Merrill grapplers pull out close Northern Exposure title
If MHS wrestling coach Scott Arneson was looking for a fitting finale of the first half of the season in his own two-day Northern Exposure Classic this past Friday and Saturday at the MHS Fieldhouse, he got what he wanted and a whole lot more.
After cruising through pool play, the Bluejays found that both their championship bracket opponents, Two Rivers and Oconto Falls, had dreams of stealing the crown from the hosts. Both duals went down to the last match before Merrill ground out a perfect record to win the 15th Annual 24-team tournament.
With the action taking place on eight mats in four pools the first day, the fieldhouse was a wrestling fan’s idea of heaven. With each team competing on side-by-side mats against the rest of their pool in heads-up duals, the action came fast and furious.
To round out one pool, Arneson entered the junior varsity as a second team, which finished 15th in the field.
“With Merrill, we can put two full teams on the mat. That shows what kind of depth our program has,” he said. “This is varsity level experience for them and it will pay off in a couple years when they are seniors.”
Arneson said that while the level of competition may have left some members of the junior team feeling their lumps, the chance to face varsity level competition can only aid their growth as wrestlers.
“Even when you lose, you win,” Arneson said. “I hope our kids understand that.”
In pool play Friday, the Bluejays had an easy go of their five opponents. They opened the morning with a 70-6 win over Grizzlies then Stanley-Boyd 60-17 in round 2, Medford 60-17 in round 3: West Allis Central 47-19 in round 4 and Mineral Point 45-22 in round 5.
“Our kids came to wrestle,” Arneson said. “We beat two teams that are ranked in the state. When you can do that, it can only help you improve as a team.”
On Saturday afternoon, the Bluejays entered the championship bracket with the winners of the other three pools, Oconto Falls, Two Rivers and Bay Port. In the semi-final match against Two Rivers, the Bluejays jumped out to an early lead, only to see their opponent claw their way back with the dual tied going into the last match before the blue and white finally snatched victory 30-27.
If that wasn’t enough to induce heart failure in the Merrill faithful, the championship match between the Bluejays and Oconto Falls, a repeat of the championship match from last year’s edition of the tournament, was also a nail biter. Again Merrill jumped out to a lead only to have to hold off a rally from their opponent to win 31-29.
“Those two duals showed our balance and our poise,” Arneson said.
He especially liked how freshman Aiden Ball bounced back from being pinned in his semi-final match to get a 3-2 decision over a much more experienced Ben Stoinski of Oconto Falls in the final.
“Aiden’s match was the big win for us in that dual,” Arneson said. “For a freshman to get a win like that is great.”
Garrett Schmelling (138 lbs., 5 pins), Mason Reinhardt (160, 5 p), Alex Klug (195, 4 p) and Tyler Schmidt (5 p) all posted perfect 7-0 records. David Pophal (170, 2 p, 2 maj. dec.) and Ben Hintze (182, 2 p, 1 md) posted 6-1 marks, while Aiden Ball (106) and Eric Ball (145, 2 p) were 5-2. Nathan Beyer (120), Scott T. Arneson (132, 2 p) were 4-3, and Dylan Schielke (152) and Gabe Nelles (285, 2 p) went 3-4. Donald Ogden (113) had a 2-2 mark, Hunter Welch (113) was 0-2 and Tanner Pettit (126) was 1-5.
For the JV entry, Jagger Scholz (138) was 6-0, Kevin Schmidt (132) was 6-1, Justin Mondeik (106) went 4-3, Brady Schmelling (120) was 3-3 and Lucas Lee (145) went 2-2.
Arneson said that the annual holiday tournament is a great way to end the calendar year while getting in the proper mind-set for the second half of the season push.
“It’s kind of a great way to end the year,” Arneson said. “When we start the new year, we want to be the best Merrill team in the month of January.”
The Bluejay mat squad is off until January 10 when they travel to D.C. Everest for a 7 p.m. dual. They then host the one-day Bluejay Challenge two days later.