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December 12, 2019

Rhinelander High School wrestling coach Paul Ellenbecker addresses his team at the start of practice Monday, Nov. 18 at James Williams Middle School. After a year away, Ellenbecker has returned as the head coach of the Hodags. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander High School wrestling coach Paul Ellenbecker addresses his team at the start of practice Monday, Nov. 18 at James Williams Middle School. After a year away, Ellenbecker has returned as the head coach of the Hodags. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
11/21/2019 7:32:00 AM
Notebook: Ellenbecker packs the room in coaching return

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor

The wrestling room up in the James Williams Middle School balcony was abuzz with activity Monday afternoon as the Rhinelander High School wrestling team began practice for the upcoming season.

It was the first day back for coach Paul Ellenbecker following a one-year hiatus and he had plenty of familiar faces in the room with him.

"It's exciting. It's fun to be back and see all the old faces," he said. "It really made me happy to see our old coaches happy and seeing our alumni up here tonight. We had four alumni and five or six coaches helping out - just different dads and kids who graduated coming back and helping out where they can. It's good to see them happy."

Ellenbecker stepped down following the 2017-18 season but returned in October when the district cut ties with Nathan Piasecki following one year at the helm.

Right away, Ellenbecker went back to some of the philosophies that led the Hodags to four GNC championships in five years between 2013 and 2018. Practice was short but efficient and there was plenty of electricity in the room.

"The rest will take care of itself, I'm hoping. We can get the attitudes going here and get people excited, making wrestling kind of cool here," Ellenbecker said.

Numbers, which were a concern at times for the Hodags last year, were on the uptick, with 23 out for the sport on the first day. That's a couple more than Ellenbecker said he thought he'd have to start the season.

"I was hoping for 20. Twenty-one for sure would have been a good number considering we have only three seniors out here," he said. "We don't have much for seniors but we have enough kids at the lower levels that are coming back and we had some talented, athletic and tough kids come out - not very experienced kids, but I think we have the right kids to have a successful season, but it's going take a lot of work. It's going to be some highs and lows."

The Hodags will open their season with a non-conference dual Dec. 3 against Crandon at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium. Ellenbecker said, despite having a young team, he's not trying to cram a ton into the first couple of weeks in preparation for the first meet.

"I realize that this is a journey. I know this isn't a race," he said. "I know what we have on our team right now needs a lot of support. We need to make sure we teach the kids the basics and make it fun. I'm not saying we're not going to work hard and try to compete, but it's a fine line. You've got to know when to put the pedal to the metal and when to back off."

Lemmens cranks up competition at Hodag hoops practice

For only the second time in coach Derek Lemmens' tenure at RHS, the Hodag boys' basketball team suffered a losing season in 2018-19. The 10th-year head coach is determined to make sure it doesn't happen again this year.

Internal competition has been the theme this week as the Hodags begin preparations for the upcoming season. A number of the drills the team is doing have a competitive element to them, with repercussions (read: extra sprinting) for the losers.

The idea is simple, according to Lemmens, if this Hodag team develops a dislike for losing in practice that mentality will carry over to game nights.

"If you're giving your best then, chances are, you're not going to lose all the time," Lemmens said. "If you're not winning, there's probably something else you can do. Now we can just be positive and continue to reinforce what we want to see. The consequences will help instill that fact that we want to win and create that mindset."

Lemmens said the team wants to get back to the tough, hard-nosed, defensive mentality that has long been synonymous with Hodag basketball. Rhinelander didn't have that mindset last year as it allowed 63.1 points per game - by far the worst defense the Hodags have had under Lemmens.

"If teams are going to beat us, they're going to have to earn it," he said. "I don't think that was always the case last year. This is something that we want to change and get our culture back on the right track."

Numbers were high, as always, for the first couple of days of practice. Even with three junior varsity squads, Lemmens said the team will likely have to cut some players to have a manageable roster. That was part of the process during Monday and Tuesday's practices.

"We're trying to gauge our talent. I want to see where we're at, who needs to be in what spot," he said following Monday morning's opening practice. "These first two practices are going to be that. We're going to have a very full gym. We've got big numbers right now and we can't keep them all. We've got to make some decisions very quickly and then we need to get into our teams and we can really start working on what we do this year."

The Hodags have to work quickly because, just like last season, their first game is just around the corner.

The team heads to Wausau West tomorrow to scrimmage the Warriors who are coached by Lemmens' younger brother, Nate.

From there, it's on to road to Shawano to open the season this coming Tuesday.

"It really forces us to have to move," Derek Lemmens said. "These two-a-days allow us that extra time between conditioning and instilling what we do, but it allows these guys right away to get a taste of the season and get hungry. They're working toward something that's coming up really quick, and that creates that sense of urgency in practice."

Momentum continues to build for Hodag swimming

This is how coach Jenny Heck documented what she did in the downtime between the end of the high school girls' swim season and the start of the boys' swim season - "I took a big nap on Sunday and I think I'm ready to go," she quipped.

Of course there was very little time between the seasons. The Hodag girls' squad earned four trips to the podium and a fifth-place finish overall last Friday at the WIAA Division 2 state meet in Madison. Less than 72 hours later, Heck was back at it as the Hodag boys' team looks to follow up on similar success.

Last February the Hodag boys had four top-two finishes at state and finished third in the D2 meet. The momentum from that season, and what the girls' squad accomplished last week, continues to propel the program forward.

"A lot of the guys if they weren't there (at the girls' state meet), they were watching it on live stream," Heck said. "They were excited. It gets them excited. A lot of them went to the sectional meet. They followed at conference. They like to follow each other because you're part of the swimming community. It's fun to watch. You get excited whether it's you're team, the girls or boys."

One tangible measure of the program's momentum is a 33-percent uptick in participation this year, going from 12 to 16 swimmers. The team lost three seniors and gained five freshmen. Two others are new to the sport. Heck attributed that to both the success of last year's team and the character of the returning athletes.

"I think that's a great amount, a lot higher than we've had in the past. Not only do we have a great group of swimmers, we just have a great group of guys," she said. "They're hard-working, they're dedicated, they're fun to be around. It's a fun team to be on and, when you have kids who are just great guys and great leaders and great teammates, I think that's what people are wanting to be a part of."

Heck added that virtually every team member did some sort of training in the offseason, whether it was attending the team's summer camp, doing a couple of weeks of club swimming prior to the start of the high school season, or swimming independently. That's a good thing as Rhinelander begins its Great Northern Conference title defense in less than two weeks when it travels to Tomahawk Dec. 3 for the conference and season opener.

"We do not have time to get in shape. I'm really happy that they were going after it (in the offseason). I'm pretty sure they're ahead of the game and they know. They have goals. They know what it takes," Heck said adding the basic technique of the strokes has been the No. 1 point of emphasis this week in practice.

"Although we continue working on those all season, we want to start out forming good habits," she said.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at

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