Paul Ellenbecker speaks during a press conference at Rhinelander High School Thursday, Oct. 17. Ellenbecker has returned as RHS wrestling coach after stepping down for a season. He replaces Nathan Piasecki, who was let go by the district on Monday due to “personal reasons,” according to RHS activities director Brian Paulson. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
10/19/2019 7:34:00 AM Ellenbecker ready to 'get the old band back together' for Hodag wrestling
The course of the Rhinelander High School wresting program changed suddenly earlier this week. Fortunately for the Hodags, there was a wealth of experience waiting in the wings.
In just a few short days Paul Ellenbecker went from being on an indefinite hiatus from coaching wrestling to being the head man again, leading the Hodag grapplers onto the mats this winter. Ellenbecker was named the interim head coach of the RHS wrestling on Wednesday, only two days after the district parted ways with Ellenbecker's replacement, Nathan Piasecki, after only one year on the job.
When contacted by the River News on Wednesday, district activities director Brian Paulson said Piasecki's dismissal was a "personal issue," and declined to elaborate. Piasecki did not respond to a message left seeking comment on the matter.
The sudden departure could have left a significant hole in the program less than five weeks before the start of wrestling practice for the 2019-20 season, but the district was able to convince Ellenbecker to put his leave from coaching wrestling on hold.
"I didn't really plan on being gone just one year," Ellenbecker said Thursday in a re-introductory news conference at RHS. "Last year was a nice year to be away. As the year went on, more and more, I missed it. I was kind of following it all year long and I knew what was going on.
"With the situation that happened, it was an opportunity that was there and I'm very appreciative of being in the district and what the district has done for me. I'm also appreciative of the kids we have in the program - both in the past and in the present."
Ellenbecker said the decision to return was far from automatic. For starters, since stepping away from the wrestling program he has become more involved with the Rhinelander Lions Club, and had to inform that group that he would not be around as often. Then came the matter of broaching the subject with his wife, SaraLee.
"I asked her and she just said, 'You're going to do what you want to do anyways, Paul.' That was her answer," he said. "She's excited about it too, because she knows I'm in a better element when I'm busy and doing stuff like this."
While Ellenbecker has the term "interim" next to his title for now, he said he's treating this opportunity as if he's going to be back in the saddle for the foreseeable future.
"I'm not looking at it like a quick one (year) and out," he said. "I wouldn't be invested if I was looking at it like that. I woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning today and I was already thinking about stuff. That was one of the reasons why I got out of it but, now that I'm back, I can't help but want to do the best we can do and I know there's a lot of opportunities for our kids."
For Ellenbecker, the plan will be to return the Hodags back to their winning ways, both on and off the mat.
Rhinelander won four Great Northern Conference titles and never finished lower than third in the GNC in Ellenbecker's seven years at the helm from 2011-2018. Rhinelander finished fourth in the conference last year under Piasecki.
Ellenbecker said the goal is to once again be one of the top teams in the GNC, and part of the philosophy will be returning the coaching staff back to what it was prior to 2018. In addition to Piasecki, Ellenbecker indicated that Piasecki's assistant, Jake Hairrell, is not returning to the program.
Paulson noted that Ellenbecker, as head coach, has the ability to assemble his coaching staff as he sees fit, with approval from administration.
"I think this is good opportunity to get the old band back together and have all the people come together like they used to," Ellenbecker said. "It was a very successful seven years. We had a lot of fun, a lot of highs, not that many lows. It was a good experience and I did miss being around the people last year."
In addition to the four team conference titles, Rhinelander had six state tournament place winners, 14 state qualifiers, eight regional champions, 15 regional champions and 25 individual conference champions under his watch.
"We've proven over the years that kids in our program can do well at the state level," Ellenbecker said, noting that several of his former wrestlers have already reached to him since the news of his return broke Wednesday, to offer their congratulations. "I'm pretty confident that, over the course of the year, we'll go back to the way we used to do it and things will fall into place for us."
Rhinelander had one individual conference champion last year in 106-pounder Tim Fox, now a junior.
The Hodags had eight all-conference wrestlers last season, seven of whom are eligible to return this year.
Rhinelander's challenge was a lack of depth in the lower to middle weights, something Ellenbecker said he wants to turn around as soon as possible.
"I know last year we had a few forfeits but me being in the school and being in the community, being a member of this community, knowing the kids of this school and being here all day long and being a drivers' ed teacher, I get to see a lot of kids around school," he said. "Getting kids out for the program with coaching football and my connections, I was always able to fill the lineup and that's going to be a priority that we have enough guys to full the lineup and get some depth moving forward.
"I have little to no doubt that we'll be better right away. Our old staff, every single one that I've talked to is going to come back and help and some sort. We have so much experience here in Rhinelander. There's such a strong community of wrestling people. There's a lot of people excited about it."
Winter practice starts for the Hodag wrestlers Nov. 18.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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