In this Jan. 16, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Trevor Knapp raises the Handrick Hammer after the Hodags defeated Lakeland 40-33 in a wrestling dual meet in Minocqua. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
In this Feb. 15, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Tim Fox controls Wausau East’s Ze Yang during a WIAA Division 1 regional tournament at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield. Fox qualified for the WIAA state tournament with a runner-up finish at sectionals in the 113-pound weight class. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
3/26/2020 7:30:00 AM Team Review: RHS wrestling With coach Ellenbecker back in the fold, Hodags begin to rebuild
The 2019-20 season was one of rebuilding for the Rhinelander High School wrestling team as it tried to get back to where it was a few short years ago, competing for Great Northern Conference titles.
Paul Ellenbecker returned to the head coaching role following a one-year hiatus and results picked up for the Hodags, compared to the 2018-19 season. The Hodags finished tied for third in the GNC, up from fourth the year prior. Rhinelander also sent two wrestlers to the WIAA individual state meet, after being shut out of the state tournament a year earlier.
When Ellenbecker was reintroduced as head coach roughly a month before the start of the season, he talked about "getting the band back together" in terms of coaching staff and alumni.
"I'm just proud of our team as a whole and it was a lot of fun this year," Ellenbecker said at the end of the season. "I'm really going to miss going to practice. I'm going to miss seeing the guys because it was a lot of fun. The kids were wonderful this year. Their efforts were great and you can't say that every year."
Here are five storylines from the recently completed season.
While the Hodags had a number of experienced wrestlers, the team was very green in some areas - particularly in the middle weights. Ellenbecker said the team had plenty of capable athletes in those classes. The only thing they were missing was experience.
"Our whole team needs more experience. We have too many kids on our team right now that had under 25 matches in their life yet," he said. "There's a magic number when you get to that 100 mark, you start to figure it out a little bit. We're not going to get there with a lot of these guys this year, but wrestling is not just a sport you go out there and win. You've got to work at it. You've got to commit to it and you've got to get kids matches."
That showed as the Hodags took their lumps early in the season, dropping their first two conference matches and struggling in some of the tournaments it took part in.
But the younger wrestlers got better as the season progressed as Ellenbecker described anecdotally comparing JV tournaments at the start of the year in Marshfield and at the end of the year in Wisconsin Rapids.
"Earlier in the year coach Kreitlow went to the Marshfield tournament and I asked him how did it go and he said, 'We won one match, the whole day.' Toward the end of the year, we went to the Rapids tournament with our JVs and we were almost .500. We had a couple first-place finishes and I think our record was like 21-23."
The highlight match for the Hodags took place Jan. 16 at Lakeland in the second-annual Handrick Hammer dual.
Leading by one point heading into the final bout, Rhinelander's Hugh Wiese pinned Lakeland's Brady Abb in 36 seconds to give Rhinelander a 40-33 win and allow the Hodags to retain the Hammer for the second straight year.
While it was Rhinelander's second Hammer win, it was the first for Ellenbecker.
Given that the hammer was named in memory of his close friend and coaching colleague Tom Handrick, who passed away unexpectedly in 2018, the victory meant a lot more to Ellenbecker.
"This is by far the sweetest win I've had as a Rhinelander head coach," he said. "I feel pretty wonderful right now. The Hammer means a lot to me personally. I know it's not about me, but I'm happy to have that thing in Rhinelander for selfish reasons. He was my friend and it meant an absolute ton to get that thing back to Rhinelander and keep it there.
"To see Tom's wife, Kelly, and his mom and dad, getting a picture with them, it made great memories for me personally. I'm very, very excited about tonight. It's a great win for the program and we're super excited about winning."
Rhinelander entered the GNC tournament in fourth place after a loss to Antigo in the final dual meet of the regular season. The goal was to beat Antigo and moving up in the final conference standings.
Despite filling only 11 of the 14 weight classes at conference, the Hodags were able to accomplish their goal, edging Antigo by three points for third place.
"We wrestled really well overall. To finish this is a pretty big deal for us. It ties us for third place in the conference, which it's pretty sweet to be in the top half. It was a nice way to wrap up the conference season," Ellenbecker said.
Tim Fox, Walker Hartman and Trevor Knapp all claimed individual conference titles for Rhinelander. Ben Sinclair was the runner-up in a three-man bracket at 285 pounds. Cayden Neri and Connor Lund placed third at 152 and 182, respectively.
Back to state
The Hodags advanced only four wrestlers from the WIAA regional round, but all four were in the running for state tournament berths until late in the sectional round.
Fox qualified for state with a runner-up finish at 113. Ditto Sinclair at 220 after he pinned Stevens Point's Ben Raczek in the first period of the second-place match to punch his ticket to the Kohl Center in Madison.
Rhinelander's two other sectional qualifiers had near misses. Knapp lost to Wisconsin Rapids' Andrew Schutz 6-4 in the second-place match at 195 while Hartman finished third at 170 and did not get a chance to wrestle back for second after he lost to eventual runner-up Jacob Hansen of Hudson 3-2 in the semifinals.
In that match, Hartman hit a takedown in the final seconds and put Hansen to his back, but Hansen was not on his back long enough before time expired to award a two-point near fall and the match to Hartman.
Both Fox and Sinclair were one and done at the state tournament. Fox lost by major decision to Kettle Moraine freshman Quintin Wolbert 15-3 in the 113-pound bracket while Sinclair was pinned in the second period at 220 by Shawano senior Keith Tourtillott. Neither Wolbert nor Tourtillott won their quarterfinal matches, preventing Fox and Sinclair from being able to hop into the consolation bracket.
"We didn't have the best matchups, but we had opportunities today," he said. "Both guys are juniors and got down to wrestle in the state tournament. They know what it takes to get here now."
The Hodags will lose some of its depth in the upperweights, graduating Knapp, Lund and David Schramke.
The good news for the Hodags is that they will return three of their four sectional qualifiers (Fox, Sinclair, Hartman) and four of their six all-conference winners (Fox, Sinclair, Hartman, Cayden Neri).
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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