HOWARD LAKE – It’s no secret that the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling program has had little to no success in recent years. Even with the minor accomplishments in recent years, not only is Joe Puncochar, the head coach of the Lakers, rebuilding this program from ground up, he’s making sure his team is involved in the community.
“We don’t have a huge wrestling background in Howard Lake,” Puncochar said. “There’s been like nine seasons of zero wins in the life of this program.”
Despite the lack of success and the following that some other sports may get, Puncochar knows the program is getting stronger by the year, and is amazed by the support of the community.
The Lakers will be hosting their second annual Takedown Cancer event Friday, Jan. 20, when they host Minneapolis Roosevelt.
“The first one we raised like $400,” Puncochar said about last year’s event. “Last year we did it with the same school. It’s another school that’s kind of in the same spot that we are in as far as numbers. It tends to be a lot of really good matches, and ends up being a positive experience for our kids. Last year it was pretty cool to see the community turn out. It was cool to see a lot of families who have no involvement, to just step up and say, hey we’ll donate $10 for a T-shirt, or we’ll come and put some money in the 50-50 raffle.”
The money raised from the night will be donated to Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund. T-shirts are available to buy, and there will be other fun games throughout the night to raise money.
“We kind of latched onto it last year,” Puncochar said. “It’s a really good cause. Every sport seems like they have their own, and it’s not that hard to pick a night for a cancer night and raise a little money to support the cause.”
Puncochar and the Lakers know that as they continue to rebuild the program, there are many other ways to get involved and give back in the meantime.
“Not only are we out here wrestling and teaching kids life values through the sport, we also are in the community helping through these projects and fundraising for things that have nothing to do with us, but obviously are important,” Puncochar said. “I think this year there is around 100 events around the state. For the kids, I always tell them, get your aunts and uncles and anybody else that you can think of to come out and support us.”
Along with the Takedown Cancer event that night, the Lakers have other exciting things going on that night, as well.
“Another really cool thing about that night, off the topic of the fundraiser, is that it’s also going to be Alumni Night,” Puncochar said. “We’re going to debut the new spotlight we put in the gym.”
As part of changing the identity and success of the program, Puncochar also wants to change the atmosphere at matches.
“Now we’re going to even try and change the atmosphere,” Puncochar said. “We’ll turn that light on in the gym, and with fans in the stands, I think that will be really exciting for the kids and for the fans as well. That’s pretty exciting and they’re pumped about that. We’re just changing the atmosphere here. The product that we’re trying to put on the mat is starting to slowly change, and we’re starting to get more kids in the program and a little bit more success.”
Part of the plan for turning the program around is the youth program. Puncochar noted that the numbers of the youth program are critical to the eventual success of the Lakers.
“We have a really strong youth program, and the numbers of middle school wrestlers that are starting to come in through that are getting inside our room every day,” Puncochar said. “They’re going to be really pumped for that spotlight, too. They know, in a short period of time, they’re going to get to wrestle under it in front of their crowd.”
Along with changing the atmosphere and getting the youth involved, Puncochar believes bringing in quality teams for the Howard Lake Invite is a big part to it, as well. The Lakers will host the Howard Lake Invite Saturday, Jan. 21, and it will feature some highly-touted teams from around the state.
“We’ve actually grown it to become a really competitive and big tournament,” Puncochar said. “We’re expecting 12 varsity teams and 13 JV teams this year. There’s teams in the top 15 of the state that are coming out for this tournament, so that’s pretty cool. We will fit in with those schools somewhere around the bottom, but it’s good for our kids to see that too and know what it takes to be a successful team and be competitive.”
Bringing in quality teams and opponents offers a full day of competitive wrestling for the Lakers. No matter how the Lakers do in their home tournament, Puncochar believes it’s a good step for the program to take to head in the right direction.
“It’s just a good, competitive tournament that shows our kids what the competition is, and it should be good for our community,” Puncochar said. “We’ll fill the gym. The gym will be packed. Last year we had 11 teams, and we’ve added a few more storied programs in it this year, so now you’re going to bring a much bigger following. Our gym was packed last year, and now it’s going to be even more packed this year.”