ARLINGTON - Perhaps the best thing that happened to the Sibley East wrestling team this season was falling off of everyone's radar at the beginning of the year.
The Wolverines managed just a 3-6 record during the 2012 portion of the schedule, at which point few people would have picked them as the favorite in a stacked Section 4A.
Since that point, Sibley East has been nearly unstoppable, including on Feb. 16 at the Section 4A team tournament.
Staff photo by Daniel Kerwin
The Sibley East wrestling team's captains (from left: Aaron Bates, Nathan Rose, Miah DuFrane and Mitch Wentzlaff) pose with the Section 4A team tournament champion’s plaque during practice last week.
The Wolverines defeated St. James and Windom Area to claim the 4A team title, earning their first berth in the team state tournament since 2007.
"I told the kids in the beginning, 'When you get to the end of the year, you always hope to have a shot,'" Sibley East head coach Chad Johnson said. "Sometimes you go into sections and you know you have no shot of making it, this year it was pretty obvious from the very beginning we knew we had a shot if things worked out."
When things weren't working out for the Wolverines early in the season, injuries were the main thing holding the team back. The team is 19-2 so far in 2013, with a healthy line-up top to bottom largely responsible for the team's turnaround.
"Having some of those guys just helps the team kind of get on a roll," junior Mitch Wentzlaff said. "Like when [Austin] Brockhoff came back, we got a couple guys right in a row that should put up big points and put up a win, it just keeps the momentum going."
Though Sibley East will enter the state tournament at full strength, the Wolverines will once again play the roll of underdog when they open their state tournament campaign against Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Although the two teams haven't faced each other in recent history, ACGC is largely regarded as the favorite in the matchup, having entered the tournament with the No. 3 seed.
Just as during the regular season, the Wolverines aren't going to let the odds hold them back.
"Going into the state tournament, five teams are seeded, and we're not," Johnson said. "If you read the Guillotine forum, no-one thinks we can beat ACGC. There probably isn't any other town that believes we can beat them other than the people in this town. Sometimes it's OK to be in that role, too, and we've been doing it for the most part this year."
Sibley East has prepared as well as possible for the challenge of ACGC by filling its schedule with a number of tough teams throughout the season. Although ACGC will be among the toughest teams the Wolverines have faced so far, Sibley East has a balanced line-up that will be hard to beat if everyone is firing on all cylinders.
"I think we've got a lot of guys that are capable of stepping up, and if they do, we have a good chance of beating ACGC," senior Miah DuFrane said.
Sibley East has the benefit of having seven wrestlers that qualified for the state tournament as individuals, six of whom have previous state tournament experience. The number includes all four captains - senior Aaron Bates (160 pounds), junior Nathan Rose (195), Wentzlaff (145) and DuFrane (220) - as well as sophomores Jason Meyer (126) and Austin Brockhoff (132) and junior Hunter Retzlaff (138). Wentzlaff is the lone member of the group making his first state tournament appearance.
"People know where our strengths are, and you take those six returning state entrants, they're all 30-match winners, they win 95 percent of the time," Johnson said. "So everybody else says, 'We've got to find those other eight spots and go after them,' and those other guys are accepting their role."
Despite the wealth of experience those wrestlers bring, the Wolverines have needed clutch performances from the other wrestlers in their line-up to get as far as they have.
In the Section 4A final against Windom Area, eighth grader Tanner Pasvogel and junior Mitch Heibel started things off strong for the Wolverines with victories at 106 pounds and 113 pounds, respectively. Senior Nathan Thomas has also made his presence known at 120.
In the middle of the line-up, Sibley East benefits from the one-two punch of brothers Mitch Wentzlaff and Jake Wentzlaff (152). Sophomore Austin Kube (160) and senior Brandon Ashton (182) hold down key positions in the line-up, with their results setting the momentum for the tail end of the line-up. Senior Clay Mogard wraps things up at the heavyweight spot.
"To be honest with you, everybody knows our six main guys, our six state [returners]," Johnson said. "Everybody knows them, but it's the three guys down low, it's the two Wentzlaff brothers in the middle and it's Austin Kube and Brandon Ashton right around Aaron Bates, those seven guys have been huge for us... We've got our studs, but we really do have just a solid, balanced team. You would say it's not balanced when you have guys that are undefeated and guys that are .500, but we're balanced in the respect that everybody just understands their role. I think that's one thing that's made us successful the second half of the year. Everybody just gets their part and understands their part."
For Bates and Rose, Thursday will provide them a chance to add to family legacies at the state tournament. Bates' brothers Andrew and Adam and Rose's brother Justin were on the 2007 Sibley East team, which ended up placing sixth.
Though Rose mentioned that at the very least he would like to see the team earn a medal, he knows that it's not wise to get ahead of yourself in an environment such as the state tournament.
"We're just going to have to take one match at a time, don't look forward to anything, because anything can happen," Rose said.
With no-one on the current roster having even participated in the team section finals before, Thursday will provide a new experience for all involved, no matter their previous individual state tournament experience.
"It's going to be a lot cooler to walk out as a full team rather than just going out by yourself," DuFrane said.
Though the Xcel Center is a bigger venue than most wrestlers on the team are used to, Bates is one that will encourage his teammates to embrace the atmosphere rather than shy away from it.
"I like wrestling up at the Xcel," Bates said. "It's a good experience. I like wrestling underneath the big crowd."
With other teams holding the burden of entering the tournament with the weight of high expectations on their backs, the Wolverines know that all they need to do is hit the mat and prove that they belong.
"I just kind of want to surprise people how good we actually are," DuFrane said. "People have been paying more attention to other things. A lot of people didn't even realize we were going to state until we mentioned it."
Included in the field of eight state tournament teams is a familiar opponent for the Wolverines in Chatfield.
"I'd like to see Chatfield again, I guess," Wentzlaff said. "We lost to them at a dual in New Prague by four, it was 35-31. We didn't wrestle a full line-up in New Prague, either."
Once action begins on Thursday, the one thing the Wolverines know for sure is that no matter how many people count them out, they won't be counting themselves out.
"It lets us go out, and you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain," Johnson said. "One of my kids will surprise someone, and you've just got to hope that the ones that are supposed to win, win, and my other guys, I always tell them, 'It's a great day to be great,' and, 'Go out and make something big happen, and everyone will remember you for it.'"