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Panthers ready to claim team championship again

Ellsworth's Tristen Mueller has a sideways lock on a Neillsville/Loyal/Greenwood's Mike Chadwick during sectionals. Photo by Jon Claesson.1 / 3
Ellsworth's Logan Kemmerer tries to turn over Ashland's Jon Litersky onto his back during sectionals. Photo by Dave Newman.2 / 3
Ellsworth's Gabe Frandsen goes low for the single leg shot in the sectional finals against Stanley-Boyd/Owen-Withee/Thorp's Ronny Ponick. Photo by Jon Claesson.3 / 3

When so many individual wrestlers are competing for state tournament gold, if not just a spot on the awards stand, how is any time left available to focus on the team and what it has to do to be successful when its own tournament is due shortly?

Ellsworth had a school record 12 wrestlers compete in this year’s state individual wrestling tournament last weekend. They had a school record six place winners and three state champions from one meet, one whom won both a school and state record four straight titles.

Yet quadruple champion Jens Lantz believes it won’t take much to reorient ate the Panthers from individual achievement to team success for the upcoming WIAA Division 2 State Team Tournament this Saturday.

The No. 1 ranked Panthers, 18-3 overall, will face Evansville/Albany (21-3) in the semifinals starting at 10 a.m. The winner will face either No. 2 Wittenberg-Birnamwood (19-1) or No. 6 Pewaukee (20-5) in the state finals which will begin at 3 p.m at the University of Wisconsin Field House in Madison.

“Both take care of themselves,” Lantz, 41-1 overall, said. “If we prepare well for our individual matches we become better wrestlers and it’s going to help the team out down the road when the time comes.”

Certainly Ellsworth has switched off well enough. They went from dominating their own regional meet in a tournament format to, 72 hours later, crushing their dual meet opponents Rice Lake and No. 5 Amery in their own D-2 team sectional, to qualifying 12 wrestlers for individual state the following weekend.

“The boys are used to it, it’s a part of the sport,” third-year head coach EHS head coach Chad Steldt said. “I think when they look around and they see their teammates wrestling for each other community, I think it’s going to bring some of our kids to a higher level of wrestling even more so than what they were doing for themselves.”

The other teams in the Division 2 team tournament field had their share of individual success as well. Evansville/Albany qualified three wrestlers to individual state in Jordan Meyer (41-4) at 132 pounds, Tyler Grant (37-6) at 170 and Dustin Bjugstad (38-7) at 220. Meyer finished second.  Pewaukee brought six wrestlers to Madison. The Pirates best finish came from Jacob Raschka (47-6), fifth at 152 while Rajiv Geffert (40-13) took sixth at 106. Also wrestling for Pewaukee were Isaac Lodise (42-9) at 126; Garrett Shibilski at 138 (37-11), Jake Paget (37-13) at 160 and Jacob Becker at 182 (30-18)

Witt-Birn advanced five grapplers through what many considered the toughest sectional in the state in the northeast, east-central and Green Bay-Fox Valley areas  and came away with three place winners: state champion Braxton Portrykus (45-2) at 152; August Peplinski (48-8), fourth at 182 and Bobby Uttecht (41-9), sixth at 126. If some of those names sound familiar to Ellsworth fans it’s because EHS wrestlers went through them through the tournament brackets. Lantz pinned Uttecht in the quarterfinals and Schutz won a close match over Peplinski in the semis. In another match involving an Ellsworth wrestler and a grappler from one of their state team tournament foes, Andrew Swanson lost a close bout with Geffert at 106 pounds by a 3-2 score.

Witt-Birn has several of 40-plus winners on its Central Wisconsin Conference champion roster. There’s senior Ben Vosters at 120 (46-4) and freshman Alex Peplinski (43-7) at 160, both of whom wrestled at individual state and freshman Stetson Portrykus (43-5) at 106. But W-B and E/A will be wrestling in their very first state team tournaments while Ellsworth is making its ninth straight appearance and Pewaukee, champions of the Woodland Conference, is making its fourth appearance and first since 2010.

The balance the Panthers have up and down their line-up will be a big factor in their fortunes, one way or the other. With Lantz and state place winner Tristen Mueller (33-13) at 138 plus a host of state qualifiers anchoring one end of the line, Ellsworth’s power ally of wrestlers from 160 through 195, which includes two-time state champion Gabe Frandsen (53-1) at 160, state runner-up Logan Kemmerer (43-4) at 170, state champion Dennis Schutz (26-3) at 182 and sixth place finisher Brock Steldt (41-16) at 195; could well close EHS’s sixth state title or put them way out in front.

“I think we’re at the point with our team you have to wrestle us straight up,” Steldt said. “Moving kids up or down isn’t going to make any difference.”

Schutz has been a powerful addition to the Panthers’ power ally. As a sophomore he wrestled at team state in 2012 and his final match before returning to wrestling at the start of 2014 was bitter 9-5 defeat to Luxemburg-Casco’s Mitch Berceau, part of equally bitter 41-13 defeat at the hands of the Spartans in the team state finals.

“You look at the wrestlers he’s training with at or near his weight class and that competition has quickly advanced him in his skills and competitiveness to go with his speed and strength,” Steldt said.

Schultz credits those training partners along with the coaches and EHS alumni like Jon Lantz for getting back up to speed and in wrestling shape.

“It wasn’t too much to get used to again,” Schutz said. “The drills that Coach (Clair) Austin had us do in football put me in shape and helped me be able to explode with speed and strength from my legs and hips.”

The Panthers’ power ally is almost all seniors except for Brock Steldt, which is true of much of the EHS line-up.

“Seniors power your team at this time of year,” Steldt said. “They set the example and they set the course for the team to follow.”

The course Ellsworth followed to state didn’t turn out to be terribly strenuous in their team sectional dual meets and Pewaukee had two easy win its team sectional over Sheboygan Falls (42-17) and East Troy (56-9). Not so Evansville/Albany and Witt-Birn.  The Blue Devils, champions of the Rock Valley Conference, defeated traditional power Lodi by a single point at 31-30 in the semifinals and won the sectional finals 38-30 over West Salem/Bangor. W-B had to gut out a 36-32 win over No. 3 ranked Two Rivers and then beat No. 7 Freedom 35-33 in their team sectional. The Chargers’ lone loss this season was to Wausau West 33-27.