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Willmar Notebook: A wrestler on the long, winding road

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Happy camper Kevin Steinhaus pauses moments before the Cardinal Wrestling Camp starts its third of four sessions Wednesday morning at the middle school in Willmar.

Former Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg athlete Kevin Steinhaus of rural Pennock is spending the summer in the pews of an oversized van and in gymnasiums from coast to coast.

The Minnesota Gophers wrestling captain was at the middle school in Willmar on Wednesday morning after spending the previous evening at Grove City at Spencer Lund's West Central Minnesota Wrestling Camp.

His summer résumé reads like the refrain from the trucker's song "I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere."

In May, he was in pre-fire Fort Collins, Colorado, attending the God-Life-Sports camp. Then it was back to the Midwest for the University National Tournament in Akron, Ohio, where he placed runner-up in the 184-pound weight class.

Back on U.S. Highway 80 to Forest Lake, Iowa, for a 10-day J Robinson Camp at Waldorf College, and then a whiplash return east to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, for another J Robinson camp, with this one lasting 14 days. This week he's taking a brief break from teaching at Robinson's signature 28-day camp at the U of M for a visit to the home area.

Up ahead is a 14-day camp in Ashland, Oregon, among the coastal Redwoods. The Gophers in the grapplers' caravan are preparing for the upcoming World Team Trials in Colorado Springs. Weight-division champions will make the national team and travel overseas.

The wrestling camps are more than a summer job.

"It's good; you get to wrestle and train all summer, work out with your teammates, lift weights and stay close to the sport," Steinhaus told me minutes prior to a three-hour stint at the Cardinal Wrestling Camp run by Willmar varsity coaches Justin Brown and Ed Oehlers.

Kevin won three individual state titles in high school (136-0 the last three years) and quarterbacked the KMS team that won Class A football in 2008 followed up by the Fighting Saints' wrestling team winning the Class A championship in March.

After a redshirt freshman year on the Minneapolis campus, he's got two years left on the Gophers. This past season, he went 34-6 (8-0 Big 10), beat the defending D-I champ in his weight class, won his weight-class at the Big 10 tournament and finished fifth at the NCAA Nationals for his second All-America medal. He was voted Most Dedicated Wrestler of the Year by teammates and achieved Big 10 All-Academic honors.

A career year, the reporter noted. But the curly-locked Gopher has more in mind.

"I've got two more years to keep moving up the ladder," he said softly. Then, he jumped from the stage to the gym floor and went to work.

Take that, Parise

Then there was the time a Willmar youth hockey team rocked another Minnesota team skating three future NHLers ... stop me if you've heard this one.

It was the winter of 1998, a post-holiday A Bantam tournament in Fargo. Sixteen teams, including Shattuck-St. Mary's, an Episcopal boarding and day school in Faribault, were there.

The school's hockey teams typically play a 50-75 game national Tier I schedule that attracts emerging teenage stars, like Sydney Crosby, to its campus.

Willmar's VFW Bantams met the Sabres in a winner's bracket semifinal.

Matt Breen, a first-line forward, remembers the setting.

"It was early Sunday morning and they may have been a little flat," he recalled, cutting the excessively talented Sabres some slack. "We'd heard about Shattuck, of course, but they weren't part of the Let's Play Hockey rankings, so we couldn't be sure what to expect. Likely, they knew nothing about us."

But this was among Willmar's best-ever youth hockey teams. They jumped out 3-1 on S-S-M and went on to win 5-2. Lee Engstrom, Ben Villnow and Breen got two points each, Darin Strand a goal and Troy Weiss an assist. Jeff Wahl was the head coach and Scott Carruthers the assistant.

A kid named Zach Parise assisted on Shattuck's first goal and Patrick Eaves scored in the third period. Zach's older brother Jordan made 18 saves in goal; Steve Schminke made 22 stops in the Willmar cage.

Most of the Willmar players were in ninth grade. Zach Parise, two years younger, was likely a seventh-grader still eligible to play at the PeeWee level. J.P. Parise, the former North Star, was the head coach. Zach will skate for the Wild this year and well into the future; Jordan plays in Europe. Eaves is with the Red Wings, though he missed most of the past season with a broken jaw/concussion. Ryan Carter, born in White Bear Lake, was also on that long-ago Shattuck team. He was Zach's teammate during New Jersey's march to the Stanley Cup Finals, scoring five goals in the playoffs.

The Willmar boys had outstanding high school careers in all sports. While they didn't reach state, the varsity hockey team under head varsity coach John Wilson showed they could play with the best when they posted an overtime victory over the Spuds in Moorhead and a holiday tournament win over Roseau on the Rams' own rink.

Matt Breen coaches the Minnetonka Skippers JV boys hockey team. Not far away, Engstrom is the head boys coach at Shakopee and next door to Minnetonka, Doug Runke, also from the 2001 class, heads up the Mound-Westonka boys program.

My visit with Matt and his brother Mike, who supplied the official score sheet by email, provided a time to catch up with the three Breen boys, each multi-sport athletes at Willmar.

Mike is an attorney in the Twin Cities specializing in contract law, Patrick has been teaching in Green Bay but will return to his alma mater to teach high school science this fall and Matt teaches geometry and AP statistics at Minnetonka. Parents Tom and Kathy, who were tireless in their support of school activities, now live in Prescott, Wis.

Beer here!

You know that's it's a pretty high-power slow pitch softball tourney the Litchfield Firefighters ran at Watercade last weekend when Peter's Signs of Litchfield and Gratz Trucking of Willmar finish out of the top four.

The tournament was dominated instead by metro power brokers, such as HMC/Easton and Stagecoach, looking to line their purses to cover travel to the biggest national tournaments.

The weekend was hot and sunny so the beer and soft drinks, as well as brats and burgers, sold briskly. The proceeds go to the fire department's Relief Association.

Long-time volunteer fireman Greg Gilbertson said the department has 30 on its roster. Some of the profits will go to the retirement fund but also to pay for fire equipment and to help with improvements at the two fields that are across the street from the football stadium parking lot.

Gilbertson told me the firemen took over the tournament sponsorship from the Jaycees, who no longer had the numbers to handle it. He said the department's firefighters' waterball tournament at Watercade has been a huge success over the years, though lightning curtailed Friday's event.

The firefighters group also runs concessions (with beer) during men's leagues on Tuesday and Thursday. They also try to have the concession stand open for food for girls softball on Mondays (also their meeting night).

Brad Bonk at Willmar recreation wants to see the WCER's Willmar Fests Tournament grow. He can help run the event, but without a civic organization stepping in to run concessions, obtain a temp beer license and provide the honey pot that attracts the bumble bees, significant growth seems unlikely. The tourney at the end of June here had eight teams and no concessions.

On the fly

n At last check, Willmar High School still has not filled head coaching vacancies in girls basketball and girls hockey. Basketball coach Brad Atchison retired after 35 years while Jason Meyer, 40, a non-school employee, wants to back off the demands of being head coach after two years leading girls hockey. "I'd love to still help as an assistant and just coach. The time needed year around is just too difficult," said Meyer, who is the Laboratory Director at Rice Memorial Hospital.

n Regarding the Foot Lake 4, the running race at Willmar Fests -- at least two individuals have run in all 18 of the races sponsored by Rice Memorial Hospital. They are Wendy Nelsen of rural Willmar and Ann Day of Willmar. Any others? Send an email to

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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