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Second to none
Fennimore wins SWAL wrestling title
Justin Tollefson
Fennimore junior Justin Tollefson earned his 100th career varsity win during a 32-26 victory over Mineral Point on Jan. 29. Tollefson won a 13-6 decision over Mineral Points Brandon Forseth. - photo by Jeff Hagen photo

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The Fennimore wrestling team won its first outright Southwest Wisconsin Activities League title in program history thanks to a 32-26 win over host Mineral Point on Friday, Jan. 29.

Fennimore, which shared the conference crown with Mineral Point last season, entered the dual meet ranked seventh in Division 3 by Mineral Point entered the contest ranked third in Division 3. Both teams were 5-0 in SWAL duals.

The Golden Eagles rolled early thanks to wins by senior Riley Lull (120 pounds), sophomore Riley Blair (126 pounds), sophomore Alston Nutter (132 pounds), junior Justin Tollefson (138 pounds) and junior Hunter Wardell (145 pounds).
Lull, ranked number one at 120 pounds by WiWrestling, earned a technical fall win over Curtis Cox. Blair competed for the first time in several weeks after passing concussion protocol and earned a 4-3 decision over Logan Schmitz. Nutter, ranked second at 126 pounds, pinned Mitchell Schaff to put Fennimore up 14-0.

Tollefson, ranked fifth at 138 pounds, faced a tough test in sixth-ranked Brandon Forseth. Tollefson passed with flying colors, earning a 13-6 decision. The victory, Tollefson’s 100th of his varsity career, put the Golden Eagles up 17-0. Wardell made the jump to 145 pounds and earned a 3-2 decision win over third-ranked Boone Schmitz.

The Pointers narrowed the Golden Eagles’ lead to 20-9 before junior Tavian Kaschub (170 pounds) notched a decision win. Mineral Point answered and closed the gap to 23-19, but junior Cody McCollough (220 pounds) pinned Kyle Juedes, ranked seventh at 220 pounds, in 2:59.

Fennimore senior Deven O’Brien (285 pounds) stretched the Golden Eagles’ lead to 32-19 after a 4-0 decision over Zach Cummins. Mineral Point won bouts at 106 and 113 pounds, but the night and the SWAL championship belonged to Fennimore.

An estimated 2,500 fans packed Mineral Point High School’s gymnasium to witness a gutsy performance by Fennimore, as many wrestlers were recovering from illness or considered underdogs on paper.

“We were able to grind out several needed matches and the guys scored enough to get the win,” Fennimore coach Chad Steldt said. “I thought we put ourselves in position to win a couple more matches, but I’m sure Mineral Point could say the same thing. Again, this was a great win for the program  and I am really proud of all of our team.”

The Golden Eagles will return to Mineral Point on Saturday in attempt to defend their title in the SWC/SWAL Clash with wrestling to start at 9 a.m.  This is regarded as one of the toughest conference tournaments in the state, as the 2015 Clash hosted nearly 30 state qualifiers.

“Now we have to refocus and put everything we have done so far behind us,” Steldt said. “We are now in our second season, so all the records can be thrown out the window. This year we exposed the wrestlers to a tough schedule facing some of the best wrestlers not only in the Midwest, but some of the toughest in the country.

“All of these guys had better records at this juncture last year, but we feel good about how much they learned this year. They should all be confident they are prepared for the tasks we face over the next few weeks. We will take it one step at a time.”

Arguably the toughest schedule in school history took the Golden Eagles to Kasson-Mantorville, Minnesota, on Jan. 23. Fennimore wrestled top-ranked teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin, including Kasson-Mantorville, which is ranked 24th in the nation. Among the competition were Dover-Eyota, ranked seventh in Minnesota, and Ellsworth (Steldt’s former squad), ranked first in Wisconsin.

“It would be an understatement to say the boys have been battle-tested. This season the team has seen top ranked teams from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Steldt said. “They have wrestled more nationally-ranked teams than ever before. They have wrestled more Division  1 and private schools than ever before. They have wrestled teams with multiple state champs, and nationally ranked kids.

“The competition has truly put our local boys in circumstances that forced them to deal will adversity, injury, upsets, and how to be humbled in their success. Above all else, they have grown into one unit, one team, that depend on each other through these struggles so that they all can achieve success. The success of the individual has been humbled by the well-being of the whole team.”

Fennimore began the dual meet tournament with a 35-24 win over Dover-Eyota. Kasson-Mantorville loomed in the semifinals and dealt the Golden Eagles a 55-3 loss.

“The score does not show it, but some guys had real good matches,” Steldt said. “Cody wrestled really well against  the top-ranked 195-pound wrestler in Minnesota, losing 14-7. He did a great job sticking his nose into the brawl, and gave himself two golden opportunities to score against a kid that is very advanced.

“Also, Louis Heberlein was battling an ear injury, and also wrestled the top-ranked 182-pound wrestler to a 2-0 loss. Aaron Berge, Louis’s opponent, has been around the national circuit and summer wrestling since eighth grade, so he has much-needed experience under his belt.

“Justin and Hunter both lost close matches as well, by less than three points. These notable performances are two-fold. They show our team where we are headed with this program and what the boys need to do to get to the next level. Above that, it shows them when they believe in themselves, they can really battle with the best, they can give themselves a fair and honest shot at beating some very accomplished wrestlers.”

Five weeks of the season remain.

“Overall, the boys are doing great,” Steldt said. “We needed to wrestle at the top of our game to place third at Kasson, but we were not, and maybe for good reason. There are five weeks of season left, and the guys should be at the top of their game in three weeks.

“We sat down as a team, reflected as a team, and identified what needs to be done. The amazing attribute about this team is their resilience. They have repeatedly dealt with changes, letdowns, highs and lows, but at the end of the day, they listen and learn, and they use the competition as a stepping stone. They now understand that the best is still to come, and it is up to them and the coaching staff to get them there.”