In this Feb. 24, 2018 file photo, Paul Ellenbecker yells instructions from the corner with a WIAA Division 2 state tournament match at the Kohl Center in Madison. Ellenbecker, following a one-year hiatus has returned to coach the Hodags this winter. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
In this Feb. 9, 2019 file photo, Walker Hartman competes in a WIAA Division 1 regional wrestling meet in Merrill. Hartman won 32 matches for the Hodags last year and finished third at a D1 sectional in Menomonie.
11/27/2019 7:30:00 AM Team preview: RHS wrestling Ellenbecker looks to lead Hodags back to top of GNC
Paul Ellenbecker is back at the helm of the RHS wrestling program following a year off. The Hodags dropped in the GNC standings last year, going from first to fourth in the conference standings.
With Ellenbecker back at the helm, he's eager to restore Rhinelander's place at the top of the conference.
How Ellenbecker and the Hodags go about accomplishing that goal remains to be seen.
"I don't know yet, but I know I wouldn't bet against us either," Ellenbecker said. "I don't think they're going to either. They aren't going to take us lightly, I know that. We're going to have a full team, or close to a full team, and that's half the battle. There's no free points coming out of Rhinelander. They can pretty much count on that happening. We're not forfeiting. Right there gives you a chance."
The Hodags are short on experience, with only five all-conference wrestlers returning from last year's squad, but Rhinelander has some young, unproven talent Ellenbecker hopes will break out at some point during the season.
"Our middle weights are going to be our big question mark, but we've got so much raw ability down there it makes me excited to see what they are going to do," he said.
A pair of juniors lead the list of returning athletes for the Hodags, both of whom finished one win away from the WIAA state tournament. Tim Fox was a GNC champion at 106 pounds, went 32-11 overall and missed state by one point in a 7-6 decision to Wisconsin Rapids' Preston Spray in the second-place match at sectionals last year. Walker Hartman was 32-12 overall, a conference runner-up at 152 points and finished third at sectionals.
"Tim and Walker, both of them finishing third in the sectional, both have a lot to prove," Ellenbecker said. "They're juniors now already and they both were right there last year. I think both of them have the ability to make it to the state tournament, but they got one more. They've got to want it all year and they've got to bring it when the time comes."
Two other juniors - Hugh Wiese (14-22, 113) and Ben Sinclair (25-13, 185) - return after trips to sectionals, as do seniors Connor Lund (11-7, 195) and Trevor Knapp (25-12, 220).
"We have half a team full of guys that have wrestled and been in big matches that are capable of winning 30 matches for us this year," Ellenbecker said. "We have that experience. We have the opportunity for our kids to do really well in this sport."
Ellenbecker said he expects Rhinelander to be strong in the upper weight classes again, led by Hartman, Lund, Knapp and Sinclair.
"Trevor was so close last year. This is his second year being the guy on varsity because he was behind our talented upper-weight guys his sophomore and freshman year. He's a kid you root for ... He really changed his body and grew up a lot. He's about 210 pounds right now.
"(Sinclair)'s about 195 right now, but he wants to wrestle heavyweight. We don't have a heavyweight and sometimes you get what you ask for. I don't think he knows what he's getting into but I also think he could be one of them throwbacks, guys that are 195 pounds that have speed, strength, power and a ton of drive. He could surprise everyone."
Wiese was last year's surprise, making it to the sectional meet in his first-year of wrestling. Ellenbecker said the junior lightweight has the tools to make another jump.
"You talk about tools, he has all the tools in the world to be a talented wrestler," Ellenbecker said. "Hopefully doing offseason wrestling like he did is going to make a big difference for him because his skill set is unbelievable. He's fast, he's strong and he's hungry."
Rhinelander's depth took a hit with three all-conference wrestlers from last season not back on the roster. The team graduated 160-pounder Eric Grulke. Gavin Ostermann, who qualified for sectionals as a freshman at 170, has opted to participate in swimming this year, and Alex Olson, an all-conference heavyweight last year, is not out for the team after sustaining an elbow injury during the football season.
The biggest question will be how Rhinelander fares in the lower to middle weights from about 126 pounds to 152.
"There's a lot of questions marks. There are lots and lots of question marks, but there are also a lot of positives to build a team on," Ellenbecker said. "We have athletes. We have size/strength guys. We have quick, fast-twitch muscle guys. We have guys with extreme heart and guys with extreme toughness. These are all traits you can build good wrestlers with."
The Hodags will be tested right out of the chute. After opening the season with a non-conference dual against Crandon Dec. 3, the team will travel to Wausau West for an invite Dec. 7, take on reigning conference champion Medford in the GNC opener Dec. 12 and then head to Bay Port for the Battle on the Bay Dec. 14.
"Our first two tournaments are going to be brutal and then we wrestle Medford the first conference match," Ellenbecker said. "A lot of kids will be thrown into the fire right away. Some people say that's not how you do it, but that's how we do it. We go out there and expect them to do the best they can."
Medford figures to be the conference favorite this season, with virtually all of last year's team returning. Tomahawk has seven of its eight all-conference wrestlers back as well. Ellenbecker sees Medford, Tomahawk and Antigo grappling near the top of the conference again this season.
"We're going to try to put 14 guys on the mat and see what happens," he said. "You don't get better by not competing. We're going to put our kids out on the mat and we're going to grow and we're going to get better."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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