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Ellsworth grapplers ready to hit the mat for weekend action

Ellsworth senior and MBC and regional champion Brad Cain leads an experienced Panther wrestling team this season.

It's a part of the sport to be sure, but one that was tough to experience.

Ellsworth High School wrestler Jens Lantz, three-time state champion and Division I recruit injured his shoulder on the first day of practice back on Nov. 18

It brought up bad memories from last season as Ellsworth had deal a host of injuries which caused upheaval in its line-up and made a 13-6 campaign (7-0 in the Middle Border Conference) more of a struggle to get through despite having two state individual champions, four state place winners, seven state qualifiers along with conference, regional and sectional championships. The ending was not a state title but another bitter loss in the team state tournament to eventual champion Luxemburg-Casco.

But even though Lantz is out at least through this weekend as Ellsworth begins the season tonight at home against Somerset and wrestles in the 50th Ellsworth Invitational on Saturday, the Panthers, ranked No. 2 preseason in Division 2, are determined not to be put off by this early setback and have good reason not to be.

“We’re a deeper team than we were a season ago,” EHS third-year head coach Chad Steldt said. “We have more experience and good senior class to lead us. Plus, already we’re seeing the how the time and effort the kids put into offseason wrestling have paid off already as we’ve gone through a couple of weeks of practice.”

Case in point is defending state champion Gabe Frandsen. Steldt said EHS will notice right away Frandsen going for shots instead of trying to throw his opponents to the mat, all the result of lots of offseason work.

“He really didn’t have much of a shot before but now he does,” Steldt said. “It’s going to make him a better wrestler by being a more complete wrestler and he’s worked very to be so.”

Lantz is EHS’s other state titlist, becoming Ellsworth’s first-ever three-time state champion.  As he goes for to become just the 13th four-time champion in state history, he and the Panther coaching staff will do so keeping in mind longer-term goals.

“The main thing is not to push Jens into action sooner than he needs to be,” Steldt said. “He should be able to make it back into the line-up by the Byron Tournament, and certainly by the Bi-State Meet.”

The Byron, Minn. Tournament is just one part of what Steldt feels is going to be a 2013-14 schedule even tougher than last season’s.  EHS will face strong Minnesota competition at the Byron, Cambridge-Isanti and Kasson-Mantorville dual meet tournaments. They’ll face tough individual competition at both the Bi-State Classic and Cheesehead Invitational along with a strong field of teams in their own meet this Saturday such as Sparta, Spring Valley/Elmwood and Boyceville.

But Steldt feels the Panthers can handle it due to the team’s depth and experience. Besides Lantz and Frandsen, EHS also returns state place winners Logan Kemmerer (a conference, regional and sectional champion) and Tristan Mueller (regional champ); they have back MBC and regional champion and state qualifier Brad Cain to make for a powerful group of middleweights; regional champions Jon Albarado, Brady Zimmer and Brodey Kemmerer are also back along with returning starters, letter winners and other contributors like Riley Melstrom, Hunter Piepenberg, Josh Hines, Jake Fuchs, Brock Steldt, Ken Stowe, Devrin Myers, Spencer Redding, Alex Donnelly and Brandon VanderMarliere plus many others coming up through the JV ranks or newcomers like Sawyer Strom, Anders Lantz, Gabe Mancino-Ball, Lucas Wieghart, Tyler Beder, Adam Schuster, to name a few.

Ellsworth graduated just three seniors from last season’s team in Dan Langer, Jake Murphy and Hank Holdorf.

“We’re especially deep in the upper weights, which we weren’t last season,” Steldt said. “We’ve got three to four kids competing in couple of weight classes. We have more flexibility to our line-up. We can rest kids still recovering from football or preseason injuries or not have wrestlers like Josh Hines having to go up a weight class or two to fill a hole in the line-up which will help him greatly. We can give several kids chances to wrestle varsity and not have a drop-off in talent or quality. The competition in the wrestling room has been great this year and it’s the kind of competition which can give our wrestlers and edge when it comes to the mat in a varsity meet.”

Given what Ellsworth had to overcome last season, perhaps all their titles and beating a top-ranked Amery team twice to win the MBC and sectional titles was actually quite an accomplishment. But no one on the team certainly feels this way after how things ended up.

“It was bitter defeat. It was painful to go through again and hurt to come away with nothing at the end even though we had done a lot last season,” Steldt said. “No one was satisfied and what we saw during the offseason was a rededication by our wrestlers to put us back on top again and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Getting there will mean getting past Amery once again along with Rice Lake, Sparta, Lodi or Mauston and L-C, or perhaps a Two Rivers or Oconto Falls.

“I don’t want to look too far into the future,” Steldt said. “Little improvements every day mean great improvements in the future. That’s what I want our team to focus on right now, just day to day, meet to improvements to make the big leap when the time comes.” (Ellsworth's Jens Lantz named WEAU Athlete of the Week)