The Wrestler

“Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” – Dan Gable

Axel Hoogland, Donny Stork, Conference 2007

Axel Hoogland (Orange), Donny Stork, Conference 2007

I attended tiny feeder elementary and middle schools with one class per grade and between 8 and 20 kids per class. The only sport was basketball and I was a pretty aggressive basketball player. I fouled out of most of my games my 8th grade year and didn’t score many points. Once I got to high school I was basically funneled to the wrestling program by default, basically by small comments from my dad, uncles and wrestling coach. My father and uncles had been wrestlers. I don’t recall much push to be a wrestler growing up but I do remember attending one wrestling match that an older cousin was wrestling in.

I remember my freshman year of wrestling there were 7 or 8 freshmen on the team. Most of them had wrestled before and some of them were pretty good. They would wrestle and joke with the older kids. The older guys were Gods as far as I was concerned. Since I was new to the larger school I didn’t know many people, especially older kids.  I had never wrestled and I got my butt kicked, even by the worst guys. I was 125 lbs.

The day before the first wrestling match I had to ask the assistant coach a serious question.

“Am I supposed to wear a cup during the match?”

“No.” He laughed.

I don’t remember my first wrestling match, or my second, or third. From my freshman year I do remember wrestling at a Junior Varsity (JV) tournament. For wrestling, there are some JV only tournaments. I think there were 2 a year. The varsity guys didn’t go to those matches, they got the weekend off. I had to wrestle a girl at this particular tournament. I beat her. I was happy it was over quickly. Wrestling girls for a freshman guy in high school can be extremely awkward. You are around that point where maybe you’re sort of interested in girls. Likely your buddies made a few jokes that maybe they didn’t even know what they meant and the older guys had said some things about girls while in the locker room you didn’t understand yet. But you definitely don’t want to have to beat a girl up in front of a lot of people.

I beat 5 kids all by the same reach back head lock from the referee’s position. That’s just a garbage move that will get you pinned if you’re wrestling anyone good. Regardless I won the tournament. I was pretty ecstatic. I remember my dad saying that one guy had remarked “That kid is built like a brick shit house.” That sure made me feel good. Tough. Strong.

I wrestled my first varsity match. at a team tournament in Stratford, WI. I was a sophomore at 135 or 140 lbs. Our varsity guy was sick or gone. In a team tournament there are multiple full teams wrestling one team against another, as opposed to a bracket of individuals at the same weight wrestling each other. I got matched with up a guy who was also a JV guy being bumped to varsity. I beat him. It was a sweet victory. I ended my sophomore year on the JV team.

Living on a farm I was always working. We’d make hay, pick rocks from the field and work in the barn. Obviously stacking hay is a physical workout as is picking up rocks. One of the chores in the barn was mixing feed for the cows and feeding the calves. Both of these entailed carrying around 5 gallon buckets of feed. I’d take the time to walk slower and do curls with the buckets.

The summer after my sophomore year was the first summer I attended any type of wrestling camp outside of season. This is where good wrestlers are made. Everyone in the state puts in the 2 hours after school at wrestling practice. If you want to be better than everyone else you have to put in more time. This simple principle can be applied to all areas of life. My brother and I attended the Camp of Champs put on by John and Ben Peterson.

My junior year I finally started to get into the swing of things. Enough people had graduated and I finally had enough experience I had a starting spot on the varsity team, I was a team leader wrestling 152 lbs.

The Northern Badger tournament was the big tournament our team went to each year. It is a 2 day tournament so the goal is always to get to the 2nd day. It starts with a 32 man bracket and the 2nd day is wrestling to “place”. The top 12 people in each bracket wrestle the 2nd day. I ended up winning 2 matches and losing 2 matches which didn’t get me to the 2nd day. I was a bit upset. The last match I lost 12-16 to a sophomore, Larrieu, whose record was 6-3. He ended up 5th, which was pretty good for a sophomore at 152 lbs.

For the tournament our team hosted at our school, our 160 lb wrestler decided he wanted to drop to 152 lbs. He ended up beating me in a wrestle off before our home tournament so he wrestled at 152 and I wrestled at 160. It turned out to be a fortunate break for me because at 152 there was a junior, Lukasko, who was a state champion the previous year and had gotten 3rd his freshman year. I ended up winning at 160. That was my only home tournament win since the next year I wrestled Lukasko and lost.

My junior year I wrestled at conference for the first time as a varsity member.  I remember beating a guy, Stork, who was a senior, but the tournament was very oddly set up so I ended up wrestling him 2x and lost to him the 2nd time we wrestled. That was for 1st place, so I ended up getting 2nd that year in conference.

After conference is regionals, sectionals and state. All wrestlers should want to go to state. In division 3 in Wisconsin wrestling you have to get 1st or 2nd to get from regionals to sectionals, and then 1st,2nd or 3rd in sectionals to get to state. I ended up 1st in my regional of 3 people to go to sectionals. In sectionals I lost to Castorena in the first round and I was out. I was pretty crushed, and looking back there was no good reason I should have lost that match. I lost it 6-8 to a guy who basically had the same record as me. I ended my junior year with a record of 22 wins, 14 losses.

After my junior year I was pretty ready to be a great wrestler. My brother, myself and Casey Williams, another wrestler from our team, decided to go to a bunch of after season wrestling tournaments. Practice makes perfect as they say. The after season tournaments are where all the good wrestlers go to get better. We must have wrestled 30 matches between my junior and senior seasons. That’s nearly a full year’s worth of wrestling. Since I was getting beaten and wrestling a lot of very good competition my skills were progressing rapidly.

One of the matches was at the Badger State games against Larrieu, who I’d lost to at the Northern Badger the year before. I ended up pinning him in the first match. It was a free-style match, but still, to pin a guy who had beaten you previously was great. He was furious, as any good wrestler should be when he’s pinned.

That summer, 2006, I attended many wrestling camps. I went to wrestling practice in Park Falls, a neighboring town, with some of the better guys from that team and a mentor. He was a 30 something judo champion. Wrestling and judo are both contact sports so we did a sort of cross breed between the two. I remember one day I sat on the tractor all day raking hay. I lived on a farm. I took my shirt off because I thought it’d be cool to be more tan, I’m about the whitest guy ever. I ended up with the worst sunburn ever. That night at wrestling I was in tears from all the pain I was getting from the guys touching my back while we were grappling. I did eventually have to stop, the pain was too bad. I never took my shirt off on the tractor again.

My brother and I again attend the Camp of Champs again the summer of 2006 and later a camp at the UW-Oshkosh campus. My brother, Casey and I, 4 guys from Park Falls and 1 from Hurley (neighboring schools, went). Of the 8 of us 6 ended up going to state the next year. That was an intense camp.

Sometime in this summer of 2006 I had started doing a certain number of push-ups each morning. I was up to 50 once September came around and the start of the school year. Since I was on the cross country team in the fall I was already doing running practice so I didn’t really need to do extra, until wrestling season came around. By November, I was running a mile in the mornings, doing my pushups and climbing the 60’ silo on our farm. You hold pretty tight to those ladder rails when it’s icy outside. I don’t necessarily recommend this as a training method, but something similar could be good. After practice I’d spend time crawling up the stairs on my hands while someone wheelbarrowed my legs.

Coming into my senior year I was one of 3 guys who had started from when I was a freshman. The other guys had fallen off for various reasons. Some got tangled in drugs, some for bad grades or behavior, some just moved away. I had avoided all those traps. I had spent lots of time working hard to be a better wrestler. This was my year.

Onto the Northern Badger I came in with a 17-3 record. I got a bye the first round, won my 2nd match and ran into Larrieu again. This is a common occurrence in wrestling, seeing the same guys multiple times. This time I lost 10-8.  After that I lost a match 5-0 to Bonander but I was already in the 2nd day. I ended up winning 2 more matches and Castorena, from the year before, ended up 12th, although I didn’t realize that at the time.

On to my team’s hosted tournament, I ended up in the same bracket as Lukasko, the now 2x state champ. He was undefeated and I went in hard. I actually had him on his back, where most decent wrestlers will tell you they had a great wrestler at some point. I ended up getting pinned. The only time my senior year. I ended up 2nd. After the match I told Lukasko I’d see him at State. I’m sure he didn’t hear and wasn’t really that worried.

Fast forward to Conference. The year before I had got 2nd to Stork. This year his younger brother, Don Stork, was in my weight class. He was having a pretty good year wrestling and I was nervous to wrestle him.  It was a round robin 5 man tournament. There were 3 of us with good records and 2 guys who were just there. I ended up losing the first match to the other guy and then handily beat the next 2 guys. The final match was against Stork. He had beaten the guy who had beaten me first. If I beat Stork I won, if I lost I got 3rd. I ended up beating him. It was great. Finally conference champ.

Axel Hoogland (orange) Donny Stork, Conference 2007

Axel Hoogland (orange) Donny Stork, Conference 2007

Of course, conference didn’t mean much. I moved on to regional’s which I handily won. Moving onto sectionals there were 3 guys who should move on to state and I was one of them, Larrieu was another and there was a 3rd guy. Unfortunately I ended up on the opposite side of the bracket as Larrieu and on the same side as the other state bound guy. I ended up losing to him in 2 overtimes. It was the longest match I’d ever been a part of or seen. We weren’t even sure of the rules towards the end of the later overtime, neither were the coaches. Since I lost that one I had to wrestle back to 3rd to get to state. The first guy I pinned in a minute. The next guy, the guy I had to wrestle to go to state, was Castorena, from sectionals the year before, whom I had lost to. I didn’t remember much of him but I did remember he had beaten me the year before. I was out for vengeance. When he stepped on the mat he looked pretty muscular. I ended up pinning him right at the end of the first period. I was going to STATE!

There is a 12 man bracket for wrestling in state. There are 4 sectionals, 3 guys from each. The guy who gets first ends in the 1 man bracket. The guys who got 2nd and 3rd had to wrestle off each other for the 4 spots left. I ended up pinning the guy I had to wrestle. That was the first day. Later that night I was walking around, looking at the brackets and ran into Bonander, the guy who I had lost to at Northern Badger. He congratulated me on getting to state.

2007 wrestling bracket

The next day my first match in the 8 man bracket was Lukasko. I went in strong again but came up quite short. I ended up losing 2-11. He ended up winning state that year again, undefeated as he pinned his opponents in the semi finals and finals. At least I didn’t get pinned! I still had a chance to place, I didn’t. I ended up losing my next match in overtime 4-2. That was how I ended my high school wrestling career.

State Wrestling 2007

No where will you see as many seemingly tough high school guys crying as at state sport events. I’m not sure about other sports, but wrestling is quite personal. It’s you against the other guy and one of you has to lose. I definitely cried after the match while I was in the shower.

Lukasko went on to play college football at UW-Madison.

Larrieu ended up winning state the next year. Which gave me the chance to talk big the next year, saying I had pinned him, even if it was an out of season tournament, they all count, although admittedly the last match always counts more.

Donny Stork ended up dying in a car crash a few years later.

High School wrestling is definitely not the pinnacle of athletic performance. But it is at a certain point of your life. I put in as much time as I understood I could. You can always make time for important things. I could have put more time in. I could have pushed myself harder. Others could have pushed harder. I’m not sure how I would have responded. I try to remember my road through wrestling whenever I am faced with a new skill that seems difficult. After 2 years of being not very great, I started to develop slowly. Once I started to put in more time I started to succeed faster. There is no good reason I couldn’t have been better sooner, except I didn’t put in the time. If you take time to practice more than the other guy, you will surpass them in skill, knowledge, technique, strength etc. Whatever you do, do it well.