Ellsworth wrestling: Developing a dynasty
Before entering Ellsworth High School's south gymnasium, visitors will come across the school's most prized athletic possessions in its "Panther Champions" display case. Inside they'll find Wisconsin-shaped plaques that commemorate the eight WIAA Team State titles the Panthers wrestling team has brought home for their fans.
As they make their way down the hall, visitors will notice more mementos that honor the resume of one of the most decorated Wisconsin wrestling programs. Photos of the Panther wrestlers who have totaled up Ellsworth's 33 individual state titles can be found on the left wall, while a plaque with a photo of four-time state champ Jens Lantz, which will soon be updated with an added picture of Sam Stuhl, hangs on the right wall.
Though the high school is the designated home for the many Panther awards and is where fans come and fill the gym's bleachers to witness the brilliance of Ellsworth wrestling, the Panthers' dynasty wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for what young wrestlers are taught over on West Panther Drive.
Having fun and falling in love with Ellsworth's most successful sport is the emphasis for practices held in the south gym of the Ellsworth Middle School. Wrestling, a high-intensity sport where young athletes feel the pressure of stepping onto a mat and going head-to-head with their opponent without teammates surrounding them, can be a hard sell to new athletes, but middle school coaches Josh Erlandson and Andy Matzek know what it takes to keep their recruitment numbers up.
"We want (wrestlers) to have a lot of fun and to love wrestling," Erlandson said.
"Wrestling is such a grind because it's just two young boys out on a mat, and there's nowhere to hide, there's no one else to blame. We just build them up mentally as much as we do physically, and that means letting them know it's OK to fail."
This year's middle school team consisted of 32 wrestlers, and Erlandson said a handful of his eighth graders had never wrestled before the 2017-18 season.
"We get a lot of kids that are brand new, so our success isn't going to be measured by wins and losses. We emphasize the little things that our guys do right, and try to build their confidence that way."
At the middle school, Erlandson's and Matzek's goal isn't to have their wrestlers peak in middle school, rather they just want their future varsity wrestlers to be prepared for stepping into the high school's varsity wrestling room where they can create their own stories once they get there.
"It's really about not having that pressure now," Erlandson said. "I think that by the time they get to the high school, they're able to see that being a Panther wrestler is more of an honor, and they say, 'It's my time now.'"
But preparation for being a varsity Ellsworth wrestler consists of more than just fun, team-oriented activities.
"We feel our job is to teach them the skills that will be useful in the long run at the varsity level," Erlandson said. "We talk about what it means to be a part of the Ellsworth wrestling program, and the responsibilities that we have to carry on the historic success that we've had."
Jeff Swanson, New Richmond's head wrestling coach who wrestled at Ellsworth under the coaching of the legendary Jack Radabaugh from 1980-84, said what sets the Panthers apart from other local teams are their sound fundamentals.
"One of Ellsworth's strengths is they always emphasize the basics," Swanson said. "Kids in that program are fundamentally sound, and that's pretty hard to beat."
Fundamentals are stressed at the high school level, but must be taught before wrestlers step onto the varsity mat.
"We fall back on our fundamentals," Matzek said. "We don't take any shortcuts."
This year's Ellsworth JV team won the Wisconsin Challenge Series Finals where over 99 other schools competed. Jon Cain and Coby Ekholm both took first place in their weight classes. Producing such talented JV wrestlers would be much more challenging if Ellsworth's high standards weren't taught at the middle school level.
"We tell our guys that they're going to work very hard, and by the time the season is over, they're wanting to push themselves harder and harder," Erlandson said. "Our guys work really hard at the middle school level. I would hope that we work them as hard as anybody else at our level does."
"Ellsworth has high expectations," Swanson said. "They have quality coaching and great competition in the wrestling room. They're always prepared once they're on the mat."
Swanson referred to the Ellsworth wrestling program as a "premiere program in the state," and said that his team's goal every year is just to be able to compete with the Panthers.
"When we compete against Ellsworth, we're stacking up against one of the best teams, traditions in the state," Swanson said. "We have to take that challenge for what it is."
The Panthers pride themselves on being the benchmark for Western Wisconsin wrestling, but are just as equally proud of the wrestling family they've built during their many years of success.
"We just talk a lot about the Ellsworth wrestling family. That includes anybody in the youth program all the way up to the oldest guys that are sitting in the stands watching," Erlandson said.
The family feel is strengthened for Erlandson's and Matzek's middle schoolers when they see varsity stars in the stands at their matches. "Seeing the varsity guys give back to the middle school program means a lot to our guys," Erlandson said. "Even if it's just to watch a few matches, it really makes them feel important."
When young athletes feel as though they're a valued member of Ellsworth wrestling family, they gain the determination and confidence needed to become Mark Matzek's next superstar and to have their photo placed on an Ellsworth High School wall.
Ellsworth's 'super fan'
As infallible as Ellsworth wrestling is, super fan Olivia Boettcher's support for her favorite purple team is just as unfaltering.
Boettcher's love for Ellsworth wrestling began when her brother, Taylor Boettcher, began wrestling for the Panthers, but didn't cease once he graduated in 2009.
Ellsworth's individual sectional tournament held on Saturday, Feb. 20 lasted from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Amery High School. Boettcher was there for every Ellsworth match.
Amery isn't the farthest Boettcher will travel to see her favorite wrestlers compete. Boettcher plans her work schedule around Ellsworth competitions so she's able to follow the Panthers to places such as Rochester, Hayward and Madison, and plans to make the nearly four-hour drive to Madison once again to catch the 2018 WIAA Wrestling Team State Tournament.
At every dual or tournament, Boettcher can be found in purple, relentlessly cheering on every single Ellsworth wrestler who steps onto the mat.
"Coach Matzek said I'm (Ellsworth's) number one fan," Boettcher explained. "I want them to win, and my cheering makes the wrestlers happy."
"It's great for me to see her, because the passion she has for wrestling makes me smile every time I see her," Mark Matzek said. "We have a decent following of fans, but Olivia always makes sure we know she's there."
"She always greets us and tells us 'hi' and shakes our hands before every match," coach Jack Radabaugh said.
Sam Stuhl, one of Boettcher's favorite Panther wrestlers, can also confirm that his team's super fan's support is much appreciated.
"Her dedication and love for the sport of wrestling is so impressive," Stuhl said. "Distance doesn't matter for Olivia. She drove two and a half hours to watch our two duals at Hayward. She's always positive, and it's just amazing to have fans like her cheering for us.
"Hearing her shout our names is just awesome," Stuhl said. "We couldn't ask for better support."
Boettcher has earned a spot in the Ellsworth wrestling family, and fans like her are foundational in the creation of dynasties such as the Panthers'.
Panther fans can join Boettcher at the UW Fieldhouse in Madison on Saturday, March 3 to cheer on Ellsworth as they take on Chilton/Hilbert in the state semifinals at 10 a.m.