Editor’s note: Below are 1997-98 DC wrestling head coach Dean Jennissen’s unedited remarks from my questions to him.
Beyond the results on the mat, can you talk about the grind in the room, the behind-the-scenes stuff. Tell us about your coaching philosophy, and how it played out during the season.
Philosophy: All I know/knew as a coach came from my High School Coach Don Dravis, College Coach Roy Minter, my brother Neil and such legendary coaches as Greg Greeno at STMA and Bob Dettmer at Forest Lake. Ultimately, I believe God gave me a talent for “understanding” and “seeing” things on the mat and in the kids that I would not have figured out on my own. I believe it’s something He chose to gift me with – understanding technique, fixing technique, but more importantly understanding kids and how to motivate them. I am very thankful for that.
Dravis and Minter are both in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. It’ doesn’t get much better than that. I always paid close attention to what they were teaching and doing. They made a huge impact on me. Dravis – how to run a total program K-12 and how to work, sportsmanship, team first and humility. Minter – all of the “little things.” He was a perfectionist and would find ways to tweak techniques and capture all of the nuances of the sport. He was also a master at working your head – the mental part. Funny story on Roy… when I started at Willmar, he’d have me show all of the Cradle stuff because Staples was known for it. I was covering all of the steps when Roy stopped me and told me to change something. I was like, “Seriously, this is how we do it in Staples. We invented the Staples Cradle.” He just laughed and said, “Who do you think taught Dravis the Cradle dummy? It was me.” I didn’t realize that he actually did teach Dravis what he knew!
My brother Neil was invaluable for advice with all of the “stuff” that comes up during a season. He always had good advice and would help me reach a good decision I knew I had to make. Greeno was great at sharing at the MWCA Clinic in the fall. I’d pick up stuff from him all of the time. One of my closest friends, Paul Nelson was coaching with Dettmer in the mid-90’s when FL was very tough. He shared their team handbook and practice schedules with me and I learned and took so much from that. I didn’t know Bob very well, but it was easy to see he was very organized and had clear expectations.
Team first. Our #1 Goal each year was, “I will not put my needs in front of the team’s needs.” Academics, sportsmanship, character matter, service, humility. Be a great son, brother, classmate, friend. Sit up in class, pay attention, participate. There is no greater “preparer” for life like wrestling.
It felt like this team finally had the “buy-in” to the culture we were trying to create as a coaching staff. Academics, character, family/friends, faith and then wrestling were the priorities we preached each and every day. Accountability to our team’s expectations and goals was also key. It is one thing to say you will hold kids accountable, it was another to do it.
Little things matter in life, in wrestling, with technique. Keep the room clean, wash up your stuff, be organized, have a plan, set goals. I know I aggravated the kids with tweaking technique and drilling, drilling, drilling… but if the crossface is to be just above the elbow, that’s how it is. You cannot crossface at the bicep and expect it to work. It has to be perfect every time.
Make up time. You can miss practice, but you have to make up some of that time. You missed your training and that can potentially hurt you and and the team. Guys didn’t like this, but they understood it. Parents didn’t like it, but I think making up time helped.
Morning Practices. We made it a goal to outwork every team in our Section and in the State. I think we succeeded. Scheduled morning practices – guys were accountable for these. If they didn’t show up, the captains called the house. Optional workouts, most of the team was there. Christmas Practices – long and hard, but I think we used Christmas to separate ourselves from other teams.
Team vs. Individual Tournaments – we focused on duals and dual tournaments. When we got better, we made our schedule tougher. As I look back, I don’t think I prepared our guys very well for individual tournaments and the strategies they’d need to win them. I was always pushing them to go for the pin and sometimes it “bit” them by pressing too hard when they could have been more defensive and maybe even have taken a stalling call. I remember the ‘98 Guys and the State teams that followed wishing to bypass the Section Individual Tournament because they couldn’t wait to wrestle again as a team. We used that though as a teaching moment though and decided that we needed the Individual Tournament as another opportunity to “up our performance” And then State was an expected uptick in performance as well. That improvement each and every practice and competition I believe, incrementally brought us so far.
The Grind: This team really worked all season long. I don’t know that we really experienced the “grind of February” like so many teams do. The guys were always motivated and seemed to thrive on each practice and competition. It takes special guys, tough-minded guys to do this. They loved getting better!
Talk about the team makeup. The wrestlers on the team, the chemistry in the wrestling room, etc. What made you such a good team?
We were actually a young team with Senior Starters with only 4 senior starters and 1 alternate out of the 16-man roster. The captains were tremendous: Jake Long, Phil Sundblad and junior Matt Philippi. We always had the team elect a junior Captain to create continuity. Paul Halonen was another senior that, although wasn’t selected a captain, was probably one of the most respected guys on the team and best leaders. He was a great example of the “team first” mentality that really became our culture. The mentality of the team was just exceptional. There were just some tough dudes on there that didn’t take crap from anyone. Phil Sundblad and Jake Long would be at the top of that list. I think a lot of guys fed off of their mental and physical toughness. The work ethic of this team was tremendous. We had, in my time, guys that would come in for workouts at 6:00 a.m., but this team had the largest group of guys to come for optional morning workouts. We’d have probably a dozen guys or more every day and they didn’t just sit around chewing the fat, they got to work. The juniors and seniors were great examples to young, talented guys like Jordan Isakson, TJ Anderson and Steve Bratland. The team chemistry in the room and on the mat was incredible. These guys pushed each-other, they held each-other accountable and they had each-other’s backs. As a coach, it was amazing to observe their interactions. They were a very close-knit team and they are still are to this day. They were a focused team that was serious when they needed to be and yet, had some jokesters who could keep things light like Luke McLean, the Philippi twins, Brad Opsahl, Josh Krugen, Paul Halonen and Jake Long. We worked hard, but had a lot of laughs along the way.
I think one of our opposing coaches summed up this team pretty well with a comment that was meant as a slam, but really became our identity. He described the ‘98 DC Team as 13 “average” wrestlers. Well, those Average Guys made up one heck of a team. What really helped this team was when TJ Anderson and Matt Philippi sacrificed a lot for the overall good of the team by cutting some weight. It wasn’t easy for either, but when TJ made 112 it allowed Steve Bratland to grow into 119 and when Matt made 135, it allowed his brother Morgan to get into the line-up. Morgan was just mauling his JV competition and we needed him in the lineup. When we had that lineup there were no weak spots in our lineup. Teams would have to win 7 weights against us or get a lot of pins and that just wasn’t going to happen. Some would call them average, I would say every one of our guys were above average or better that year and when you have 13 of those, you’ve got a team that could make a run.
Starting the season, did you think the team had what it took to win it all? If so, why? If not, was there a moment you realized, we can do it?
Actually, we knew it the year before when we took STMA down to the last two weights in our old gym. Quinn Kelly and Brock Teske were Senior Captains that year that really helped lead and develop a young team. Both of us were undefeated in the WCC and this dual would decide the WCC crown. We’d been in this position before and really weren’t in STMA’s league… they were much better. This time however, our kids kind of took the “next step”. The meet started with a pin by TJ Anderson and we split two of the first four matches. Matt Philippi got a pin in overtime that really changed things. Jeremy Asfeld got a big win and all of the sudden the STMA coaches were paying close attention. You could “feel” the change in the gym. We lost 3 of the last 4, but as we went through the line shaking hands with STMA, you could see the look in their eyes… we had just a few seniors and they knew. When we got back to the huddle with the kids, I asked, “Did you see it?” I didn’t even have to explain what “it” was. They saw it too. STMA was nervous. They knew we were coming for them next year. That was probably the highpoint of the 96-97 season as we finished doing well in the WCC and then advancing one round in Sections before losing to Paynesville. We knew we had taken a step forward as a team. Individually, it was a heart-wrenching Section Tournament as we didn’t advance even one wrestler to State. This was the Section Tournament with the infamous “I quit” wrestler that in all intensive purposes cost Phil Sundblad a trip to State. However, the team did “breakthrough” in many ways. We had wins over two top-ten ranked teams, we set a new school record with 17 wins and ended the season ranked #12. The Section Individuals did leave a bad taste in our mouths, which, looking back now, was actually a good thing as it made a young, talented team very hungry for the next season.
Can you walk me through your recollection of the season: the regular season (the STMA match!), the section tournament, and the state tournament.
One key to the 97-98 season was Jon Barr enrolling in DC for the fall. Jon’s mom is a Lundeen from Cokato. His parents being Missionaries in the Philippines, they were on furlough for one year and that was a lucky break for us. The guys kept telling me about “Jon Barr” at the High School. Being an elementary teacher, I only heard from the guys that he looked like a great athlete. I saw him for the first time at a home football game and he definitely made an impression. Short, stocky, smiley. A nice kid. I had no idea if he’d contribute, but once we saw him in the room later that fall, he impressed. At Homecoming that fall Coach Lund was the Staff’s motivational speaker. I only heard later about his speech, but was told it was mostly about wrestling, how good we were going to be and apparently he told the entire Homecoming Coronation crowd that we were not only going to State in Wrestling, but we were going to win it! I heard about this the next day and it is one of the few times I got a little upset with Lundy. All off-season the kids kept hearing, “It’s our year next year.” I felt the pressure was building a bit too much on them. Lundy’s speech, in my mind, was just adding to that pressure. But, as everyone knows with Coach Lund, he’s a homer, he believes in the kids and he believes everyone of our kids can beat anyone at any time. I liked his optimism, but the season hadn’t even started! I got lucky when I read an article by J Robinson, the U of M Wrestling Coach at the time. The Gophers had been knocking at the door in DI for a few years, finishing 2nd too often. Coach Robinson’s approach going into their season was to take the pressure off of his team to win it all by simply focusing on what they could control: attacking for the entire match, wrestling their style and having fun. The wins and losses would sort themselves. I made a point of it to cut out this article, highlight it and share it with the guys and remind them of it often during the season, especially when the pressure or the big matches would come. It served us well and really became a part of who we were. Before every meet, we’d have a team prayer and I’d tell the guys, “Let’s go 6 minutes hard, let’s wrestle our style and come off the mat with our head’s up.” I could usually tell during the team prayer if the guys were ready. I could hear it in their voices and sense it in the tempo. That season, they were nearly always ready.
I kind of held my breath until football season was over hoping no one got hurt. I also made it a point to never push wrestling when the guys were in their fall sports, but I certainly could not wait for Captain’s Practice and the first regular season practice. You could see and feel the guys were too. This team did overcome some adversity from the get-go. We could see the potential in Jon Barr right away at 103, but he hyper-extended his elbow quite badly in our inter-squad scrimmage and would miss 6 weeks. However, I always say the most important squad in a program is the JV. If you have a good JV, you have a good varsity. 8th Grader Jordan Isakson was a great 103 lber as well and did a great job for us winning and pinning often. We won the DC Duals and were 10-0 heading into a dual with perennial powerhouse Foley over at Delano. This would be our first real test. Our guys were ready. We were up 27-0 before Foley got their first points. We went on to win 30-19 and we knew the guys were taking it to the next level. We went to 12-0 before the showdown everyone was waiting for: STMA @ STMA. They had just come off a big win over AAA defending State Champions, Apple Valley. I felt our guys were prepared, but you never quite know how they are going to respond. STMA hadn’t lost in 11 years in the WCC… we hadn’t beaten them in 25 tries… they had a 102 consecutive WCC match winning streak… they were two-time defending state champs… they had just beaten Apple Valley. Believe me, no one was thinking we could do it. Except us and our fans. The place was packed. The students all sat on the floor jammed up against the mat. The energy was phenomenal. Outside of the State Finals later that year, I would say it was the most amazing dual I’ve been a part of as a coach. It was a tight dual all the way with us getting wins from TJ, Steve Bratland, Luke McLean, Matt Philippi and Darren Salmen heading into the upper weights. Steve, an 8th Grader beat a Senior and Luke pinned a state-entrant with his patented slip-arm cradle. Luke was so crafty, he baited the kid into it and he fell for it. We ended up winning of 3 of the last 4 to take the dual… wins by Phil Sundblad, Ben Meyer and Jake Long. Ben’s win really took the wind out of STMA’s sails as he was only a 10th Grader and just hammered a senior from STMA. However, at HWT, the STMA kid gave Jake all he could handle and took the match into OT, where Jake quickly got the takedown, but it was way too close for comfort! Phil also gutted it out as he injured his knee in the match and would sit out the next week. The explosion that took place from our team and fans when Jake got that takedown was something I’ll never forget! I’ve always said, it’s you have to have teams like STMA to make you better. They were the best and we had to find a way to compete with them… and our kids did. I was really proud of them because they worked for it, they earned it.
We didn’t have much time to celebrate though as we had the Eastview Duals 2 days later where were defeated by Paynesville in the finals to suffer our first loss of the season. I felt our effort was decent, but the kids knew we weren’t at our best. We had a couple of guys out of the line up: Bratland and Sundblad which we didn’t use as an excuse, but we knew in the back of our minds if we kept working and improving and got those guys back, it would make a difference.
We finished the year well, tying STMA for the WCC Individual Title with an amazing 242 points each – which was an unreal amount of points for a 2 teams in a tourney. Greg Greeno their coach was such a class act. He called me on Sunday after the tourney and said he recalculated the points and he thought we had won by a ½ a point. I said, “Oh, that’s nice” and went back to working on wrestling stuff at home. He called me about an hour later and told me he re-did the numbers and figured STMA won. Same reply, “Cool, congratulations.” Finally, he called me a 3rd time and told me the original scoring was correct… 242 for each of us. We both laughed about it, but my reaction didn’t change. “Cool” was about it. I always told the guys a WCC Crown is a feather in the cap, a measuring stick of how much we are improving, but we didn’t focus on the Conference as it’s a tournament that advances you nowhere… gets you nowhere. Our bottom line was always, “Did we wrestle better than our last practice or competition?” If we didn’t, it was on us and the kids thrived on that 1% improvement motto that was copied from Augsburg College, the DIII powerhouse at the time.
We finished the dual season with big wins over ranked teams Kimball and Litchfield and got the #1 seed in the Section despite our loss to Paynesville. I think all of the coaches in the seeding meeting knew we were missing two key guys the day we lost to Paynesville, but I also knew crafty Hall of Fame Coach, Virg Vagle was more than happy to take the underdog role and work his kids’ heads about beating us and getting seeded below us.
In the Section Duals we came to wrestle in the first round and took it to ANN/ML and then met ROCORI in the Semi’s. The Final 4 was in ROCORI that year and they had a nice team, but we wrestled well and kind of took care of business, nothing flashy. On the other side of the bracket Litchfield was actually the #2 seed and Paynesville #3, but the Bulldogs as they always did, rose to the occasion and came away with a 1-point win setting the stage for our rematch. I remember the guys in the locker room being a bit too tense in my mind, but I kind of just let them do their thing and prepare the way they always did, pacing and high-fiving each other, not much being said. I was confident they were ready, but as always, you never quite know for sure.
When we came out for the finals, you could sense the energy in the gym and the place was packed to the gills. Our fans were loud and took up a large portion of ½ of the gym. We started out with a 9-0 lead with a win by Barr at 103 and a pin by TJ at 112. We finally taught Jon how not to clasp as he was only used freestyle wrestling before coming to DC. He hadn’t wrestled much either having sat out most of the season with that elbow injury. TJ’s match was very close, but as he became very good at, he notched it up for the biggest matches and his pin ended up being HUGE. We ended up losing the next 5 matches, but all by decision which really became the key to our overall success as a team every year… we just didn’t give up big points. That really came down to staying in good position for 6 minutes and in all 3 position and our guys really prided themselves on that. We were worked on it constantly and they just became so fundamentally sound. I was always so proud of the kids how they could do this without being told by a coach. They really became coaches themselves and I had no doubt, as coaches, we really didn’t need to say anything, they had it.
Darren Salmen got us back to winning at 145, but then Josh Krugen built a 12-2 lead and ended up getting pinned in some “Paynesville funk” as we came to call it. I always compared their guys to steer wrestlers in a rodeo. They just kind of grabbed you by the horns and tossed you to your back with what seemed in mind, to be very little technique or finesse, just a lot of brute power and “want to.” Vagle could always get his guys to exceed their natural ability it seemed. I remember myself as a coach and all of the coaches and the team screaming at Josh to let the kid go in the 3rd period because he was setting Josh up for that move, but Josh could not hear us because it was so loud in there. I really thought that loss was going to haunt us. Phil got us back on track with 4 team points at 160, but then Jeremy Asfeld got taken down right away and dumped to his back at 171 and I thought it was completely over. I had a good view of Jeremy on his back and what I saw, was his back flat to the mat. Thankfully, the Ref was a little slow to get over to where he could see what I saw and Jeremy was able to wriggle out of that one. He went on to lose only by decision, but the Ref being out of position truly saved us. I knew the Ref from years of coaching and every time I’d see him in the years to come, I’d always say, “I am so thankful you were slow to get over there” and then I’d try to hug him. He’d push me away and we’d laugh about it. I ended up living by him and seeing him quite often in Buffalo the last couple of years and I’d still tell him that every time and try to hug him… hilarious!
We were down 24-16 but were favored in the last two matches, but we needed bonus points and with how well Paynesville was coached, those points would be hard to come by. Thankfully we Ben Meyer at 189. In my opinion, he was the best 10th Grade upper-weight wrestler in the State that year. Ben really improved from his 9th Grade year when he took a lot of losses, but you could see that constant fight in Ben. He’d be way overmatched with Seniors and high-quality wrestlers who would think they could throw this little 9th Grader around and they’d usually do that for a period or two, but Ben would just keep fighting and was usually in better shape than the other guy. He worked harder than anyone on that team and it all started his 9th Grade year when he earned the respect of all of us with his toughness, fight and guts. So him taking on a Junior from Paynesville, we had the advantage. Ben was taking it to his guy and we had this little “team thing” that year that we’d say we wanted to be “smiling when the 3rd period came” because we knew we were in better shape than the other guy. We truly made it our goal to outwork every other team in the State. There’d have been no way to measure or compare our work ethic, but I believe we would have made a strong case for “Work Ethic State Champs.” Anyway, the 3rd Period comes and Ben has this big ‘ol grin on his face as he looks over at our bench. It just fired everyone up. All of the guys would try to match Ben’s big ‘ol smile when their 3rd period would come, but none of them measured up to Ben’s grins. I think some people thought he was being cocky, but Ben was that confident in his conditioning, he had put in the time. Ben got us 4 team points with a Major Decision to make the score 20-24 with Jake coming to the mat. Really it as just a matter of time with Jake. He was a tremendous Hwt. and he ended up getting a first-period pin. Jake was a great athlete and when he moved from 189 to Hwt. his Senior year and only weighed about 210, I wasn’t sure how he’d handle it. But, Jake was not only a great athlete, he was smart and and had a pretty laid-back disposition. It was kind of the perfect combination of traits if you were trying to build the perfect Hwt. When Jake got that pin it was kind of like STMA all over again, but even better! This time, it advanced us somewhere, to State! I was so happy for the kids and watching them celebrate with all of their high school friends, families and what seemed like the entire DC community was something you like to freeze in your mind. I did notice however, one kid who was not celebrating and that was Josh Krugen. He was so disappointed in his performance. I remember taking him aside and telling him to forget about it because we’d need him at State and that he was going to do something special to make up for tonight. I’m no prophet, but I didn’t know at the time just how prophetic those words were.
The boys, cheerleaders and managers always had the opportunity to ride home with parents after every meet, but rarely did and especially not on this night. There was so much energy on that bus we could have run out of gas and still made it home. I always talked to the boys once we got to the school’s parking lot and kept them on the bus. I reminded them that night that we had to run the Jim Lindquist Elementary Duals the next day at 10:00 a.m and then told them we’d be doing that after we completed practice Saturday morning which would start at 8:00 a.m. Not one guy batted an eye… they just looked at me like, “Sounds good Coach.” That is the kind of team they were. I felt like we had to get better before the Section Individuals and Saturday was one more opportunity to improve. We had been doing Saturday practices when we could in previous years at DC, so they were accustomed to it. It was something we did at my old high school, Staples, so it just felt natural to me. So we unloaded with a bunch of cheering fans waiting for us.
I didn’t know it, but my wife Lisa had told the fans to come over to our house on 1st Street in Dassel after the meet. It had to be about 11:30 p.m. when I finally made it home to find I couldn’t park at my own house – there were cars everywhere. I also got into the front door and realized the interior door was off the hinges because it was deemed, “in the way.” I also remember stepping onto what appeared to be literally shoes stacked 3 feet thick. Our house was not big and it was packed with mostly people I knew and a few I didn’t. I guess people just weren’t ready to go to bed that night. I also remember pulling into the driveway and seeing my daughters Colee, 4 years old and Briann 7, jumping up and down at the entrance when I drove up and thinking, “Shouldn’t they be in bed?”
We had a great practice the next day and I remember some of the Litchfield and GSL youth coaches coming up to me in the morning and remarking how they couldn’t believe that we weren’t taking the day off after just winning the Section. I guess that was just our mentality. We had a slogan that we used often, “The only easy day was yesterday.” And another that served us well, “If what you did yesterday still seems big to you, you haven’t done much today.” I look back now and realize the guys and the coaching staff had created a culture that would even have PJ Fleck rowing the boat with us.
Our mindset going into the Section Individual Tournament was that we wanted to wrestle better than we did at Section Duals. We had to take it up another notch and we did. I think the guys were so relaxed because their tickets were “punched” so to speak. They wrestled very, very well qualifying six guys and placing all 13 in the top 6. One of our goals for the season. We even avenged some of our losses against Paynesville which really showed the level the guys were at heading to State in a week.
I wanted the wrestlers, cheerleaders, managers and coaches to experience what I did as a high school wrestler at Staples, MN High School. Every year I was in school from Grades 7-12 we won the Class A State Title back when there were just two classes. We were considered the Apple Valley of our day and our coach had a certain way he did things. Going to State every year was no different. We had the same routine, the same buses, the same send-off, stayed at the same hotel, ate the same meals… it was by the book and it worked.
So, I only knew one way of doing things, the Staples Way. We had the guys practice before the send-off. I felt we needed one more practice. This almost backfired when during literally our last 15 seconds of the practice Ben Meyer is head-butted by Jake Long and splits his eye open, blood everywhere… stitches unavoidable. We had a ½ hour before the pepfest in the Middle School so we send Ben to the Clinic to get the stitches and he made it back by the start of the HS pepfest with a bandage on his head covering most of his eye. We had to get him cleared to wrestle with the stitches, which worked out.
We did the pepfests, the whole team dressed up in their very best clothes. We always said, “Look good, feel good. Feel good, wrestle good. Wrestle good, that’s good.” We dressed up for every meet or match. It was funny however, seeing what some of the kids had to go through to find a suit or sportcoat and to see them trying to tie a tie. There were some ill-fitting jackets borrowed from dad’s, uncle’s or older brothers!
The kids got to speak to the crowds, ride the fire trucks and go by the elementary schools. It was a blast! I will always remember leaving Dassel and heading to Cokato Elementary on Hwy 12 and gettin close to where Teske Trucking is now… Billy Aho had his car pulled over pointed to the West and was standing on the roof of his car waving and bowing to us with the “I’m not worthy…” pose. It was hilarious as he was pretty tight with Jake Long and Paul Halonen and many guys on the team. Down at State, he and his posse were all dressed up in Reffing shirts and multi-colored wigs… they were like our Super Fans and we appreciated it.
We pulled through Cokato Elementary and all of students and teachers were standing by the curb with signs and banners and pom poms just like they had done at Dassel Elementary. We stopped pulled to the edge town and the team exited the fire trucks and got on our favorite bus, #15 driven by our personal driver, Dean Mahlstedt. He became like one of the coaches after being our driver for what it seemed like, every important match that season. He was awesome, ensuring the guys were picked up and dropped off curbside all weekend and we had some early mornings each day.
Off to State, heading down Hwy 12 and to the Civic Center for one more workout and to get the guys used to the “feel” of the arena. Not one of them had ever stepped foot on the floor and mats of the Civic Center as a competitor before, so I thought it was important they got to feel and experience wrestling on those mats. I had been there myself as a 9th Grader on a State Champ team from Staples in 1982 and remembered how in “awe” I was as you looked up from the mats to the enormity of the space. I wanted to be sure the guys didn’t freeze when they ran out the next day. It was kind of intimidating to be down there with all of the teams that seemed so relaxed because they’d been there many times: Staples, Foley, Blue Earth, Jackson County Central, Zumbrota-Mezeppa. Us, Brooklyn Center and BCLB were the newcomers. If our guys were in awe or intimidated, they didn’t show it. We had guys like Josh Krugen and Paul Halonen who kept things loose and had the guys joking and laughing most of the time. We just did a little “roll through” practice since most guys were on weight. TJ and Matt were watching it tight as was Paul Halonen. They had to work out extra. I had asked Paul to drop from 160 to 152 for the first round of State as I was going to hold Josh Krugen out of the lineup for Round 1 for a little hiccup he’d had the week before by not meeting team expectations. We, as a team had high expectations and if any one member of the team put their needs in front of the team’s, they were held accountable and it usually cost them a couple of meets. Josh had to sit out of the Section Individual as well and Eric Pokornowski took full advantage of that by placing 5th in a stacked weight class. We had an excellent JV. We made weight and then it was our tradition at Staples and became our’s at DC, we got dressed up and went out to eat as whole team, managers, cheerleaders and the guys. They all looked great dressed up and sharing a meal.
Thursday’s competition was individuals in the morning and all team duals were at night. We had a decent first day individually with Darren Salmen making the Semifinals. As a team we met after the individuals were done to talk about our opponent Brooklyn Center. We didn’t know much about them and the only common opponent we had was Watertown-Mayer. WM had beaten BC by a pretty decent margin so I figured we were better than them, but I didn’t want to be unprepared so I did call Joe Traen, the coach at WM. Joe was a great guy and we had a great relationship. He was one of those opposing coaches who respected the sport and everyone in it. He became a good friend through the years of coaching against each other. Joe’s scouting report, “You guys will kill them.” Ok, well, that was nice to hear, but I certainly didn’t tell the team that! They were tough at 103, 112, 125, 135, 145 and 160. I basically had the boys convinced they were good at every weight! Realistically, I didn’t want them to get rolling on us early, so I figured we’d need to win at least two of the first 4. Once a team gets momentum, even their poorer wrestler seem to get better. Jon Barr got us off to a great start with a pin. TJ drew their best wrestler and was Teched. I flipped Steve Bratland and Luke McClean at 119 giving Luke a wrestler I figured he’d beat and have Steve take on their better wrestler. Luke came through with a pin and Steve lost a close one. We’d split the first four as I’d hoped. Brad Opsahl got a pin at 130 and Matt Philippi turned in the best performance of the day pinning probably their 2nd best wrestler, Shawn Williams who ended up placing at 135 behind Matt. Matt and Williams went back and forth trading points in some crazy scrambles until Matt ended up on top and got the fall. From there, we just rolled with pins by Morgan Philippi, Ben Meyer, Jeremy Asfeld and Jake Long. Darren Salmen had a TF at 145 and Phil Sundblad got a decision at 160 over a good wrestler. Most of our pins came via the Cradle, our favorite move. It was really fun to see the guys so aggressive and doing what we did best. The momentum for us just kept building. We were on a corner mat so it was like our fans were wrapped around us. With every pin the crowd got louder and with every quick pin it seemed like the announcer was announcing our successes every 30 seconds. In an arena like that everyone hears the announcements and it creates an atmosphere of “What is going on over there? Who is Dassel-Cokato? And, Holy Cow, these guys are really taking it to Brooklyn Center.” And were were to the tune of 61-8. We won 11 of 13 matches and all but one with bonus points. 8 pins and 2 tech falls. The guys were on fire!
I didn’t mention 152 because this was my favorite performance of the day. Senior Paul Halonen cut from 160 to 152 so I could get him the match replacing Josh Krugen. Paul didn’t waste the opportunity getting a Tech Fall and 5 team points. I was so happy for him because Paul was such a “team guy.” He was not a full time starter as a Senior and I look back it’s guys like Paul that were my favorite wrestlers. On today’s wrestling teams, it’s rare to see a Senior on the JV. Back then, it was rare too, but not at DC. We’d have 2 or 3 every year. I was very proud of that as a coach and as a program. We tried to find a role for every guy on the team and stressed the importance of every guy’s role. We knew we needed to be deep. We needed EVERY guy to make it through the season. If your worst guy quits, now there is a new worst guy. It didn’t matter who it was, we needed them and needed them to stay out. I have always said the most important team in the program is the JV. If you have a great JV, you have a great Varsity. Paul was a great leader of our overall team, especially on the JV. The younger guys respected him. Paul filled in for Phil Sundblad when he was rehabbing his knee and did a great job for us. He was also a spot starter for us over his career and never once complained when I would throw them out there against the other team’s best guy. He would do his job, keep the points low and help us win. To get a match at State was a real highlight for our coaching staff and then to see him to so well, it’s one of those things you don’t forget and something you use to motivate all of your future wrestlers who are struggling to understand their role. Paul, in mind, truly epitomized everything we were searching for in a young man. Selfless, hard-working, durable, dependable and willing to do what it takes to help his team. A young man with tremendous potential because of his character.
After the roll we got on against BC, we were feeling very confident. I didn’t know much about Blackduck-Cass Lake- Bena, but had gotten a scouting report from legendary Paynesville Coach Virg Vagle. Paynesville had defeated BCLB in late January by a few points so you’d think we’d be favored, but Vagle isn’t one to sugar-coat things. He basically told me we didn’t match up well with him and he wasn’t positive we could win. Thanks for the encouragement… not! I didn’t mind his assessment though. We were in the Semi’s and that was further than our wildest dreams imagined! Their coach Jerry Cleveland was a Staples guy too… so I figured they’d be great on the mat and have a great Cradle series… and they did.
BCLB was stacked down low with State Finalists at 103, 112, 119 and 125. They also had tough guys at 130, 135, 140, 145, 171 and Hwt. But, I felt we were better at all of the weights after 125. We needed to keep it close in the first four and we did for the most part. Jon Barr and Steve Bratland both kept their guys to decisions. Luke McLean got a State Champ and made him work for a 3rd period pin. The story of the dual was TJ Anderson. He defeated the State Runner-up at his weight by turning him for a 3rd period 3-point nearfall. He wrestled an incredible match and did so being very sick and throwing up after the match. That was the key to the dual and you could see their team pretty much knew it even though it was only the second of 13 matches. It was that unexpected. The Philippi’s and Phil Sundblad did their jobs. Josh Krugen lit up his guy at 152 with a quick pin that really gave us a spark. Jeremy Asfeld did a great job keeping a very tough wrestler to a decision and then Ben Meyer destroyed their 189 lber setting up Jake for the death blow. Their Hwt. was in the State Tournament as an individual. He was a huge guy – maxing out the 275 lb. limit. Jake ate him up and eventually pinned him to seal the deal at 30-21. The kid, the fans, the coaches we were all just going crazy… we were in the State Finals! I don’t think many in the arena even knew who DC was, but with our huge crowd, a lot of people were jumping on the bandwagon! As I look back now, I think TJ’s effort was one of the guttiest I’ve seen in my career and what I learned by his Senior year to be “classic TJ.” One of our best and toughest of all time.
We had been watching JCC all tournament and to be honest, we were intimidated. At least I kind of was. I guess the guy weren’t. From the first moment we saw them warming up, we thought “Whoah, these guys are intense!” The other 7 Class AA teams would warm-up in the same general area in the tunnel under the arena. Not JCC. Their coach, the legendary Randy Baker had them behind some glass doors away from the other teams. They were drilling very intensely, sweating, quick pace, very serious. Their “feet” technique was incredible. They looked like machines. Coach Baker looked like a machine. The favorite in the tournament was Blue Earth. JCC picked 2nd. They would meet in the Semi’s after dispatching their first round foes. Blue Earth had 3 multi-time State Champs in their lower weights and scored all of their 18 points down low. JCC just racked them the rest of the way though winning 42-18 over the team picked to win it! The whole arena was tuned into the beat down and it was impressive. I was plenty focused on BCLB on our mat, but every once in a while would look over at JCC and BEA and think to myself, “Wow, they’re killing them!” After we had won, we watched their last couple of matches and JCC got pins I think. I remember thinking, “Red ribbons (for 2nd place) wouldn’t be bad…” Well, I am glad the guys had more confidence. I am thankful God gave me some confidence because come Saturday afternoon for the finals, I had no doubt we could beat them. They may have looked like giants, but I felt we were prepared to take them down… here we go!
Team meeting in the hotel room, you could see the look of determination on their faces. Luke McLean asking, “Well coach, what did the Bible say today?” Numbers 13… the men looked like giants, but Caleb said to take the land because God will give us the victory. I told the guys, “I don’t how it’s going to happen, but we are going to conquer the giants, we are going to win today.” You could see that that’s all they needed to hear. They were feeling it. Their walk to the arena, the way they warmed up. Their body language spoke confidence. The entrance into the arena was incredible… so loud I thought I’d throw up. It was all like a blur after that. We were locked in. JCC was tough, taking the first two from Jon and TJ and they looked good doing it. Stevie got the pin which stopped their momentum. A nasty left-handed headlock from left field. They got a major at 125 and we were in a big hole, but Brad Opsahl really stepped up and got a huge win for us at 130 in a back and forth 7-5 win. Matt Philippi got a major at 135. He looked solid, doing the little things right. 140 was the coaches son and 3-time State Champ, Nate Baker. Morgan Philippi gave it his all and then some, keeping it to a major while popping his sternum to avoid the fall. That’s what it takes sometimes and we all knew right then how tough Morgan was. 145 we felt was one we could win, but their State Champ Nate Hanson really came to wrestle. (Year later, he was my assistant coach at ANML – small world!). 152 was the key to the whole dual. Tucker Polz had placed 4th at 152 in the tournament, but Josh Krugen kept fighting the entire match and with less than a minute left scored a 2 point takedown and 3 point nearfall to take a 10-7 decision which altered the meet drastically. Our upsets at 130 and 152 really decided that match. Josh was tough and he was gutsy. He was talented and this was no fluke. I was so proud of him after his Paynesville match rocked his confidence. He came back big time! Phil Sundblad had a tough guy at 160 and you could see his knee injury was really taking his toll after wrestling both team and individuals. I felt we were favored, but that kid went on to be a 2x State Champ… he was tough… they got the decision. But then, we went 3-0 at 171, 189 and Hwt. Jeremy Asfeld got a big takedown right at the end of his 171 lbs. Match that earned him another team point with the major. Ben Meyer once again brought the energy at 189 and just rocked another Senior. My favorite was Ben’s Grandby at the end of one of the periods. He had a blood-soaked head dressing from his stitches and a big ‘ol grin on this face. It was a “pretty cool” only wrestlers would appreciate. And then Big Jake did his thing. Patient, smart, now mistakes. A huge takedown and nearfall 2 at the end of Period 1 was really the difference in a 7-1 win. As the time clicked off the clock, our bench was going crazy, crazy! It was an incredible moment. Explosion, fists pumping, Lundy getting the victory ride, team pictures. Our fans going nuts for a very long time. Pretty much the whole arena had eyes on the explosion of cheering from 2 whole sections of the arena from the floor to the ceiling… something I’ll never forget.
Individuals to wrap up later that day. Matt lost a tough one at 135 and Darren at 145 as well… 4th and 6th overall. But, I don’t think they fretted too much about it. They had gold medals around their necks that read, “Class AA Team Champions.”
A Very Personal Experience
For me, my coaching career and life took a turn during the 1996-97 season. That year, I became a Christian, giving my life to Christ. My life looked pretty good on the outside, but inside, I was always searching for something and never finding. I filled it with work, school, wrestling, my wife and girls and all of that was going well overall. However, the emptiness inside was something I felt. My wife Lisa always impressed me with her faith, knowledge of the Bible and priority for raising the girls in a Christian home. I followed her lead and that was good, but I felt I needed something more. That something was a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. With my wife’s example and a great Pastor at our church in Hutchinson, I took the next step. We rented a farmhouse on a large farm west of Dassel. During the winter months, the farm manager allowed us to park my car, “the Silverstreak”, an old silver Cutlass in the Pole Shed. I would open up for the wrestlers by 5:45 every morning, so I’d usually get to the pole shed by 5:15 and warm the car up. I’d then sit in the heated Office in the shed and had decided with my 15 minutes of car warm-up time, I’d read the Bible from cover to cover starting at the beginning. I basically told God, “Ok, if You are real and what You say is true, I’ll find out.” I did. About ½ way through the Bible, I could sense the change in me. God, the Holy Spirit was working on my heart and head and my life was showing it. I could feel myself changing, wanting to read more and more and I felt kinder, gentler, more patient, more effective in the day-to-day. I felt God was blessing my choice to follow Him. As a parent and husband and as a teacher and a coach, I started to “take off”. I was hungry for more of God. I joined a Bible Study, attended Promise Keepers and Arise with the Guys ministry events. I loved it, loved it! The wrestling team was taking off too that season. We defeated ranked teams, were undefeated for a good part of the season, set a record for most wins and pushed STMA to the end. But, the season ended with a thud… no wrestlers to State. I was devastated. I thought we were moving in the right direction and then to have it end that way. Deflating. I got home late, late from the the 5AA Individual tournament and went into the bedroom where Lisa was sleeping, but woke up when she heard me. She asked me how we did and I just spewed all of our failures that day and the fact that we didn’t get anyone to State. I wasn’t disappointed in the kids. They had done their best. I was disappointed in myself. I felt I had failed as a coach. I was remember saying to Lisa, “I thought I knew how to coach, but I really have no clue how to do this. I work hard at it. I came from Staples. We had been getting better and now this? I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” She just listened patiently and encouraged me. I figured I’d kept her up long enough so she went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I remember laying there with thoughts just running through my head. Finally, I just prayed to God, “Lord, I thought I knew what I was doing, but I don’t. If I am going to have any success as a coach, you are going to have to show me how to do it. Because I have no idea. You’re going to have to be Head Coach. I will do what you tell me to.” That was my prayer. Little did I know what God had planned for 1997-98.
I am a firm believer that God will meet you where you are in ways you’ll understand. God used wrestling to get to me in a very personal way. The whole 1997-98 season was really God’s way of showing me, “Dean, I’m real and you can trust me.” I believe God guided as a coach, as a husband, as a father and as a teacher so clearly that year and of course beyond. All through the season, I’d be worried. I such a bundle of nerves inside because I felt so much pressure that this was “the year” we’d break through. I even got checked out at the hospital for chest pains which only turned out to be acid reflux! My gut was churning, trying to make all of the right moves all season. But, God had my back all of the way. Should I double-weigh guys? Who should I jockey in matches? Who should go up or down a weight? What were we going to do when Jon got hurt? Phil got hurt? All of these things you’ve got to think about. Holding guys out of the line-up for disciplinary reasons, accountability, sticking to your guys. All of the internal things on a team. Not to mention taking on great teams like Foley, Paynesville, STMA, etc. It seemed sometimes, they were the least of my worries.
All season long, God was there. I could feel His reassurance. “Just follow me… take the next step… it’s going to be alright.” STMA, Paynesville, State… I could just feel God’s presence assuring me all of the way.
State is when He really showed up. Day 1 went very well. Day 2, I woke up early to do my devotions, but looked up at the clock and felt like I really didn’t have time because we had individuals that needed to get to weigh-ins. I left the hotel room and headed down the hall, but felt the Holy Spirit telling me to go back and do my devotions, so I took the time and I am glad I did. It was from Zechariah 4:6, “The Lord said, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’”. I was just blown away! I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me, “Dean, I’ve got this. Just watch me work.” Down the hall with a spring in my step. I didn’t tell the boys about this. Off to weigh-ins with our individuals. We had a solid round and returned back to prepare for our team match up with BCLB. The team wrestled one of their best matches of the year defeating a very good team and TJ pulling the big upset. Another total team effort by the “16 Average Guys.” We headed back to the hotel for a team meeting to talk about the evening wrestling and preparing for the State Finals! Unbelievable! I felt like the Holy Spirit was telling me to share with the guys my Devotion that morning, so I did. I told them that I knew they were going to win and shared with them the Scripture passage. They were all listened intently and we moved on to what was next.
So the next day… State Finals Day! Team meeting. I am going over all of scouting we can find. Pretty simple: they are awesome on their feet! I figured it would be a good match up though because were were so good on the mat. Well, as I am wrapping up, Luke McLean stops me and says, “Coach, what did the Bible say today? I said, “Well, I am glad you asked.” Actually, that morning, my Devotion was even more clear. Numbers 14:9 The people of the land are giants, but don’t be afraid of them. They are only helpless prey to us. They can’t stop us. The Lord is with us.” I told the guys, “Today is our day. I am fully confident you are going to win.” Now, I am not saying God cared that DC won that day. He does want good things for us. But, I think His message was clear, “Dean I am going to show you in a way you understand… through wrestling, that you can trust me. I will show you My power.” And, He did. We gained the victory that day and He gained a true believer.
All of the hoopla after the State Tournament and then a ride home after a stop at Chi Chi’s on 394 which became our tradition. We got the kids to the school around 12:00 midnight and I had to get a ride home to Dassel on the school bus actually with Dean Mahlstedt since Lisa and the girls were in Maple Grove for Briann’s 8th Birthday party which I had to miss. She had the misfortune of being born during the State Wrestling Tournament… the only tournament I missed in over 40 years! Dean dropped me off and then I realized I didn’t have a key to get in my house, so I had to walk through our backyard to Crayford’s and get the key we had left with them. Sandy nearly fainted when there was man at their door at nearly 1:00 a.m.! I got into the house and listened to nearly 15 messages of congratulations… that was cool! I tried to sleep, but couldn’t… I was too wired. I went to my classroom at Dassel Elementary at 3:30 a.m. to put together some notes for our welcome home at 5:00 p.m. I remember typing everything up and then another prompting of the Holy Spirit to “say something” about what God did. So I took down a few notes and got ready for the rest of the day.
The banquet was a lot of fun. We had the guys “make weight” one more time. I cannot remember who was the most “over”, but it was kind of fun to laugh about who gained the most weight. (Probably not the best marketing tool for recruiting new wrestlers. ‘Hey, by the way, you’re going to have to lose 20 lbs.’”) Anyway, lots of thank you’s and special mentions. Toward the end, I was still talking (surprise)… Jake Long finally said, “Hey Coach, do we get to speak?” And, I could clearly feel the Holy Spirit saying, “You’ve got a story to tell. Now’s the time.” So, I shared my testimony with this packed house in the HS Commons. I felt like everyone was transfixed on what I was saying because it was real and from the heart. The whole time I spoke about the Scriptures, Zechariah 4:6; Numbers 14:9; the kid’s questions, the assurance the Lord gave me… I could feel my head buzzing and my body tingling. God was giving me the words to say. It felt awesome. I just went with it and went for it. After, and the days after, I got a lot of positive feedback. However, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the negative was going to come. satan is OK with a quiet Christian, but not when you speak publicly about your Savior. Then, he ups his game and comes after you. And he did. I am still completely glad I shared my testimony, but learned a valuable lesson. Be on guard, satan is like a hungry lion looking devour you and me.
103 lbs. Junior Jon Barr. State Qualifier. Probably the best overall athlete on the team. Tremendous strength, quickness and balance. Very inexperienced having only wrestled freestyle in the Philippines. Sat out the first 6 weeks of the season with an elbow injury. He was almost disqualified in his first match of the year because he clasped his hands so many times. He brought such energy and just had a “presence” about him. All of the guys loved him and he fit in so well with the team like he’d known the guys all of his life. His pin against BC really ignited a barrage of scoring and set the tone for the tournament. Sadly, Jon was killed in a tragic accident when he was only 21 years old.
112 lbs. 9th Grader TJ Anderson – Section Champ. One of the keys to the team was when TJ dropped from 119 to 112. He had a hard cut, but did it for the team. This allowed Steve Bratland to move up to 119 and we needed him in the line-up also. TJ had many big wins for us as such a young kid. His win over a state-finalist against BCLB was the key to that dual. TJ probably had more “want to” and guts than any wrestler I’ve coached. He went down as one of the best in Charger Wrestling history because outworked and out “cared” nearly everyone. His 9th Grade State Tournament was a good example of who is. He was sick as a dog against BCLB (he threw up after the match) and still beat the State Runner-up at his weight. Rode him for the entire 3rd period and didn’t get warned for stalling because he was working the whole time. Just a gutsy, gutsy performance. TJ went on to be one of the most successful wrestlers in Charger history. At one time, he held nearly every individual and career record. Over 130 wins, All State Academic. 4x Section Champ. 2 x Captain. One of the best I’ve coached.
119 lbs. 8th Grader Steve Bratland – Section Champ. Steve really came out of nowhere as you’d expect from an 8th Grader. I remember watching him as a 6th Grader and thought he was one of most natural “scramblers” I’ve seen. He always seemed to end up on top no matter the situation. Not as good of an athlete as Jon Barr, but probably more natural talent than any wrestler I’ve coached. Steve had a left-handed headlock like no other. He had the wrestler “hips” that could get him out of any takedown attempt. His pin against JCC got us going after two losses to start the dual. He wrestled most of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Opposing coaches always told me one of their highlights of any dual or tournament was to watch him wrestle. He always brought such explosiveness, could score at any time and you could not count him out. If there was time on the clock, he could pin you. In a shortened career Steve ended up being a 3x State Entrant and a 2x 3rd Place Finisher while not completing his 10th and 12 Grade years.
125 lbs. 11th Grader Luke McLean – 4th Section. Luke was one of the comedians on the team. He was well-spoken and had a great sense of humor. When the team needed a lift or a spar, he was ready to do it with his wrestling or wit. He had an tremendous cross-face cradle and opposing coaches and wrestlers rarely chose the down position on him twice. When it was Luke’s choice, you knew he was going to take top position and nearly every time, he’d get near-fall or a pin. His pin against STMA in the WCC Title Dual was truly the key to the meet. His opponent was a returning State Placewinner and Luke found a way to put him on his back with a cradle to get the pin. Luke had great leadership qualities and the guys really looked up to him.
130 lbs. Sophomore Brad Opsahl 6th Section. The State Tournament was really Brad’s “coming out party.” He had a great weekend getting a pin against BC, barely losing to a State Entrant from BCLB and getting a win over a very good JCC wrestler. This was no doubt on the keys to defeating JCC. That match was a “toss-up” and we ended up coming out on top. Brad went on to become a two-time State Entrant and there is no doubt he came from State in ‘98 with a ton of confidence that really fueled his work ethic. Brad really was a self-made wrestler who put in the time and really refined his technique. His Senior year he was the guy we turned to to show the technique in practice because he had it down better than anybody. Interesting about Brad that year is that he actually was defeated in the wrestle-off for his position, but I started him anyway because Brad always seemed to perform better in live competition. He was a “gamer”. It was the only time in my career I went against the results of a wrestle-off. Everyone on the team knew we were better with Brad in the line-up.
135 lbs. Junior Captain Matt Philippi Section Champ and 4th at State. Matt had a tremendous year and State Tournament. He started the year as an unknown with great potential, but really put it all together in ‘98. He was probably the best example of how to wrestle “DC Style.” His double leg to a high c to a turk or cradle was second-to-none. His Auggie stand up was unstoppable. Matt was great in all 3 positions and a great scrambler. He was incredibly mentally tough. His cut to 135 got his brother Morgan into the lineup and made us very, very tough. He was elected captain as a Junior. The guys really looked up to him. He ended up 4th as an individual nearly pinning a 3x State Champ in the first round. For the team he went 3-0 with a pin, 9-3 victory and a 14-5 major decision against JCC. Matt’s broken arm his Senior year stopped him from becoming a likely State-Finalist in my opinion.
140 lbs. Junior Morgan Philippi 3rd Section. Going from our JV to the starting line-up and nearly making it to State Tournament individually was a great testimony to our slogan, “I will study and get ready for someday my chance will come.” Abraham Lincoln’s words exemplified Morgan. He waited in the wings and when 140 became open, he seized the spot and never looked back. He ended up 14-4 on the season going 2-1 in the State Tournament with his loss to a 3-time State Champ who he held to a major decision. In that match, Morgan dislocated his sternum, but would not give up the pin. Morgan was so tough in all 3 position like his brother. He was quiet, unassuming, but so mentally tough. He also had tremendous technique, especially in the down position. His Senior year was also cut short like his twin-brother’s, with a broken arm. Morgan had defeated one of the State-finalists at his weight that year. That is how good Morgan was.
145 lbs. Senior Darren Salmen 2nd in the Section and 6th at State. Darren had a tremendous Senior season when he accomplished many great things, such as reaching the Century Club with 100 wins which was a much bigger deal back then with a 36 match limit. He capped it all by placing 6th in State. He had a great first day going 3-0 to reach the individual Semi’s and gaining a Tech Fall for his team against BC. Darren was a quiet leader on the team by working and never complaining in practice and nearly always winning with bonus points. Darren was very quick, leading the team in takedowns and had a tremendous cross-face cradle that he’d slap on and hit his roll-though in about a second and a half. Darren started on the Varsity early in his career when he took quite a few losses, but his Junior and Senior seasons he rarely lost and we counted on him for big points every time he took the mat. He did not disappoint.
152 lbs. Junior Josh Krugen. Josh was a great athlete, incredibly strong and a very natural wrestler. He had a tremendous Fireman’s Carry. Josh was kind of one of the hidden secrets on the team. He didn’t wrestle in the Section Individual tournament and we didn’t use him in the BC dual so when he got a chance to wrestle against BCLB, he was ready. He went out very aggressive and went right from a Fireman’s Carry into a lift and step turk for the pin. It was just explosive. That was Josh, very explosive. Against JCC the match really came down Josh’s win against the guy who was 4th in State at his weight. That is how good Josh could be. It was no fluke. He stuck right with the guy trailing 10-7 with about 30 seconds on the clock. Josh exploded into a high c to a double and then did a lift and step turk to put the guy on his back to come away with a 12-10 win. The bench just erupted. We all knew Josh had pulled off a huge upset. This was exactly what I’d hope Josh would do after he suffered such a crushing loss against Paynesville. It really showed the kind of guts and character Josh had. He came back stronger and better because of it. Josh was probably one of the biggest cut-ups on the team that was known to tease his teammates and come up with some great one-liners.
160 lbs. Senior Captain Phil Sundblad 2nd Section. I will always remember Phil as a tremendous leader in word and deed. He was a two-year Captain. Phil was mentally and physically tough. He wrestled since January with a pretty messed up knee and never complained a bit. He is a guy that all of the other fans in the Section knew and cheered for because he was such a class-act. No better example than how he handled losing out of the State Tournament individually his Junior year. The entire Section cheered when he made it his Senior year. Phil was a great example in the room and just never stopped working. Everything he got, he earned. He was the complete package. A great personality, a young man of great character and a great student athlete. He ended up being All-State Academic. In our duals at State, he faced 3 very good wrestlers and came away 2-1, losing only to a guy who went on to be a 2x State Champ.
171 lbs. Senior Jeremy Asfeld 3rd Section. Jeremy nearly made the State Tournament individually his Junior and Senior years. He started wrestling varsity as a 7th Grader and took a lot of losses back then, but he also learned how to counter aggressive wrestlers very well. Mid-season, we put him out a 2x State Champ and Jeremy pushed that guy right to the end. No one could believe it, but that is how good Jeremy was at counters and scoring when guys made mistakes or got frustrated. But, it was his offense in the State Finals against JCC that got him a Major Decision and one more point for the team. In the last period, he needed 4 more points for a Major so Jeremy let the guy go twice and secured the last takedown with about 4 seconds remaining. It was a huge deal and we were so happy for Jeremy because it was usually his job to keep opponents to decisions in losses. This time, he was to be the aggressor and he did it very well. Jeremy had incredible strong hands and very good crossface. He could slap that on anyone and they would spend the good share of the match trying to get out of his grip which they rarely did. When they finally did, they were too tired to do much else. Jeremy was truly one of the unsung heros on the team.
189 lbs. Sophomore Ben Meyer 3rd Section. Ben came out of nowhere to really turn heads his Senior year. By the end of the State Tournament, everyone knew who Ben was. Probably the best “big man” his age down at State. But we could see it coming. Ben had guts and he was scrappy and no one outworked Ben. Between Ben and ‘96 Grad, Luke Wren, no one worked harder than those two. Ben thrived on adversity, pressure and the odds stacked against him. He went 3-0 at State and completely dominated 3 Seniors as a Sophomore! It was impressive. Ben went on to be a two-year Captain and a 2 x State Qualifier placing 5th his Senior year while winning over 100 matches. Ben was physically intimidating and with his unbelievable conditioning was nearly unbeatable in the 3rd period. Every good Hwt. “Closer” needed a good set-up man and Ben was that for Jake Long. If we needed to win the last two weights, we were feeling very confident. His confidence and style really had a way of getting our team and fans into the match as evidenced in his performances against STMA, Paynesville, BCLB and JCC. Ben was a spark plug.
Hwt. Senior Jake Long 3rd Section. Jake was the ultimate “Closer” at Hwt. He as smart, strong and a great athlete. Jake was usually not the bigger Hwt in a match, but always used the guy’s weight against them. Strategy-wise, he was incredibly crafty. I don’t think he made a “forced” error all year. It was such a shame that he got Strep Throat at the time of the Section Individual Tournament because there was no doubt in anyone’s minds, all Section Coaches and Fans included that he was the Section Champ and probably a Top Two in State. But, things happen for a reason and Jake not qualifying for State became Jake storming through 3 opponents with two pins and a 7-1 win in the finals to propel his team to the first State Championship in school history. Jake got a takedown and 2 quick nearfall right at the end of his finals match against JCC and he was way too athletic and motivated to lose a 4 point lead. That wrestler went on to be the State Hwt. Champ the next season. I said it then and will say it now, Jake was the best Hwt in the State to not make the State Tournament as an individual. Jake was also a great leader with a great combination of pressure performance and a sense of humor.
103/112 Alternate 8th Grader Jordan Isaacson. Jordan wrestled 103 most of the season as Jon Barr recovered from an elbow injury and Jordan held that spot very well going 13-9 as an 8th Grader. Jordan was so explosive and at times would simply overwhelm opponents from the opening whistle. He had a tremendous double leg tackle and stand-up. He was probably one of the quickest and strongest Chargers in history. Jordan went on to become a 4x State Entrant, placing 3rd twice. In ‘98, everyone could see this “back-up” was destined for stardom.
130/135 Alternate Sophomore David Salmen. David was a steady starter for most of the season who was bumped from the starting line-up when Morgan Philippi was inserted into the line-up. David would show flashes of scoring potential using an awesome crossface cradle to get most of his 8 wins. He was always a guy that could be counted on to keep matches close with other team’s best wrestlers. He was gutsy. It took David a couple of years to fill-out and gain confidence. By his Senior year, he was a dominating Section Champ up all of the way to 160.
152/160 Alternate Senior Paul Halonen. Paul was the ultimate “team guy” who cared more about the team’s success than his own. He would do whatever it took to help the team whether that meant cutting weight to take on one of the other team’s best guys or if it meant working out with a teammate who needed to lose some weight even when he didn’t need to. He had a good read on his teammates and always seemed to say and do the right thing at the right time. He was really like a 4th Captain and Coach. He was mature beyond his years. He was a solid wrestler too. When he got his chances, he made them count. I have never been more happy for one of our guys than when we went out against BC and just dominated his guy. He earned that moment.
Coaches: Dale Lund, Dick Hendrickson and Wes Wren. Lundy, what can you say? A legend. A homer. A believer in his guys. A Charger through and through. There will never be another “Lundy.” My favorite moment of the tournament was when after we won, Lundy was lifted up on the team’s shoulders and then a few minutes later, I have a picture of him holding the State Championship trophy with tears streaming down his cheeks. That made it all worth it for me. He had worked 40 years for that moment and I was blessed to be a part of it. Dale went to become a member of the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He never stopped pulling for his guys even when they were far behind, Lundy still believed they could win. That is something that separates Dale from other coaches. He and his wife Jeanne and their kids and grandchildren are just a wonderful family and some of our closest friends to this day.
Dick Hendrickson. I was equally happy for Dick. He was a Dassel Viking going way back. He worked hard all day at his job and then showed up every night to roll out mats in our Commons and work with approx. 30 guys all by himself. He was so dedicated, dependable and loyal. He would do anything I needed him to do. He was a huge help at State when we were all running around like crazy trying to keep up with the team and individual tournament as well as the Managers and Cheerleaders. Dick brought a great sense of humor and common sense to any situation. He was the key guy in developing our younger talent by instilling a work ethic and character in them. Even after Dick retired from coaching, he remained a strong supporter and regular attendee at Charger wrestling events.
Wes Wren. Wes was probably only 22 at the time, but showed maturity well beyond that. That is what stands out about Wes and his work with the team that year. From his Senior year in high school when he placed 6th in State at Hwt. in 1995 to his work with us in 1997-98 he became an awesome young man. He was a gift to the program and worked so well the kids, especially our upper-weight guys. He was willing to help out with anything at any time. He was great at working the kids’ heads before a match and a great coach to have follow-up with guys after a tough match or tough loss. He was always so positive and so encouraging and if someone needed a little extra work, Wes was always willing to put on the time. If I were putting together my “dream” coaching staff, Wes would be on it.
Managers: Jenny Van Antwerpen, Jessica Kelly, Anna McLean and Troy Morris. They all worked very well together and were a great asset to the team. They were not only helpful to us as coaches, but were great supports for the team in encouragement and respect for what the wrestlers were trying to accomplish. You could always count on them to have their Manager duties done while keeping things fun and cheering the team on. As coaches, we never had to worry about them. They were where they needed to be, doing what they needed to do.
A huge asset to our program was the Elementary program and the Booster Club. The key cog in those supports was Larry Pokornowski. Larry in my estimation was an integral part of all we became as Charger Wrestling. He was an amazing supporter, coach, mentor, friend, worker, wrestling dad.. What I loved best about Larry was that he was TOTALLY supportive of what we did at the Varsity Level. We had a total, K-12 program philosophy and he was key in that. We met as a K-12 coaching staff to start every Varsity season. We were all on the same page. Larry came to observe practices my first year and eventually came back with his video camera and started filming how I explained things, what I called things, the drills, the techniques, etc. Eventually we went to DVD’s and did approx. a 2 hour recording of all of our techniques. It took a few nights in the summer with wrestlers and coaches helping out. Larry would copy those tapes/DVD’s and give them to all of the Elementary coaches to follow. It was a huge help… the kids would come into 7th Grade with a great base we could build on. Larry was also an amazing motivator of the kids, coming up with games, activities, awards and competitions to make EVERY kid feel like they mattered. And, of course, we cannot forget Larry’s alter-ego Elementary Coach, Uncle Leo who’d show up for practice now and then. Finally, Larry started the our first Wrestling Calendar Picture which still lives on. It was a Western Scene at his house, “The Average Guys Ride Again.” This was for our 98-99 poster… very cool!
Any other memories that stand out from the season – funny, poignant, etc. Could be anything, little things or big moments that stuck with you.
This season was our last in the old practice room under the North Mezzanine. That room always got so warm. The northeast end of the room had an exterior exhaust fan that let in a lot of cold air. On really cold days, fog would roll into the room which we always thought was kind of cool.
We had this conditioning drill we called the Iowa Push Up Drill. The guys would form a circle in groups of 8-10 and they would start at one push up by one guy, the next guy had to do 2 and the next 3 and the next 4 and so on. They would go until exhaustion. It would usually end of up with Jon Barr and Ben Meyer at about 50 push ups. Ben was just a sweathog. He would get up and there’d be a literal pool of sweat on the mat where he had been doing his push ups.
Phil wrestling my brother Jesse in the 2nd round of the individual tournament tournament. Jesse won, but I certainly felt kind of bad about it.
Matt Philippi nearly pinned two-time State Champ Mark Carlson from Staples-Motley in the 2nd round of the individual tournament. Matt used a near-side cradle to put Carlson on his back for nearly the entire 3rd period with Carlson bridging with everything he had. The action was right in front of me and I don’t think you could’ve slid a piece of copy paper between the mat and Carlson’s back, but the ref really didn’t want to call the fall on a kid who would then go onto to win his 3rd title. Matt ended up losing 10-9, but people knew who he was then!
Ben Meyer’s Mom, the late Mary Meyer-Buskey was a Shaklee sales rep and talked to me about nutritional support for the boys during the season, so we started taking Shaklee Shakes, vitamin supplement packs and something called Liqua Lea which was for immune health if I remember correctly. It tasted horrible, but the we kind of swore by it’s ability to provide us with energy. Mary was an amazing Mom and it was so sad to hear of her passing a few years ago from an automobile accident.
Josh Krugen was one of the biggest jokesters on the team and loved to tease people and get under their skin. One day he decided to tease Coach Lund and went a bit too far. Lundy had Josh down in about 3 seconds and ended up sitting right on top of Josh with Josh squealing in pain. The whole room just exploded in laughter.
One of the highlights for the team would be stops to eat at McDonald’s after Friday or Saturday duals or tournaments. I would always let the managers and cheerleaders go first and we thanked them as they exited the bus. The guys always supported that. Then, we’d let the guys that went undefeated on the day go next and then those with only one loss or so on. I think it provided motivation and the guys were always striving to go first. When this happened to someone for the first time, I know they were super-proud. It was always so much fun to see the team relax and enjoy each-other. The pressure was off and weight wasn’t to be worried about at that time. Very seldom did the team ride home with parents as they really did enjoy each-other and these times together. The expectation was that the guys would act like gentleman, use good manners and they would clean-up our area, even if the mess was there before us. The team never disappointed and the managers of the restaurants always commented on what a great group of kids we had. I was always very proud of that. On the bus, every scrap of paper was picked up when we left or the next day we’d do sprints or push-ups. The bus driver was always to be thanked. Again, the team never let us down.
Red Flag Days – I would show up in my red wrestling shoes, red shorts and red shirt. These were not announced and we only did about 5 a season. The guys knew when they saw in my red outfit that it was going to be a grueling day. We would practice full throttle with no breaks for the entire practice. All live wrestling and conditioning. This was not punishment because the team screwed up, it was pushing the guys harder than they would ever experience in a match so that a match would seem easy. Also, I wanted the guys to figure out where their breaking point was and then push past it. I am guessing the guys would say they didn’t like Red Flag Days, but I bet they’d also say the were glad they did them. Our saying, “The only easy day was yesterday” really made sense on a Red Flag Day.
Ice Cream Fund – farting, swearing, being late to practice, leaving out gear, forgetting gear, not making weight… all were assessed fines ranging from a quarter to a dollar. Captains would collect fines for our last practice before Christmas Break and we’d have a feast of ice cream and toppings. They’d collect again for the last half of the season and we’d feast on the day we’d turned in gear. I think the guys always got a kick out of marking each other down for fines.
Turkey Trot – a tradition that started in the fall of 1996. It was really just a chance for us to get a workout as a team, but it really turned into a family and community event that has really grown under Coach Clemen’s leadership.
Push Ups for Swearing – swearing is allowed. If the coaches heard a swear word, the offending wrestler would have to drop no matter where they were and knock out 20. On the bus, in a hallway, at weigh-ins, etc. It didn’t matter.
Push Ups for getting your picture in the paper. The guys would complain, but happily would knock out 50 for as I put it, “The community having to see their ugly mugs in the paper.”
Bull in the Ring – probably the worst punishment for the guys. If the really screwed up, they got put in the middle and had to do takedowns with a fresh guys coming in after every takedown. By the time they were done, they could barely stand, but they understood. You don’t lose a team point, throw a headgear, swear on the mat, miss too many practices, etc.
Academics First – it was not uncommon to see guys doing homework in the hallway outside of the room or having managers tutoring them during practice. If your ineligible due to grades, you’re hurting the team. Get your grades up!
Our girls Briann and Colee really grew up in that wrestling room. My wife Lisa would waitress in Litchfield on the weekends and on Friday nights she’d drop the girls off at about 4:30 p.m. to get to work on time. I always worried the girls, who were 4 and 7 at the time would get hurt by guys landing on them during practice or something like that. But, the managers always did such a great job of helping protect them from flying bodies and the guys were always great about it too, looking out for the girls and teasing them or playing with them when there’d be a break. Lisa and I always said the girls had about 100 brothers, just not their own.
We had a tradition of inviting the whole team to our house after the last of our 3 hour grueling Christmas practices. It was a way that my wife and daughters got to know the guys and the managers. They were always respectful gentlemen. They would usually watch a movie at these gatherings and that year it was Braveheart and they all scrambled to turn off the TV when they realized their was a scene that showed way too much skin! I could hear them from the other room, “Holy crap, the girls can’t see this! Coach is going to kill us!” They were respectful guys. I also remember our Elementary Coach Larry Pokornowski taking time to stop over and hang out with us. At one point he was playing a “Scooby Do” game with our girls. They never forgot that!
One question I forgot to add in is about the fan support. Can you talk about the support you received throughout the season, and in the state tournament, and what it was like to compete in such of a large base?
The fan support built as the season progressed. When I first started at DC, Paul Kliewer, the AD at the time, had us scheduled in the small “blue” middle school gym that seated about 300. I had asked if we could be in the big gym for some duals, but he insisted the Middle School Gym had always been big enough in the past. I must have been pretty confident because I told him it wouldn’t be long and we’d outgrow that gym. 97-98 was that time. I remember one of our early meets that year and we were in the Middle School Gym and we literally had fans within our bench area and those fans were ones we’d never seen at a wrestling meet before. Parents of basketball players, hockey players, young and old fans. I remember thinking we’d kind of broken through and appealed to all types of sports fans. We always stressed that we needed to wrestle and exciting style, putting points on the board and going for the pin. We felt if we didn’t get a pin, we kind of failed. I think fans enjoyed watching our teams. Our parents were just amazing. My wife was probably one of the most vocal and energetic fans. She always saved a ton of seats wherever we went. She and some of the wrestling Moms even gathered at our house to make pom poms and “Homer Hanky’s.” Our fan base looked like they really enjoyed being together.
The fans for the STMA and Section Meets were just amazing. State brought our fan base to another level. The first day we had a very nice crowd, but after winning it seemed the fan base doubled for the Semi’s. Then, the finals, it looked like it doubled again. I remember running out after the boys for the finals against JCC and feeling like I was going to throw up when the our crowd roared – it was that loud! Our fan base got mention in the Star Tribune and West Central Tribune. I was told by our fans that people from other communities joined our fan base just because they had watched us for two days and it looked like we were having so much fun, they wanted to join us. Nearly every wrestling season since then I’ve had fans and coaches from other teams tell me that our fan base was one of the most amazing things they’d ever seen.
The welcome home was also amazing with what seemed like the whole town showing up. I have always said that the fans in are just amazing. They are just looking for a winner to get behind and when there is one, they’ll come out in droves, no matter the sport.
The team almost was Academic State Champions as well finishing 2nd by a narrow margin
Team Slogans: “1% Improvement Everyday.” “The only easy day was yesterday.” “Never Satisfied.” “If what you did yesterday still seems big to you, you haven’t done much today.” “16 Average Guys, One Awesome Team.” “When you suck, you’ve got to suck it up!” ~(This one’s a Dale Lund Classic)