HOWARD LAKE – It all started five years ago. When Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted wrestling coach Joe Puncochar took the job, there was a feeling of excitement for him. He was eager to take over a program for the first time and being able to do things the way he thought was best for building a program.
“My first thought I guess really had nothing to do with the state the program was in,” Puncochar said. “It was more just the excitement about the chance to be a head coach. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. This opportunity came up. It was right in that sweet spot of where we needed to be in my personal life.”
That excitement was still there, but Puncochar knew he had his work cut out for him shortly after taking the job.
“When it actually got down to looking at the current state of the program it was in, I kind of chuckled a bit,” Puncochar said. “I thought I really got myself into a major project.”
It was no secret that the HLWW wrestling program was going through hard times. Overall numbers were low and success was hard to find. That didn’t stop Puncochar and his staff from getting to work right away with the support of the school behind him.
“The school really put a major investment into the wrestling program right before I got hired,” Puncochar said. “They had just added onto the middle school and they put a brand new wrestling room right across the hall from the phenomenal fitness center we have. I knew at that point they were not ready to let the program continue to suffer.”
A TOUGH BEGINING
Early on, things didn’t come easy for Puncochar and the Lakers. In his first season, HLWW finished the season with a 2-21 overall record. A season that ended with a less than impressive record wasn’t a complete loss. Despite winning just two matches all season, there were big steps taken in Puncochar’s first year as head coach.
“The biggest high I think that year was at the end of the year in the first round of the section tournament,” Puncochar said. “We were like the ninth seed or something. We were wrestling Spectrum at Arlington in front of Sibley East, who was really good at the time. We knew that the winner was going to get slacked by them. At that point, we were like 1-20 or something like that. They could have packed it in. They knew we weren’t really good and we didn’t even have a lot of kids. We ended up pulling that out against Spectrum.”
It was just the second win of the season for the Lakers in Puncochar’s first year, but it was something more at the same time. Not only did it bring HLWW together as a team, but it gave his group of kids a glimpse of what could be possible with their hard work.
“It came down to team wrestling,” Puncochar said. “One kid who didn’t get pinned and got a tech fall instead was the difference. At the time, it was a really big deal for those kids. All that work all year long went into something. It was a big deal for those kids. Those kids now are the seniors that just graduated. That really ended the year on a good note and really pushed us into the next couple of years. It just helped to keep those kids around.”
While finishing the season on a high note in his first year, the Lakers opened Puncochar’s second season as head coach in a way that proved to work in the long run. Opening the season at Watertown-Mayer, Puncochar and the Lakers forfeited 13 of the 14 matches as low numbers and experienced forced him to make a tough decision.
“Joe Traen was still coaching there at the time, and I told him before the match that we’re going to forfeit 13 varsity weights,” Puncochar said. “We forfeited 13 varsity weights that night against Watertown. We had like 10 kids who were eligible to wrestle that night, but only one or two were really varsity caliber, if that. I’ll never forget that. The look on his face was like why the heck are you on our schedule. It was kind of a comical thing. They went out there with 13 kids who got their hands raised and we wrestled one match that night.”
The Lakers finished that season with a 3-23 record.
After winning just five matches in the first two seasons with Puncochar leading the way, patience and hard work began to pay off for the Lakers.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
While Puncochar and the Lakers labored through his first two years with just five wins, he knew there was a reason for optimism. Even before he took the job as head coach, Puncohar knew there were better days ahead at HLWW.
“The one thing I did know since I had extensive knowledge of the youth program, it wasn’t going to be long till we could be competitive,” Puncochar said. “I knew right away it wasn’t going to be fun as far as wins and losses. I did know that since I coached the youth at Annandale/Maple Lake, I saw those young kids coming. I knew there was potential there, but they needed someone to come in and provide continuity and work from the bottom up.”
After having just seven returning wrestlers on his team his first year, Puncochar’s hard work combined with a stellar youth program began to change the course of the program for the Lakers. Those young wrestlers Puncochar had seen as a youth coach were now go-to wrestlers for him at the varsity level.
“Wrestling is kind of unique, especially in small schools,” Puncochar said. “Those young guys are counted on. Those guys are ready to go in seventh grade. Not just to go out there but to put up a fight, but they’re winning a lot of matches. Those guys are going to set school records. Those youth coaches really put in a ton of time and allow me to have something to work. Having athletes is great, but you still need to know how to wrestle. Those youth coaches deserve a ton of credit for that.”
The succes Puncochar has gotten from young wrestlers the past two seasons has been because of the effort of the youth coaches before him. Without them, all the work would have fallen on Puncochar and the Lakers’ program would still be in a tough place.
“I think it comes back to a lot of the people before me,” Puncochar said. “They’ve been doing it for so many years. People like the late Todd Matheson, Luke Long, Tyler Trendy, Brad Mallak, Dave Tuchtenhagen, and Josh Wiegert. Five of those six guys are dads of kids in our program right now. Those guys put in so much work down there. I’ve gotten along with them really well. We’ve shared ideas and collaborated and worked together. Those guys had those kids competing at a high level as youth.”
While those coaches had the kids ready to roll, Puncochar’s assistants have been crucial to the change of the program, as well.
“Ben Anderson and Tim Roemer have been with me the longest as far as my assistants,” Puncochar said. “Those guys don’t see the spotlight, but those two have done a lot for us. They put a lot of energy and effort into this program. Those guys deserve a lot of praise, as well.”
A TURNING POINT
During Puncochar’s third season as head coach, the hard work began to pay off. A goal for the Lakers going into the season was to reach the semifinals in Section 4A. After a big and thrilling win over Norwood Young America, that goal became a reality for the Lakers as their hard work was paying off.
“That was the first really big step for the kids buying into the message that we’ve given them,” Puncochar said. “We were 2-21 my first year, and 3-23 my second year. That third year, we were only like 8-17, but at the end of the year, we had guys in the right weight. I bet about half of those 17 losses were competitive. Those kids could taste that we were getting there. That was a really big boost. I think that was the start of a really big confidence boosting time for the kids that are currently in our program. They’ve been hearing that it’s going to pay off in a while, and finally it was starting to.”
Early on in his coaching career, Puncochar was focused on just getting bodies in the room as he tried to recruit new kids to add to the program.
“My role as a recruiter has been to really hammer the seventh and eighth grade boys who aren’t really doing anything,” Puncochar said. “Just trying to get bodies in the room. That’s been my focus since I’ve been here.”
As success over the course of his career has changed the program at HLWW, it’s also changed the way he’s recruited wrestlers.
“At the beginning five years ago, it was the idea that I could basically promise kids varsity spots if that was something they were interested in,” Puncochar said. “Now, that’s not the case. It’s been a fun transition from recruiting for need to recruiting more to benefiting those kids who might not play a second or third sport.”
While the new athletes Puncochar gets to join the team might not help immediately, it’s the bigger picture that is in the mind of the head coach.
“In the long run, those kids can help us as a program,” Puncochar said. “Right away they’re not going to help you. But if they wrestle junior high and junior varsity for a few years, and by the time they are a junior, they are a contributor. That’s a lot more successful than trying to recruit for a need. It’s so hard to get kids put the work in when there is no one pushing them. Before it was you get a spot because you joined wrestling. Now why do I have to work? Now we have 38 kids in the room and they have to work. It’s really intense and competitive. All it does is make the kids better.”
It’s no doubt the Lakers are headed in the right direction the past two seasons. After winning just three matches in Puncochar’s first two years, the Lakers have won 30 matches over the past seasons. While that’s a huge step in the right direction, Puncochar is not satisfied yet.
“It’s about not being satisfied,” Puncochar said. “I tell the kids all the time. We were 14-8 two years ago and 16-10 this year. That’s awesome and great, but if that’s where you want to be, you and I aren’t on the same page. I want to be in the state tournament every year. Right now we’re competing to get there and that’s great, but until we break through and get there on a regular basis, I’m going to continue to push them and that’s something they’re starting to figure out. We’re always going to find a way to get better.”
Success the past two seasons has built a fire inside the HLWW wrestling program. They’ve worked hard to change the program over the last few years, and if they want to get even better, they know there’s more hard work ahead of them.
“Just keep doing the right things,” Puncochar said about his vision for the program going forward. “We rely on a ton of multi-sport athletes. We strive to develop those habits that successful people have. If you don’t have those factors, you’re not ever going to get there. That’s the message right now. We want to help these guys be better young men. We have a lot of talent, and we just need to continue to shape that. We know we can push ourselves harder and that will only help us.”