The Rhinelander High School wrestling team was happy to finish in a tie for third in the Great Northern Conference standings last weekend. That was the last time Rhinelander will worry about team standings this year.
For the Hodags, the focus now shifts to individual wrestlers as the WIAA tournament series kicks off later this morning with a Division 1 regional tournament at D.C. Everest High School.
It will be a different competition for the Hodags, who are still one of the smallest teams in Division 1, based on enrollment. The rest of the Great Northern Conference will be participating in one of three Division 2 regionals today while the Hodags essentially become the plus-one in a reprise of the Wisconsin Valley Conference tournament.
"It is what it is," coach Paul Ellenbecker said of a regional field that includes all of the Valley plus his Hodags. "We're not scared of the Valley. We wrestle with them all year long. The days of looking at the Valley like, 'Oh, god, it's the Valley,' are over. They put their singlets on. We put our singlets on."
The top team from today's tournament advances to the team sectional round later this week. Rhinelander, which likely will not field a full lineup today, won't be in the running for the team regional title, so all the attention goes to advancing as many wrestlers through to sectionals as possible. To do that, each wrestler has to finish in the top four in his respective weight class.
"This is all about our individuals," Ellenbecker said. "We're not going to win the regional. We don't have enough experience and we're not close to that. It's about our kids going in there, being selfish and trying to do the best they can to put themselves in position to make the state tournament."
Today's first round matches are very important as winning in round one could make life much easier later in the day. A win in round one advances a wrestler to the semifinals, where he's guaranteed to finish no worse than fifth. A loss sends a wrestler to the consolation bracket where he can only move up as high as fourth. What's more, should the fourth-place match be a rematch of one of the day's opening bouts, the winner of the first match will automatically be awarded fourth place and the final sectional qualifying berth.
Rhinelander enters today's tournament with only two wrestlers ranked in the latest Wisconsin Wrestling Online rankings. Trevor Knapp checks in No. 12 at 195 pounds and Walker Hartman received honorable mention at 170. Those two won conference titles for the Hodags last weekend in Medford, along with 113-pounder Tim Fox, who has dropped out of the Wisconsin Wrestling Online rankings.
The good news for Rhinelander is, on paper, no bracket appears to be overly stacked. No class has more than two ranked wrestlers, provided no one decides to make a late shift up or down a weight class.
That could bode well for some other Rhinelander wrestlers who placed in the top three at last weekend's conference meet. Connor Lund has only one ranked wrestler (No. 6 Peter Rucker, Wisconsin Rapids) slated to be in his bracket at 182. Cayden Neri has two ranked wrestlers, including third-ranked Wyler Lubeck of Wisconsin Rapids in his way at 152 while Ben Sinclair, who wrestled heavyweight but could drop to 220 pounds, would see two ranked wrestlers regardless of the weight class he choses. The 220 class is a little more top-heavy, featuring No. 3 Jaren Rohde of Stevens Point and No. 4 Orion Boe of D.C. Everest.
"It's an opportunity for some of our more experienced kids to go out there, see what their made of and, hopefully, just get through it and advance. That's the big thing. We'll see what happens," Ellenbecker said.
Wrestling gets underway at 10:30 a.m. at D.C. Everest High School.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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