THINGS TO WATCH
COVID-19 changes: It’s hard to find a sport that has undergone more drastic changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic than wrestling. Health guidelines recommend that wrestlers compete no more than once a week, adding that multi-team tournament settings are very much not recommended. As a result, the slew of gigantic, two- and three-day tournaments that usually take place between the holidays didn’t happen, and most teams are, indeed, wrestling just one dual or triangular match per week. No conference tournaments will be held, and strict distancing, masking, attendance and cleanliness protocols are being observed.
Tournament timing: With a nod toward clearing calendar space for the upcoming “fall-to-spring” season for traditional fall sports, the WIAA postseason calendar has been condensed. WIAA regionals will take place on Saturday, Jan. 30, with individual sectionals on Saturday, Feb. 6 and the state individual tournament set for Feb. 11 to 13, at sites to be determined. Team sectionals will be held Tuesday, Feb. 2, with the state team competition set for Friday-Saturday, Feb. 19-20, again at a site to be determined. Due to Dane County COVID-19 restrictions, neither state meet will be held in their usual spots: The Kohl Center for individuals and the UW Fieldhouse for teams.
In, out or delayed: The four Madison public high schools have opted out of the WIAA tournament, and with the regular season ending in two weeks, it seems certain there will be no wrestling this year at East, La Follette, Memorial and West. Meanwhile, Watertown Luther Prep and Lodi opted out of competing in the Capitol Conference this year, but are pursuing non-conference schedules, and due to emergency circumstances, Cambridge and Marshall formed a one-year-only cooperative program. Many of the other Dane County programs, facing health department restrictions, didn’t start practice until last week and will have three weeks of work before tournament time arrives.
Girl power: The WIAA has approved plans to conduct an official state girls wrestling tournament in 2022, making it the 27th state to approve separate high school girls wrestling competition. Perhaps the area’s most celebrated female wrestler is Stoughton senior Rose Ann Marshall, who is currently ranked 11th — among the boys — at 106 pounds. Also last year, Hanna Errthum (132 pounds) and Lexi Verhage (182) won championships in the state girls invitational, with Baraboo’s Alexis Winecke (106) and Cambridge’s Aevri Ciha (132) earning runner-up honors. Also winning a state title last year was Johnson Creek’s Mateah Roehl. Girls will be allowed to compete on the boys team until tournament time.
TEAMS TO WATCH
AREA PRESEASON RANKINGS
1, Stoughton: Coach Bob Empey and Dan Spilde’s four-time defending WIAA Division 1 state team champions (24-2 last year) welcome back two individual state champs in junior Nicolar Rivera and senior Brooks Empey, a third-place finisher in senior Luke Mechler, and 2020 state qualifiers Trenton Dow (a junior), Rudy Detweiler (a senior) and Griffin Empey (a sophomore). Nine seniors were lost to graduation, including state third-place finisher Gavin Model. The Vikings, ranked No. 1 in the WiWrestling.com weekly poll, return to action this week after COVID-19 forced a lengthy delay to the start of their season. Rivera (at 126), Mechler (160) and Brooks Empey (220) are ranked No. 1 in Division 1 in WiWrestling’s individual rankings. Griffin Empey is ranked third at 285, Detweiler is fifth at 195, sophomore Chance Suddeth is 10th at 120, Dow is 11th at 145 and Marshall is 11th at 106.
2, Waunakee: The Warriors, an honorable mention pick in the WiWrestling Division 1 state rankings, didn’t get to start practice until Dec. 19 and are finally ready to return to competition. Coach Mark Natzke’s Warriors return three senior state qualifiers: Braysen Ellis at 152, two-time qualifier Kolby Heinz at 126 and three-time qualifier Sam Lorenz at 138. Also back are three other sectional placewinners: Senior Daniel Ford at 182, junior Jayden Freie at 113 and junior Kaden Hooker at 182. Five of the Warriors appear in the current state individual rankings, led by Lorenz, third at 138.
3, Evansville: Eight wrestlers are ranked in the current WiWrestling Division 2 individual rankings, helping the Blue Devils grab the No. 5 spot in the team rankings. The highest-ranked of the bunch are senior Austin Scofield at 145 and sophomore Owen Heiswer at 160, both ranked fifth, and senior Collin Roberts at 195, ranked sixth. The Blue Devils are 4-0 in duals so far, including victories over Lancaster, Markesan, Whitewater and Clinton.
4, Milton: Star power gives the Red Hawks a leg up on much of the competition. Leading the list is 106-pound junior Riley Nilo, ranked second in Division 1. Also ranked are sophomore Royce Nilo at 126, junior Hunter Kieliszewski at 132, freshman Aeoden Sinclair at 145 and junior Kade Desormeau at 170. The Red Hawks always set up a tough non-conference schedule to prepare for the rigors of the WIAA tournament series.
5, Fort Atkinson: The Blackhawks, always a team to be reckoned with in the Badger South Conference, have dominated the competition in starting the season with a 4-0 record. The mark includes a 34-30 win over Cambridge and runaway victories over Capitol Conference leader Lakeside Lutheran, Whitewater and perennial Badger North contender Sauk Prairie. Senior Thomas Witkins is ranked fourth in the state at 182 pounds, and senior Jacob Horvatin is 11th at 220.
6, Baraboo: Veteran coach Joe Bavlnka led the Thunderbirds to a 7-0 record in Badger North duals last year and a share of the overall conference title with Waunakee, which was Baraboo’s first title since 2006. Then, John Gunderson wrapped up a 36-1 season by advancing to the WIAA Division 1 state title match before suffering his first loss. Now a senior, he is ranked No. 1 at 195 and is looking for a big season after suffering a broken hand and knee surgeries over his first three years. Senior Brandon Jesse, fifth at 138 last year, is back at 145, and senior Carlos Chavez, a 2019 state qualifier, returns after missing last year with an injury. Some strong underclassmen help to bolster the lineup, and Alexis Winecke, a girls state runner-up last year, will hold down the 120 spot.
7, Lodi: Coach Cody Endres’ Blue Devils qualified for the WIAA individual state tournament last year, after winning a mind-boggling 26th consecutive Capitol Conference crown. Lodi won’t compete in the Capitol Conference this season, so that streak will end, but plenty of Blue Devils expect to make noise during the regular season and post-season. Returning Division 2 state placewinners are Chandler Curtis, third at 120 pounds last year, and Parker Heintz, fourth at 106 last year. Heintz is ranked second at 113 in this week’s WiWrestling.com rankings, and Curtis is second at 132. Endres said “we bring back 11 guys who got significant varsity experience last year.” Also, sophomore Zane Licht is ranked seventh at 152, junior Wyatt Ripp is 10th at 285 and freshman Drew Lochner is an honorable-mention pick at 106.
8, Poynette: The Pumas don’t have a loaded lineup, but there are three wrestlers with genuine star quality in the lineup. Cash Stewart won the Division 3 state championship at 120 pounds last year. Right now, the junior is at 145 pounds, where he’s ranked second behind Coleman junior Karson Casper, also a state champion last year. Gunnar Hamre, fourth at state last year, is ranked second at 145. Also back are sophomore James Amacher (12th at 152) and sophomore Isaiah Gauer at 113 (honorable mention).
OTHER NOTABLE TEAMS
Listed by conference, regardless of whether the conference will crown champions this season:
Badger North: Portage, Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie.
Badger South: Monroe.
Big Eight: Sun Prairie, Middleton, Verona.
Capitol: Marshall, Lakeside Lutheran, Waterloo.
Rock Valley: Edgerton, Beloit Turner.
Southwest Wisconsin/SWAL: Mineral Point, Prairie du Chien, Fennimore, Lancaster, Iowa-Grant/Highland, RIverdale.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH
Area wrestlers in the top eight of the most recent WiWrestling.com weekly individual state rankings:
106 pounds: 2, Riley Nilo, jr., Milton. 113: 5, Chase Beckett, jr., Portage; 7, Colton Uselman, jr., Sauk Prairie; 8, Jayden Freie, so., Waunakee. 126: 1, Nicolar Rivera, jr., Stoughton; 8, Royce Nilo, so., Milton. 132: 7, Kolby Heinz, sr., Waunakee. 138: 3, Sam Lorenz, sr., Waunakee. 145: 5, Brandon Jesse, sr., Baraboo; 7, Aeoden Sinclair, fr., Milton. 152: 6, Zachary Gunderson, sr., Monona Grove/McFarland. 160: 1, Luke Mechler, sr., Stoughton; 7, Braysen Ellis, sr., Waunakee. 170: 2, Brody Hemauer, jr., DeForest; 7, Lowell Arnold, jr., Portage. 182: 1, John Gunderson, sr., Baraboo; 4, Thomas Witkins, sr., Fort Atkinson. 195: 5, Rudy Detweiler, sr., Stoughton. 220: 1, Brooks Empey, sr., Stoughton. 285: 2, Jay Hanson, jr., Verona; 3, Griffin Empey, so., Stoughton.
113: 2, Parker Heintz, jr., Lodi. 132: 2, Chandler Curtis, jr., Lodi. 145: 5, Austin Scofield, sr., Evansville; 6, Brady Schuh, jr., Monroe. 152: 7, Zane Licht, so., Lodi. 160: 5, Owen Heiser, so., Evansville. 195: 6, Collin Roberts, sr., Evansville.
138: 2, Gunnar Hamre, so., Poynette. 145: 2, Cash Stewart, jr., Poynette.