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STOUGHTON — Summer after summer, cousins Cade and Brandt Spilde put in countless hours on the Spilde family sheep farm.

Chores were abundant and might include mixing feed, baling hay or feeding the sheep. Those summers developed their ability to work.

“I’m glad I grew up that way,” said Cade Spilde, a Stoughton senior. “It taught me a lot of lessons and a work ethic.”

So has his time in the Stoughton wrestling room.

“Ever since I was in kindergarten I would just come up to the practices, watch practices and roll around the mat, so, it’s pretty natural,” the 18-year-old Spilde said. “I don’t claim to have the best technique. I just work hard, and a lot of years of wrestling helps me through the close matches. Coming up here taught me work ethic.”

That diligence is demonstrated regularly in the wrestling room, where 160-pound Cade Spilde, 170-pound junior Brandt Spilde and 195-pound sophomore Brooks Empey practice with their teammates under the direction of longtime co-coaches Dan Spilde and Bob Empey, Brooks’ father.

Dan Spilde, a former state wrestling champion at Stoughton and Big Ten Conference champion at the University of Wisconsin, is Cade’s father and Brandt’s uncle.

“I think it’s kind of cool, because it’s more of a personal relationship outside and inside the (wrestling) room,” Brandt Spilde, 17, said of having his father Ken’s brother as his coach. “So, it’s kind of nice. He’s a really good coach and treats all the kids the same way.”

It’s nice for the coaches, too, said Dan Spilde, who described it as a “crazy-good feeling” when a coach’s child has a successful moment.

“It’s fun to watch your kid succeed at anything,” Spilde said. “To help be a part of it, it’s just that much more special. But your heart is a little heavier when they don’t reach their goals.”

Teams talk about being a family, but the Vikings really are one when it comes to familial connections and the length of time they’ve known each other.

“I think it helps develop a stronger unity of trust within it,” Bob Empey said. “We are doing this together to accomplish a goal and that’s what great families do. Through tough times and celebrations, families hang together for a common purpose to stay united for a common goal.”

The Vikings are top-ranked and the No. 1 seed as they seek to repeat as champions entering the WIAA Division 1 state team wrestling tournament Friday and Saturday at the UW Field House.

“The biggest thing is we have improved daily,” Bob Empey said. “I think that is our biggest goal. If we improve daily throughout the year that helps us prepare for this time of year.”

“I want to repeat as state champs because I know our team is good enough, and just to prove we can be the best,” Cade Spilde said. “We train really hard and we have a group of good guys who get along.”

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The Vikings come off last week’s state individual tournament at the Kohl Center, when Stoughton became the all-time leader with 51 champions after 106-pound freshman Nicolar Rivera and 138-pound senior Hunter Lewis won Division 1 titles. It was Lewis’ second consecutive title, following a title at 120 last year.

Stoughton matched a school record with eight state qualifiers and set a program mark with eight sectional winners, including Cade Spilde, Brandt Spilde and Brooks Empey, Dan Spilde said. For the first time in the program’s storied history, they advanced all 14 wrestlers to the sectional semifinals.

“It gives you a feel for the amount of balance and the amount of toughness across the board,” Dan Spilde said.

Empey at 195 pounds and 145-pound sophomore Luke Mechler earned runner-up finishes at state. Cade Spilde was fourth at 160.

“At the beginning of the year, we knew we could have this kind of team,” Dan Spilde said. “It has really come together nicely. The guys have really worked hard. It’s about staying healthy, and we’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way (including a significant foot injury suffered by senior Luke Geister-Jones). But we have been able to sustain and keep plugging forward. All in all, it’s been a lot like we hoped it would be.”

Many of the Vikings have known each other for years, including the Spildes and Brooks Empey, who all started in wrestling during the kindergarten and first-grade time frame. Brooks Empey said his first match was against Brandt Spilde.

“It’s a really close environment here,” 16-year-old Brooks Empey said. “With the Spildes, we are really close. We grew up together. I grew up with Cade, his brother and his sister. I grew up with Brandt and with his younger brother. We all know each other really well.”

Brooks Empey said he enjoys having his father as his coach.

“He makes sure I do everything right,” Brooks Empey said. “He’s fun to have as a coach, but he’s just my dad, too. He does a really good job. I’m very proud of him and I’m glad to have him as my coach.”

Outside the wrestling room, Brooks Empey said he used to show sheep when he was younger and was glad to learn from the Spildes.

“I learned they are one of the best in the nation,” he said. “If people want sheep, they come to the Spildes in Stoughton, Wisconsin.”

Inside the wrestling room, the Vikings have worked together in an attempt to retain their team title. They open against eighth-seeded Hartland Arrowhead at 5:30 p.m. Friday; the winner will compete in a semifinal later Friday against Holmen or Kaukauna.

“The neat part about it is this group has been a lot like a family,” Dan Spilde said. “It sounds so cliché to say that. But the whole group has been wrestling together, pulling for each other and helping train each other for years now.

“It reminds me a lot of the group that I came through with when I was younger. ‘Vern’ (LaVern) Pieper was my coach, and his son was my age. Though I didn’t have a dad on the coaching staff, I came through with the son of a coach, and that group was so used to wrestling together, it was a pretty neat experience. I didn’t know it then, but it was like I was learning by osmosis.”

Bucky!

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.