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Willmar wrestling coach Beyer decides to step down after 26 seasons

Tom Beyer thought about stepping down from his post as head wrestling coach at Willmar High School for several years.

"What kept me going was a great group of kids, this year's seniors," said Beyer the other day. "I really enjoyed being with these kids. It was a good group to leave with."

His 26 years as head coach ended under the Xcel Energy Center spotlights on center mat during the Class AAA individuals March 3. Senior Drew Larson wrestled for the 145-pound title.

Though he lost to unbeaten, two-time champion Jake Deitchler of Anoka, it was a fitting climax to Beyer's career.

Kids like Larson, who missed qualifying for state his previous two attempts, seemed to sum up what Beyer feels his job was about.

"Drew worked so hard to get this far," said Beyer. "I never felt winning was what the sport was about. Winning was the reward.

"My job, as a coach, was to work with youth and mold them guided by my perspective of what is important. And that is hard work, dedication, commitment and sacrifice."

But Beyer senses his passion for the job has ebbed.

"It's not just what's best for Tom," he said. "It's what's best for the program. I think it needs a younger person with a little more energy perhaps."

Beyer, a fifth-grade teacher, leaves the sport as the current dean of Cardinal coaches. Brad Atchison and Jerry Popp have been head coaches longer but no one on the present coaching staff is close to Beyer in terms of years as a Willmar head coach. Volleyball coach Mary Hanson is next with 18 years.

Beyer graduated from Morris High School in 1976, West Central all-conference in three sports. He finished fourth in the state wrestling meet at 167 pounds his senior year. He enrolled at the college in his hometown where he won a NCAA Division III national championship his junior year and a runner-up medal as a senior.

He started coaching American Legion baseball in college. He was co-coach of the Morris team that reached the state tournament in 1981.

Fresh out of college in 1981 he interviewed at Willmar.

"It was a five-hour interview," he recalled. "They were really cautious. They'd never hired an elementary classroom teacher also to be a coach. There were P.E. teachers who were coaches, but not classroom teachers. So, it was breaking new ground. I'm forever grateful to the administration that they took a chance on me."

Wrestling had been a varsity sport since 1948-49. The zenith was reached in 1972 when the Cardinals, coached by Ed Nystrom, won the Region V title (determined by points) and a year later when Kevin Fladeboe became Willmar's first state champion -- in any sport -- by winning the 138-pound title.

When Beyer arrived, Willmar had had only one winning season (8-7 in 1977-78) since 1973-74. The new teacher's first team won two matches and lost 16.

"It was really hard," he said of his first year. "I think the first two years we were six and 28. I was fortunate that Roy Minter (coach at Willmar Community College) was around. He told me the things I needed to do and he counseled me to be patient."

But Beyer still felt he wasn't moving things forward. He looked but couldn't find anyone else employed by the school district with a wrestling background to become his assistant.

"I felt," he said, "like I was pushing a huge snowball uphill all alone."

He finally went to the administration and Clarkfield native Paul Donner was hired to teach math and to become the assistant coach.

"Paul Donner was a great assistant here for 10 years," said Beyer. "I think when he arrived that's when we really made the jump."

It was also the time a couple of kids destined for wrestling greatness showed up in the wrestling room. Chad Carlson was a farm kid whose dad, Curt, wrestled in the 1957 state tournament. Troy Haglund, the same age, was a rural kid, too, who lived in Pennock, just a few miles from the Carlson farm.

A year later, 1985-86, with eight seniors leading the way, Willmar shared its first Central Lakes Conference title. The squad dipped to fourth the next year before the Cardinals would win outright or share the next three CLC championships.

Chad Carlson won the first of his two state titles in 1989 and both he and Haglund were on the top step of the podium at the end of the 1990 state meet.

"Every coach's goal is to have an individual champion, but to have two in one year, I'd never even dreamed that would happen," said Beyer.

Carl Carlson, Chad's younger brother by two years, and Andy Reigstad repeated the double gold in 1992.

Chad is Willmar's all-time leader in career wins with 167.

Beyer says it was Troy's and Chad's successes that first made it possible for other kids in Willmar to believe they could succeed in this sport.

Nate Villnow won a state title in 1994 and Willmar won its first-ever section team title in 1998. Leo Ballesteros reached the championship match in 2001 before losing.

"I think that was a breakthrough," said Beyer noting that Ballesteros is Hispanic. "Tensions were high in the community at the time and he showed what was possible in a really positive way."

In 2005, though the No. 5 seed, Willmar won the 2AAA section for a second state trip. Beyer's son, Jake, now at Ridgewater, was a senior on that team.

A daughter, Katie, like her father a UM-Morris graduate, works for a committee at the state legislature.

"I missed a lot of family stuff when my kids were growing up," said Beyer, who also coached football at all levels for 15 falls. "The time commitment is great. It's stressful. It affects every part of your life."

His first marriage had ended in divorce. Last year he married Stacy Guptill, diving coach for the high school girls team.

During the interview, Beyer expressed his disappointment that Chad Carlson, a three-sport athlete who wrestled four years for the Gophers, isn't in the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame.

"My gosh, Chad was '(Minnesota) Wrestler of the Year' his senior season," said Beyer.

Beyer's final record in dual meets is 248-201. Second on the list, in terms of wins, is Walter Kokesch (1948-61) with 76. He has coached 60 state entries and 34 of the 38 wrestlers with 60 or more wins in Cardinal history. The past six seasons Willmar is 39-10 in the CLC finishing second or third each year.

"I couldn't have done it without parental support," said Beyer. "The job is hard enough; it would be impossible without their support. You've got to be allowed to coach."