The Rhinelander High School wrestling team took its lumps Saturday at the Wausau West Duals and coach Paul Ellenbecker was OK with that.
Rhinelander won its final match of the day, edging Sauk Prairie 42-34, to finish seventh in the eight-team multi-dual meet in Wausau.
The Hodags faced some heavy hitters in the tournament, losing to Wittenberg-Birnamwood (48-33), Stevens Point (54-21) and Holmen (54-26) in pool play before falling to Wausau West (54-6) in the semifinals of the consolation bracket.
"This is probably the best this tournament has been in a long time," coach Ellenbecker said. "Wittenberg's up, Wausau West is up, Medford's very good, Stevens Point has their best team they've had in a while. We were really kind of overmatched with numbers and experience but I was very happy we could get a win at the end.
"This is a year about growth and getting better and that's what we did today. We got better and we competed against top-notch competition. I'm super excited about taking seventh place, which I never thought I'd say, but I'm really proud of our guys, how we competed and how we got better."
Some of Rhinelander's newer wrestlers stepped up. Sophomore Cole Lehman picked a good time for his first varsity win. His first-period pin of Dylan Breunig in the penultimate match against Sauk Prairie clinched the dual meet victory for the Hodags.
"It was good to see Cole, who just joined us, he was 0-4 wrestling a bunch of state qualifiers earlier on, really super tough kids," Ellenbecker said. "To battle back and get us a big win when we needed it so we could win a dual meet, I'm really proud of the effort he put in all day."
Walker Hartman continued his strong start to the season, going undefeated on the day.
"Walker had kind of an easy day for him," Ellenbecker said. "I think he had one close match against Wausau West, but other than that he took care of everybody that he had pretty easily. Walker's really coming on as a junior leader of our team. He's a kid that doesn't back down from anyone. He had a little tighter match against Wausau West than we would have liked, but he's just coming into his own now. He's a very experienced wrestler. He knows how to win matches and is getting that confidence going, a little bit of swagger, which is going to help him down the road."
Tim Fox went 4-1 for Rhinelander in the light weights while the Hodags had a quartet of wrestlers finish 3-2 - Ben Sinclair, Trevor Knapp, Cayden Neri and Josh Gardner. In particular, Ellenbecker highlighted the days of Neri and Gardner - a senior who joined the team this year after wrestling earlier in his youth.
"He's been a great addition to our room," Ellenbecker said of Gardner. "He's wrestling 138 for us and that's a very tough weight class around the state. The competition today was intense and the matches he lost, he wrestled really tough kids and did a good job. He's been great in our room and we're super happy to have him.
"Cayden Neri is just such a good athlete and I'm excited to see how Cayden does the next couple years - not only just wrestling but football and as an athlete period. He's one of the best athletes in our school and he's one of the few tough kids that can really handle the sport ... It's fun to watch him battle. He got so much better every single match. The sky's the limit for him."
The Hodags open the Great Northern Conference dual meet schedule on the road Thursday at defending conference champion Medford, which was also in attendance on Saturday. Though the Hodags did not see their conference rival head-to-head, Ellenbecker said he knows what his team will be up against Thursday night at Raider Hall.
"They are definitely the cream of the crop in our conference," he said. "This is the year they've been waiting for a long time. They have a really good senior class and they were really impressive today. They knocked off some good teams. We're going to have our hands full. We're going to have to wrestle really well and have some breaks go our way to compete with them. They're legit one of the better teams in Division 2 this year."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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