One year ago, the Rhinelander High School wrestling team was one round away from potentially earning a share of the Great Northern Conference championship.
That opportunity slipped away for the Hodags, who are determined not to let it happen again.
Rhinelander enters today's Great Northern Conference Meet in Medford tied for the overall conference lead with Tomahawk, but who will win the conference title is still anyone's guess. Four teams enter today's meet with a chance to earn at least a share of the conference title.
"I think the guys understand what's at stake here," RHS wrestling coach Paul Ellenbecker said. "We're excited."
One year ago, the Hodags led the GNC meet after four rounds, only to struggle in the final round and slip to third place in the final standings. Many members of this year's team were there last year at Lakeland Union High School when their opportunity to win Rhinelander's first wrestling conference title slipped away. Ellenbecker said the lessons learned a year ago will be leaned upon today.
"I think that was an eye-opener for our guys, to be the hunted," he said. "When we were winning that tournament, we were getting booed by the other teams in close matches. Teams weren't wanting us to win and we were like, 'what the heck's going on?' It was a lot of fun. It's fun to be the team that people are chasing and coming after. I think our guys have now been in real meaningful tournaments like that where the team score matters. I think we're going to be much more ready this year when we get into that situation."
"Our guys won't be as awestruck. That last round, knowing that if we would have wrestled a really good round we would have won the tournament, it's over with now. We've been there, done that. I think last year's experiencer is invaluable," he added.
Rhinelander had a chance to have a little breathing room entering today's meet, but a 41-39 loss at Mosinee Jan. 24 in the final GNC dual of the season blew the conference race wide open. Rhinelander and Tomahawk (4-1) share the conference lead with eight points. Mosinee and Medford (3-2) are tied for third with six points. Ten points go to the winner of today's meet, eight points for second, six for third, four four fourth and two for fifth. That means any of the top for teams can earn a share of the conference title by winning the meet.
For the Hodags the math is simple - win the meet and bask in the glow of being sole conference champions.
"We didn't want to share the title anyway, so this just puts a little more pressure on us to win the tournament. If we go out and wrestle like we can, we should be able to do well and win the thing," Ellenbecker said.
It would also serve as a little redemption for the Jan. 24 loss.
"(The loss to Mosinee) opened our eyes and how we bounce back is going to say a lot about this year's team," Ellenbecker said. "For being a young group, and only having a few seniors out there, to win the conference title this year would be huge for us. We've never won a conference title in Rhinelander. It would be an awesome way for us to move forward into regionals."
The numbers seem to be in Rhinelander's favor. The Hodags have five wrestlers ranked or honorable mention in the Wisconsin Wrestling Online state rankings. Tomahawk, Medford and Mosinee combined have five ranked wrestlers. Rhinelander will also have Connor Johnson back and hungry off his only loss of the season, when he injury-defaulted while leading at Mosinee because of an injured ankle in a 220-pound bout.
Johnson was the conference titlist at 160 pounds two years ago and 170 pounds last year. He will try for a three-peat this year at 195. Johnson was 3-0 in the three GNC matches he wrestled at 195. Other RHS wrestlers who were perfect in their weight classes in the conference are Dakota Stone (113), Jon Fox (120), Derrick Dumpprope (132), Alex Reas (138), Jordan Lund (145), Richard Klaver (152), Tyler Michel (170) and Adam Woebbeking (182).
Today's tournament is a round-robin format in each weight class. While head-to-head matches against Tomahawk, Medford and Mosinee will be especially important, Ellenbecker said no match can be taken for granted.
"Every match matters in the conference tournament," he said. "Every pin matters. You're not happy winning by seven points, you want to win by eight. You're not happy winning by 14, you want to win by 15. You're not happy winning by 15, you want a pin. We've got to do them things, and stay off of our backs, in order to win the tournament."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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