By PATRICK SLACK
According to head coach Mike Hendrickson, the “brainwashing” started one year ago.
As the state tournament came to a close, the Little Falls wrestling team was determined that when the next year’s meet came around, it would be one of the teams competing.
At the Section 8AAA tournament in Brainerd, Feb. 18, the Flyers had the opportunity to turn that dream into a reality.
With three decisive wins, Little Falls proved it was not going to let the opportunity slip away, capturing the section championship and with it a trip to state.
“These wrestlers were not going to be denied,” Hendrickson said. “We talked state all year long, every single day.”
The Flyers opened the day with a 44-23 victory over Sauk Rapids-Rice in the quarterfinals, then advanced to the championship match with a 57-13 demolition of St. Cloud Tech.
That set up a rematch with St. Cloud Apollo, which Little Falls defeated 44-26 in its home opener, Dec. 8.
The path would be different, but once again, it led to a win, this time a momentous 46-24 triumph.
The second-seeded Eagles entered the match as a decided underdog that needed to win almost every close match to stand a chance.
That slim chance got slimmer from the opening whistle, thanks to Little Falls eighth grader Justin Jenks.
In one of the closest matches of the dual at 106 pounds, Jenks came out on top in a high-scoring overtime battle, 12-10, giving the Flyers an early lead and momentum.
“We thought we were going to get 106,” Hendrickson said. “We were up 8-0 and cradled him three times but could not get a call. Then the Apollo wrestler flopped us twice and almost pinned us.”
“It could have been a minus 12-point swing,” he said. “As it turned out, we got the takedown in overtime to get the win. It was a great start to a great night.”
Sophomore Axel Lange kept it going with a fall in 2:43 at 113 before a clash of ranked wrestlers 120.
Going up against Apollo senior Grant Dullinger, the eighth-ranked wrestler at 113, Little Falls senior Frank Wilczek, ranked ninth at 120, dominated throughout, winning 8-1.
“Apollo had weighed in up a class with a lot of their studs,” Hendrickson said. “We got the flip and intended to get a couple of key match-ups. They had Dullinger up from 113 to wrestle Wilczek. Frank really controlled him.”
Apollo got on the board with a decision at 126, but junior Connor Scherping answered with an 8-0 major decision before Levi Hoffman received a forfeit to make the score 22-3 in favor of Little Falls.
That cushion turned out to be crucial, as the Eagles used the strength of their three top-five wrestlers to rattle off 21 unanswered points and take a 24-22 lead with four weights to go.
At that point, Hendrickson turned to his team and said, “They win no more.”
But even he didn’t know just how right his declaration would be.
With four pins in a span of just three minutes and 41 seconds of match time, the Little Falls quartet of senior Adam Grams, sophomore Trysten Ross and juniors Joe Reis and Conor Swanson quickly and decisively put the Flyers back on top and into the state tournament.
“We knew we were going to beat them up top,” Hendrickson said. “I didn’t expect all the pins, but we got on a roll.”
“I was actually confident about the whole dual,” he said. “They wrestled very well. They are a very deserving group. I am very happy for them, but not as happy as they are. It is fun to see.”
Little Falls 44, SRR 23
Little Falls began the tournament with a 44-23 win over Sauk Rapids-Rice (SRR) to advance to the semifinals.
SRR seized an early 10-0 lead after 113, but the Flyers rolled from there, winning nine of the next 12 matches.
Wilczek, Swanson, senior Brent Berger, junior Jordan Petrone and sophomore Dan Mushel led the charge with falls.
Scherping and senior Dillon Kifer secured major decisions and Grams and junior Keith Yorek won with decisions.
Little Falls 57, SC Tech 13
Little Falls encountered even less resistance in its semifinal match, storming out to a 33-3 lead against St. Cloud Tech on its way to a 57-13 victory.
Jenks, Lange and Wilczek started the dual with consecutive falls, while senior Luke Lodermeier and Ross also earned pins.
Scherping, Kifer, Petrone, Yorek, Grams and Reis added wins.
Little Falls was scheduled to wrestle at the Section 8AAA individual tournament Friday – Saturday, Feb. 24 – 25, at Sauk Rapids-Rice.
This week, the Flyers will compete at the state tournament.
The quarterfinals of the Class AAA state team tournament will start at 9 a.m., Thursday, March 1, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Little Falls will wrestle against second-seeded Hastings in the first round, then either St. Michael-Albertville or Champlin Park in the next round.
All championship and consolation action will be held Thursday, with individual competition taking place Friday – Saturday, March 2 – 3.
This will be the fourth trip to state in school history for Little Falls and the first since 2006, when it placed fourth.
“Our balance has been the key for us for years,” Hendrickson said. “We have our tough kids year in and year out, but balance is how you win duals. This is especially true with 14 weight classes. Getting a quality wrestler at each weight class gets you in the win column more often than not.”
Little Falls 46, St. Cloud Apollo 24
106: Justin Jenks (LF) 12-10, (LF, 3-0)
113: Axel Lange (LF) Fall 2:43, (LF, 9-0)
120: Frank Wilczek (LF) 8-1, (LF, 12-0)
126: Braun (SCA) 8-4, (LF, 12-3)
132: Connor Scherping (LF) 8-0, (LF, 16-3)
138: Levi Hoffman (LF) Forfeit, (LF, 22-3)
145: Bengtson (SCA) Fall 3:05, (LF, 22-9)
152: Nehring (SCA) 5-0, (LF, 22-12)
160: Nguyen (SCA) Fall 2:20, (LF, 22-18)
170: Stram (SCA) Fall 6:43 OT, (SCA, 24-22)
182: Adam Grams (LF) Fall 1:03, (LF, 28-24)
195: Trysten Ross (LF) Fall 1:22, (LF, 34-24)
220: Joe Reis (LF) Fall 0:50, (LF, 40-24)
285: Conor Swanson (LF) Fall 0:26, (LF, 46-24)
Little Falls 44, Sauk Rapids-Rice 23
106: Rau (SRR) 12-1, (SRR, 4-0)
113: Olson (SRR) Fall 0:58, (SRR, 10-0)
120: Frank Wilczek (LF) Fall 0:51, (SRR, 10-6)
126: Dan Mushel (LF) Fall 3:59, (LF, 12-10)
132: Connor Scherping (LF) 12-0, (LF, 16-10)
138: Dillon Kifer (LF) 12-2, (LF, 20-10)
145: Krepp (SRR) 10-6, (LF, 20-13)
152: Keske (SRR) 11-3, (LF, 20-17)
160: Jordan Petrone (LF) F 1:13, (LF, 26-17)
170: Keith Yorek (LF) 6-3, (LF, 29-17)
182: Adam Grams (LF) 8-3, (LF, 32-17)
195: Pearson (SRR) Fall 3:11, (LF, 32-23)
220: Brent Berger (LF) Fall 3:20, (LF, 38-23)
285: Conor Swanson (LF) F 0:16, (LF, 44-23)
Little Falls 57, St. Cloud Tech 13
106: Justin Jenks (LF) Fall 0:31, (LF, 6-0)
113: Axel Lange (LF) Fall 2:37, (LF, 12-0)
120: Frank Wilczek (LF) Fall 1:16, (LF, 18-0)
126: Brouwer (SCT) 4-2, (LF, 18-3)
132: Connor Scherping (LF) 7-0, (LF, 21-3)
138: Dillon Kifer (LF) 4-0, (LF, 24-3)
145: Luke Lodermeier (LF) F 1:36, (LF, 30-3)
152: Jordan Petrone (LF) 6-4, (LF, 33-3)
160: Amundson (SCT) 12-0, (LF, 33-7)
170: Keith Yorek (LF) Forfeit, (LF, 39-7)
182: Adam Grams (LF) Forfeit, (LF, 45-7)
195: Joe Reis (LF) Forfeit, (LF, 51-7)
220: Trysten Ross (LF) Fall 1:59, (LF, 57-7)
285: Nieland (SCT) Fall 1:01, (LF, 57-13)