. The 160-pound class is usually slated pretty heavily toward juniors and seniors. This is just motivation for next year.”
Team goals seemed out of reach after sectional, but Merrill’s run brought them back into focus.
“After regionals, we couldn’t make team state, but we said they keep (unofficial) team scores at individual state,” Arneson said. “Going into sectionals, we said, ‘Let’s shoot for that.’ After we only qualified four for state, it seemed that was out of reach, but we were leading at the end of the first and third rounds, and the teams were competing against had 6-7 qualifiers.
“We ended up not having enough go-power, but to finish third behind West and Bay Port was pretty nice.”
Merrill’s super run put Arneson’s own grappling career back on the burner for a while.
“We said if we won, I’d have to wrestle in an old-timer’s tournament,” Arneson said. “Then Suhocks (ass’t. Brian Suchocki) said he would get to choose which one. All of a sudden we’re ahead and I might have to wrestle. I definitely wanted us to win it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wrestle in an old-timer’s tournament.”
Unofficial top 20 team standings– Wausau West 98, Bay Port 92, Merrill 88, Arowhead 50.5, Kaukauna 49.5, Elkhorn 49, Burlington 48, Milton 46.5, Sun Prairie 46, Menomonee Falls 45, Holmen 43, Stoughton 41, Waterford 41, Sauk Prairie 38.5, Hudson 37, Oconomowoc 34, Tomah 34, Franklin 29, Badger 25.5, Hartford 25, Waukesha S. 25.
Arneson noted that this crew ran the full gamut of Merrill wrestling.
“All four of these kids went all the way through the program since K-Jays,” he said. “
Not that it was smooth sailing for all of them.
“Garrett hardly won any matches as a sixth-grader and in seventh grade he wanted to quit,” Arneson said. “His mom says, ‘Give it one more chance,’ and he won a handful as a seventh-grader and was .500 as an eighth-grader. He grows every year until he takes second at state as a senior. It’s a pretty cool story to show kids in middle school that aren’t winning as much as they want what can happen with hard work.
“These kids worked their butts off all year.”
The Jays have hopes for even more next year.
“We lose four quality seniors (Schmelling, Eric Ball, Dylan Schielke and Kevin Schmidt) from the middle of our line-up, but we have some guys that have been waiting to get their shot,” Arneson said. “A lot of other teams are losing more than four guys. I’m really excited for next year.
“Hopefully, we have the same type of season and maybe a little better. A little better might put us in team state. We hope that’s the motivation to do more in the off-season than last year and that gets us over the hump to win regional which puts us in team sectional.”