By BRAD SALMEN
COKATO – If you were to ask any DC wrestler, former wrestler, or fan the following question: who is the team’s fiercest rival?, the answer would likely be unanimous: Litchfield.
Ask any Litchfield fan or wrestler the same question, and they would likely respond in kind: DC.
Yet if all goes according to plan, next season that rivalry would be a thing of the past.
If all goes according to plan, starting this fall, the two teams will be combined into one new co-op team.
DC head wrestling coach Bryan Clemen and Activities Director Perry Thinesen, along with their Litchfield counterparts Dan Buker and Justin Brown, presented a proposal to combine the two programs to the DC school board at its Monday, June 10 meeting.
Clemen said he spent many hours agonizing over the decision to pair with a team the Chargers have battled year in and year out in conference and section matches for the last three decades.
“Your initial gut reaction is to say, ‘no way,’” he said.
Litchfield coach Dan Buker said much the same thing.
But for both coaches, and both ADs, the reason for the proposal came down to one overarching issue: the number of wrestlers in both programs.
“If we had the numbers, we would not be having this conversation,” said Clemen. “But that’s not the case.”
By the numbers
Simply put, both programs have seen a drastic decrease in the number of wrestlers throughout their youth, junior high, and JV/varsity programs.
DC currently has 17 wrestlers in grades 9-12, Litchfield 10 to 12 in the same grades.
In grades 5-8, the Chargers have just 15 wrestlers, with Litchfield sporting similar numbers.
“At our highest point, we had about 14 wrestlers per grade. Now, we’re down to five,” said Clemen. “Realistically, we need about 10 per grade, and we’re at about half that now.”
Combining the two programs would give the added benefit of being able to teach and train wrestlers at an appropriate pace. Both Clemen and Buker talked about having to either forfeit weights, or put in young wrestlers who were vastly overmatched by their older counterparts.
“This is the best way to develop kids at the 7-9 grade level,” said Buker. “We would be able to put them into their appropriate level of accomplishment.”
The Co-op process
Clemen and Buker said serious discussion about co-oping began after this winter’s state tournament, as both coaches took a close look at their upcoming numbers.
Putting their rivalries aside, both coaches said the programs make a natural pairing, as the two schools already co-op in two sports, hockey and boys swimming.
Eventually, Thinesen and Brown both joined formal discussions, along with superintendents Jeff Powers and Beckie Simenson.
Thinesen and Brown presented the proposal to the Wright County Conference, which gave their blessing on a 12-1 vote, with Watertown-Mayer the lone holdout.
The proposal is currently being reviewed by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Region 5A Committee, and will need to pass both school boards and another MSHSL review before it can be enacted.
What it would look like
The co-op agreement will have implications beyond just the wrestling team(s).
Under the agreement, all three co-op programs (hockey, boys swimming, wrestling) will have a brand new color scheme, logo, and name.
The color scheme will borrow from both schools, with a navy/kelly green/gray palette.
The logo and name will be decided at a future time.
For wrestling, Clemen and Buker would be co-head coaches. The two would assign the JV, 9th grade, and junior high coaching positions, with the plan to keep the current coaching staffs from both programs.
The tentative plan for practice will be to have DC host varsity and JV practices in 2019-20, with the junior high to be determined.
Beginning in 2020-21, both the varsity and JV will practice at each site for part of the year, with the junior high being the opposite of varsity/JV.
The transportation costs would be split between both schools.
Positives, and drawbacks
The co-op proposal has a number of positives, said Clemen and Thinesen.
First and foremost would be numbers, and depth in the varsity lineup. The team would not be putting kids in varsity spots that they may not be ready for, and would be able to develop young wrestlers at a more beneficial pace, with additional coaches that have their weight class expertise.
And while it might be hard to swallow for some wrestlers to suddenly be teammates with a formal rival, ultimately having them as a new training partner will be only make them better.
“The kids always worked hard when we knew we were going against Litch. Now, they will have to work hard in the practice room,” said Clemen.
On questioning from the board, Thinesen acknowledged there were potential drawbacks to the proposal, with transportation costs being a primiary one, along with the loss of former team identity and the possibility that some wrestlers would now need to compete for a spot they formerly held.
But for all four stakeholders involved, the proposal was the unequivocally right decision.
“For this to be successful, this needs to be bought into by both communities,” said Clemen. “But the benefits, in my mind, outweigh the costs.”
The board indicated they will take up the measure for vote at the next board meeting, scheduled for June 24.
The Litchfield school board will be addressing the proposal at its June 24 meeting, where Buker said he was optimistic that the board will react positively.
DC board member Chuck Nelson, a former wrestler and longtime team supporter, said he was “all for it.”
Superintendent Jeff Powers noted that, like Clemen, he initially was reticent about joining a rival program. But upon listening to the discussion of the numbers and the proposed plan, he is in favor.
The DC wrestling supporters that were in attendance at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the proposal, as well.
Paul Halonen, a longtime DC wrestling supporter and treasurer of the DC Wrestling Booster Club, told the board that he is a second-generation DC wrestler, and that his son Noah, a soon-to-be senior, is a third-generation DC wrestler.
“If this proposal doesn’t pass, there won’t be a fourth generation, because there won’t be a team,” Halonen said.