HOWARD LAKE – When Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling coach Joe Puncochar took over the program eight years ago, his biggest challenge was trying to fill weight classes. Fast forward to 2023 and his biggest challenge was deciding which guys to put into the lineup.
The Lakers have been working on building a program over the years and it came to its pinnacle Friday night capturing their first section title in program history with three convincing wins at the Section 4A Team Wrestling Tournament.
“They’ve wanted to do this for a really long time,” Puncochar said. “We’ve fallen short the last couple of years. All those things you tell someone and they keep doing it that it will pay off, it’s so nice as a coach when that comes true. Sometimes it might not pay off and you might never get to that point, but it feels really good for these kids to get that opportunity to wrestle in the big show.”
It’s a huge step for the Lakers as a program as they’ve continued to get better and better over the years. What started as a dream for Puncochar when he took the job became a reality in front of their home crowd.
“My first year here, we had 12 kids in the room and we had like two wins,” he said. “We had a lot of zeros in our points column at the end of the night. I always dreamed about getting this program to wrestle for a section title. It’s not me who did the work but it feels really good to come full circle going from all the way from the bottom to the top.”
The Lakers dominated the competition in all three matches. After opening the Section 4A Tournament with a 71-6 win over Trinity, HLWW completed the job with lopsided wins over Le Sueur-Henderson and Kimball to secure their spot at the state tournament.
“It’s been just a great experience,” senior Colton Long said. “We kind of came in knowing we’ve been one of the top teams all year and just had to focus on what we do. We did that and we got the job done.”
Long, one of the four seniors on this year’s team has seen his fair share of ups and downs throughout his high school career. Friday night was the ultimate high for him as he recorded his 100th career win in the section title match helping his team make program history.
“It’s been great,” Long said. “Just to see that all the hard work that we’ve put in in the past paid off. Guys just stuck it out and trusted the process we’ve been instilling in our program. It just feels good to get that taste in your mouth knowing we accomplished something.”
It’s been a journey in the making for the Lakers as a program over the years. After battling to pick up any wins to be able to send multiple individuals to the state tournament, HLWW will now be sending the entire crew down to experience the state’s biggest stage in wrestling.
“We were so excited when a kid made it to state, but when we get everybody on the team down there and the whole community gets behind you, that’s what it’s all about,” Puncochar said.
“It’s going to be fun,” Long added. “We’ve got a great group of guys and it should be a fun experience having everybody down there.”
The Lakers will take some time to celebrate making program history. They also know the job isn’t finished as they expect to go to the state tournament and compete and show just how good they are.
“We’re going to celebrate this tonight but the message on Monday is we’re not just happy being there,” Puncochar said. “We’ve wrestled a tough schedule the last couple of years to be prepared for this opportunity. Our guys will be ready. It’s going to be a heck of a battle and we’re excited about it.”
For an in-depth look at the turnaround of the HLWW wrestling program, click here for a story about the Lakers.