One of my annual traditions is attending the state wrestling tournament at the Xcel Energy Center. It is the kickoff for March Madness, with the boys hockey, girls basketball and boys basketball tournaments held in successive weeks after wrestling (girls hockey and dance team tournaments happen in late February).
This tournament has special meaning for me. A good friend of mine, Pat Murphy, is the wrestling coach at Trinity at River Ridge School in Eagan, where one of my sons goes, and from where my two oldest boys graduated. Pat has been at it a long time and, more often than not, he manages to get a wrestler to state.
This year, he had two – senior Ben Rynda at 132 pounds and junior James Goman at 113. Both went to state last year, with Rynda placing fourth at 125 pounds and Goman going 1-2 at 103. This year, they both made it to the state finals, Goman at 113 and Rynda at 132.
I went to both of their quarterfinal matches on Friday and shot action photos. It was exciting to see both of them win, and I was filled with anticipation at the prospect of both reaching the state finals. That has never happened for the Trinity program so far.
After winning their semifinal matches,they prepared for the finals Saturday night at the “X”. For those who have never attended the wrestling tournament, I would highly recommend it. I know the hockey tournament gets lots of headlines – and rightfully so – but the wrestling tournament generates plenty of energy, too. In fact, the building rocks at times, especially during the individual finals. You’ve got three mats going at the same time, one each for Class A, AA and AAA.
What I like about it is that so many communities throughout the state are represented. You’ve got the metro powerhouses like Apple Valley and Simley, but also the outstate triple-hyphenated schools that live, eat the breathe wrestling.
All that mixed together produces lots of excitement. I’m a little sad to say that both Trinity wrestlers lost in the finals, but I still had lots of fun watching and photographing their matches. Along the way, I got to shoot some other Catholic wrestlers – Mitchel Lexvold (senior, 120 pounds) of Kenyon-Wanaming0 (and St. Michael in Kenyon), plus a pair of wrestlers from my alma mater, Totino-Grace High School in Fridley: Lance Benick (ninth grade, 182) and Joe Schiller (junior, 220).
Lexvold won his second state title and completed a remarkable run in which he and two of his brothers won a total of five state individual titles. They also combined for more than 700 wins, making them one of the best wrestling families the state has ever produced.
After watching Lexvold win his match, I stuck around for a few more matches simply because of the excitement. I always get a kick out of the way the sellout crowd loves to cheer against Apple Valley wrestlers. So many folks have accused the school of recruiting, if not illegally, at least unethically. I will admit, the school clearly has a huge advantage over other schools, with a stacked lineup every year no matter how many seniors graduate the year before.
Some say the program is more like an Olympic development program than a high school program. I would have to agree. I put the wrestling school in the same category as Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, which is an elite hockey program for high school kids, but does not compete in the Minnesota State High School League due to its unfair competitive advantage. It does, however, play some games against high school teams looking for a challenge. It seems to work for this school, and I think that would be a good idea for Apple Valley to consider.
So, I watched several matches involving Apple Valley kids before heading for the exit. Sure enough, one of the kids lost and the crowd roared. As I made my way up the stairs from floor level, I heard an announcement over the p.a. system that stopped me in my tracks – Benick was wrestling in the finals.
I ran back down to photograph his match. He dominated throughout, then pinned his opponent, Jamison Evans of Grand Rapids. After that, I decided to stay and see if any other Catholic wrestlers took to the mat.
Sure enough, two weights later, out walked Schiller. He was in trouble from the beginning and trailed most of the way. After his opponent, JD Struxness of Dawson-Boyd/Lac Qui Parle, padded his lead in the third period, I figured it was over for Schiller.
I was wrong. He eventually got away from Struxness and scored an escape, then added more points in the final seconds to win, 6-5. It was one of the most dramatic matches of the night, and a nice surpise that made my extra time at the “X” well worth it.
Can’t wait to see what this week brings with the boys hockey tournament kicking off tomorrow. St. Thomas Academy will try to defend its Class A title, with Hermantown waiting to try and yank the title away. A year ago, Hermantown dominated the Cadets early, but couldn’t hold on to an early lead and lost in overtime. Hermantown is seeded No. 1 in the tournament, and surely has a possible finals game against St. Thomas Academy circled on its calendar.
Meanwhile, Benilde-St. Margeret’s School is making an appearance in the Class AA tournament. The Red Knights have the emotion of the Jack Jablonski tragedy on their side, and I have no doubt the school will find a way to get him to the “X” to watch. If they are able to win in the quarterfinals, they would potentially face Duluth East, which finished second last year and is seeded first in the tournament this year. The Greyhounds have been ranked No. 1 all year and have only lost one game.
Meanwhile, Hill-Murray is in the other bracket, and there is at least the possibility of Hill-Murray meeting BSM in the championship game. An all-Catholic final happened in 2002, when the Academy of Holy Angels beat Hill-Murray 4-2. In fact, three of the four teams in the finals that year were Catholic schools, with Totino-Grace defeating Red Wing, 3-2.
That would be exciting, but no matter who advances, I am guaranteed to experience my favorite highlight of the tournament – listening to Lou Nanne on the air. He has been doing the games since I was a kid, first at the Met Center, then at the St. Paul Civic Center and now at the “X”. He brings so much enthusiasm and knowledge to the broadcast. I can’t even bear the thought of him retiring.
This week, at least, I don’t even have to think about it. If any Catholic schools reach the finals, I will be there with my camera to document the results. If not, I can sit home to watch the game and listen to “Sweet Lou.”
Either way, I can’t lose.