Steady growth leads Panthers back to stateEllsworth High School wrestling team had a new head coach and a different line-up from the 2011 state championship season which took some time early on to get settled in. But once so the Panthers blazed a trail back to the state team tournament which they hope to become the first EHS squad to repeat as champions.
Ellsworth High School wrestling team had a new head coach and a different line-up from the 2011 state championship season which took some time early on to get settled in. But once so the Panthers blazed a trail back to the state team tournament which they hope to become the first EHS squad to repeat as champions.
Ellsworth goes into this weekend's WIAA State Team Tournament at the UW Fieldhouse in Madison ranked No. 2 in the state with an 18-3 record and champions of its conference, region and section along with its own invitational meet and a runner-up at the Bi-State Classic. It also has two state individual champions, two more state place winners and three additional state qualifiers.
All of this may have seemed apparent or preordained from the start of the 2011-12 season but a new head coach in former assistant Chad Steldt, replacing hall of famer Jack Radabaugh, and new faces in the varsity line-up meant a period of transition whether wanted or not.
Although EHS won its first three dual meets and the Ellsworth Invitational it was at the Coon Rapids, Minn. Tournament, where the Panthers tested themselves against some of the best big-school squads in the Gopher State, where the Panthers saw where they were really at. And they left that day with just 3-2 overall record and plenty of close losses.
"Sure we had some experienced wrestlers, state champions, and such. But we also had nine underclassmren as well and 10 graduated seniors from the 2011 squad," Steldt said. "Those underclassmen had to learn how to be a varsity wrestler for our team and that's not something which is an automatic. You have to learn it right in the wrestling room and what our wrestling at Coon Rapids showed us is we had a lot to learn."
But learn they did thanks to what Steldt credited as an intense environment and quality teaching by the many EHS wrestling alumni who stop in to help train the wrestlers. Although the coaching staff didn't change other than Steldt and Radabaugh switching spots, there was an energy and intensity in the room not just from the wrestlerscompeting for varsity spots and from alumni and assistant coaches but also from Steldt's youthfulness as well.
"(Coach) brings in a lot of what they're doing in college and with his energy and age it rubbed off on the rest of us," Ellsworth's junior 220-pounder Hank Holdorf said. "I felt a lot of my best matches were right in the wrestling room. It made me feel and ready and confident each for each match we were in."
Also helping Ellsworth out was the solidification of its line-up especially in the middle and upper weights. Logan Kemmerer returning at 145 from an early season injury along with the emergence of wrestlers like senior Ryan Dickhausen at 152, Dennis Schulz at 160, Derek Donnelly at 182, Hank Holdorf at 220 and Brody Kemmerer at 285 gave the Panthers the stability for improvement throughout the month of January. It took a while for Dickhausen, who had wrestled for Ellsworth as a freshman and sophomore but transferred to Woodbury as a junior, to join the team but as soon as he did he became a state qualifying wrestler wlong with Logan Kemmerer while wrestlers like Brody Kemmerer and Holdorf and Schulz made it as far as individual sectionals. They shored up half of a line-up made up of veteran wrestlers like Roarke and Dan Langer, Jens Lantz, Parker Hines, Brad Cain and Brent Stockwell.
Ellsworth won its Middle Border Conference dual meets and defeated top ranked Owatonna, Minn., for the Federated Duals title. By the time Ellsworth wrestled another Minnesota big school powerhouse, Forest Lake, later that month the growth of the Panther squad from early December was clearly obvious. Coming back from a 27-9 deficit to tie the Ranger in their own fieldhouse 27-27. Even when a recount which robbed them of a victory, it still could not take away from what EHS accomplished.
"From Coon Rapids to Forest Lake the growth in this team is very gratifying," Steldt said. "And that's what we were looking for. That's how we measured ourselves. We asked the questions, were we getting better at taking shots? Were we getting better at pinning our opponents? Were we getting at winning the close matches? And Forest Lake showed that we were."
And the Panthers showed this again fending off some tougher recent postseason challenges from St. Croix Central in the regional meet and top-ranked Neillsville/Greenwood/Loyal in the team sectional. Like the Forest Lake meet, EHS showed it could come from behind and step up despite pressure of competition.
Steldt says he feels this pressure too stepping into the shoes of past coaching great like Radabuagh and Kirby Symes and leading a defending state champion on a quest to do something the program has never done before and that's' repeat as state champs.
"With a team you never put pressure on one individual to do everything, you embrace the pressure together, accept it and deal with it," Steldt said. "That's true for wrestlers and for coaches because the expectations are high here. It's the same for all of us. But you don't feel alone and that's why it's been great having Coach Radabaugh to go over things we like or dislike and see if we can do better and whole coaching staff and alumni and the whole community to work together for the good of of wrestlers and our program."