Wrestling: 'Now or never'
For Ellsworth senior Jon Cain, the 126-pound regional wrestleback match was his final chance at preserving his individual high school wrestling career.
For his opponent, Prescott freshman Sam Murphy, the true second-place match was a shot at upsetting an Ellsworth upperclassmen.
The Ellsworth vs. Prescott battle was a perfect way to welcome playoff wrestling, especially for Cain.
Down 8-7, Cain managed to takedown Murphy before the final buzzer sounded and claimed a 9-8 decision after the 30-second tiebreaker.
"I just knew I had to lay it all on the line, because if I lost, it would have been the end of my (individual) season and career," Cain said. "I couldn't let that happen."
Cain wound up in the wrestleback match after losing to Baldwin-Woodville's Jordan Bonte by a 5-4 decision that also resulted in a tiebreaker. The Ellsworth senior battled through overtime with a hyperextended elbow, which heinjured in the third period of his semifinal overtime match.
After losing to Bonte in bitter fashion, Cain's return for his wrestleback match was an uncertainty, especially with his grapefruit-sized elbow.
"I had a lot of the guys helping me out and encouraging me," Cain said. "Coach Matzek asked me if I was OK to wrestle and I was like, 'It's now or never.'"
Ellsworth's head coach Mark Matzek said he told Cain if he decided to wrestle his true-second match, there was no feeling sorry for himself if his injury impeded his chance of advancing to sectionals. "I told him he had to find a way," Matzek said. "That was the definition of being tough. I'm really proud of Jon for facing and overcoming adversity."
Against all odds, Cain's toughness powered through his pain and the roller coaster of emotions that came with his tiebreaking win.
"At first when (the officials) waived (the final takedown) off, I didn't know what to think," Cain said. "Then all of a sudden they held up the two, and I don't know if I've ever been that excited aside from when we went to state for baseball."
Cain was one of 12 Panther wrestlers to advance to the Saturday, Feb. 16, WIAA Neillsville sectionals by taking first or second place at the Baldwin-Woodville WIAA Division 2 Regional 3. As a team, the Panthers took first place by a 97-point margin and will compete at Osceola's team sectional tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
While Cain celebrated the continuation of his high school wrestling career, Murphy was left with the realization that his first year of varsity wrestling was concluded in a second.
"We can blame it on the refs, but at the same time, there were things we could have done in the match to change the outcome," Prescott's head coach Jordan Poirier said. "But, it is what it is."
Despite the disappointing loss, Matzek and Poirier both congratulated Murphy on a promising first season of varsity wrestling.
"(Murphy) wrestled a great match," Matzek said. "He was a freshman, and he's an up-and-coming kid. He should be proud of how he wrestled, too."
"Sam has gained so much confidence throughout the year — not just against Ellsworth kids but against everybody," Poirier said. "He's improved so much this year, and it's been fun to watch him grow this year. Moving forward, his confidence is just going to continue to build, and he's just going to continue to get better."
That goes for all the Cardinal wrestlers who will return next season. Injuries and illnesses have led to adjectives such as "frustrating" and "difficult" being attached to the 2018-19 Prescott wrestling season, but Poirier couldn't have been happier with how his team pulled through at Saturday's regional tournament.
"Everyone went out and really wrestled the best they've wrestled all year," Poirier said. "That's important at this tournament; that's what you expect when you come here. Every single one of them did it. Not everyone made it through, and that's to be expected, but they all wrestled well enough that they're not going to have any regrets."
Prescott's Ryan Pederson, Ethan Luksich, Joe Schulte and Shawn Thomason all survived regionals and will join the Panthers in Neillsville on Feb. 16. The Cardinals finished in third place with 162 team points, 27 points behind the No. 8 state-ranked Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks.
Pederson won the 113-pound bracket after defeating Baldwin-Woodville's Walker Langer — who had pinned the Prescott junior twice earlier in the season — by an 8-3 decision in the semifinals and claiming an 11-5 decision win over Ellsworth's Cole Nelson in the championship match.
"He went out and wrestled the best two matches he's wrestled all season today," Poirier said.
The Cardinals earned their second and final individual title from junior Joe Schulte who won the 220-pound weight class by pinning Regis/Altoona's Garrett Steffen in three minutes, 18 seconds.
"He went out and did what he needed to do," Poirier said. "With Joey a lot of times, it's hair-pulling to watch him wrestle because he puts himself in a bad position and gets on his back. He didn't do that today, which is good moving forward because from here on out he might not get that second chance."
Prescott senior Ethan Luksich qualified for sectionals as the 195-pound runner-up after losing to Ellsworth's Logan Melstrom by a second-period pin, and Shawn Thomason earned a bid for sectionals by winning his wrestleback match by pinning Osseo-Fairchild's Isaiah Waggoner.
"I thought Ethan wrestled well; he wrestled a tough Ellsworth kid," Poirier said. "Shawn has to continue to find a way to be aggressive. His aggressiveness was best in his final match today, and he needs to continue to do that against some of the better guys he's going to see, like Logan (Peterson)."
Peterson, Ellsworth's 285-pound junior will join teammates Cain, Cale Ekholm, Nelson, Bailey Poellinger, Charlie Stuhl, Carter Huppert, Jared Lansing, Sawyer Hamilton, Cedric Kosnopfal, Jared Toenjes and Logan Melstrom at Neillsville's sectional meet. Peterson, Stuhl, Lansing, Kosnopfal, Toenjes and Melstrom were all named regional champs on Saturday, while the other Ellsworth sectional qualifiers finished as runners-up.
"Looking at the seeds, we outperformed today," Matzek said. "We were ready to go today."
Matzek saw evident signs that his wrestlers had progressed since the previous week's Middle Border Conference tournament throughout the day and especially in Ekholm and Nelson's semifinal matches against their Baldwin-Woodville opponents.
Ekholm defeated Waylon Langer by a 12-10 sudden victory decision in the semis, and Nelson earned a spot at sectionals after defeating Walker Langer by a 10-5 decision in the 113-pound wrestleback match.
"It was great to see Cale and Cole beat guys they lost to at conference," Matzek said. "That proved how much the team improved in a week."
But only a fool would think Matzek and his Panther wrestlers are thrilled with a regional title.
"We were really mentally prepared for today, but I'm greedy," Matzek said. "There were some matches out there that I thought we could have won. But I'm proud of these guys."
The Panthers will continue their journey to the top by facing Medford at 6 p.m. in Osceola on Tuesday, Feb. 12, in their semifinal WIAA Division 2 Sectional A dual. Ellsworth and Prescott will begin their individual sectional runs at 10:30 a.m. in Neillsville on Saturday, Feb. 16.
INDIVIDUAL RESULTS (first top-two place-winners advance to sectionals)
106: First-place match: Luke Blanchard (Bloomer/Colfax) 21-4, Fr. over Cale Ekholm (Ellsworth) 15-17, Fr. (MD 18-4)
113: Ryan Pederson (Prescott) 19-15, Jr. over Cole Nelson (Ellsworth) 28-10, Jr. (Dec 11-5); Second-place wrestleback match: Cole Nelson (Ellsworth) 28-10, Jr. over Walker Langer (Baldwin-Woodville) 23-7, Jr. (Dec 10-5)
120: First-place match: Jacek Nickowski (Baldwin-Woodville) 32-0, Sr. over Bailey Poellinger (Ellsworth) 27-11, Jr. (Dec 10-5)
126: First-place match: Jordan Bonte (Baldwin-Woodville) 35-2, Jr. over Jon Cain (Ellsworth) 21-5, Sr. (TB-1 5-4); Second-place wrestleback match: Jon Cain (Ellsworth) 21-5, Sr. over Sam Murphy (Prescott) 18-19, Fr. (TB-1 9-8)
132: First-place match: Charlie Stuhl (Ellsworth) 34-3, Jr. over Sawyer Best (Bloomer/Colfax) 27-3, Jr. (MD 16-6); Third-place match: Tanner Merriman (Baldwin-Woodville) 18-12, Jr. over Grant Stanton (Prescott) 8-9, Fr. (Fall 3:34)
138: First-place match: Mitchel Harmon (Bloomer/Colfax) 28-1, Jr. over Carter Huppert (Ellsworth) 25-9, Jr. (Dec 7-1); Third-place match: Joe Garcia (Baldwin-Woodville) 27-10, Sr. over Cole Dravis (Prescott) 8-15, Fr. (Fall 0:32)
145: First-place match: Jared Lansing (Ellsworth) 31-5, Sr. over Sam Crowley (Baldwin-Woodville) 21-17, So. (Fall 3:04); Second-place wrestleback match: Sam Crowley (Baldwin-Woodville) 21-17, So. over Mason Cable (Prescott) 14-15, Sr. (Dec 13-6)
152: First-place match: Payton Kostka (Regis/Altoona) 35-3, So. over Sawyer Hamilton (Ellsworth) 31-7, Sr. (Dec 4-3); Third-place match: Max Ramberg (Baldwin-Woodville) 26-12, Fr. over Isaiah Tulip (Prescott) 12-24, Jr. (TF-1.5 5:32 (16-0))
160: First-place match: Cedric Kosnopfal (Ellsworth) 31-6, Sr. over Bowen Rothbauer (Bloomer/Colfax) 32-11, Fr. (Dec 8-2)
170: First-place match: Jared Toenjes (Ellsworth) 29-9, Sr. over Luke Fischer (Osseo-Fairchild/Augusta/Fall Creek) 21-14, So. (Fall 1:50); Third-place match: Kendall Martino (Baldwin-Woodville) 15-12, Sr. over Brett Nelson (Prescott) 5-16, Jr. (Fall 3:36)
182: Second-place wrestleback: Blaine Guthrie (Baldwin-Woodville) 34-4, So. over Alex Matzek (Ellsworth) 14-17, Sr. (MD 11-3); Third-place match: Alex Matzek (Ellsworth) 14-17, Sr. over Alex Ewing (Prescott) 5-21, Sr. (MD 9-1)
195: First-place match: Logan Melstrom (Ellsworth) 20-5, Sr. over Ethan Luksich (Prescott) 22-13, Sr. (Fall 2:20)
220: First-place match: Joe Schulte (Prescott) 25-3, Jr. over Garret Steffen (Regis/Altoona) 23-13, Jr. (Fall 3:18); Third-place match: Adam Malstrom (Baldwin-Woodville) 13-10, Jr. over Kyle Anschutz (Ellsworth) 15-14, Fr. (Dec 6-5)
285: First-place match: Logan Peterson (Ellsworth) 37-4, Jr. over Shawn Thomason (Prescott) 28-13, So. (Fall 2:25); Second-place wrestleback match: Shawn Thomason (Prescott) 28-13, So. over Isaiah Waggoner (Osseo-Fairchild/Augusta/Fall Creek) 13-22, Fr. (Fall 3:26)