Jake's Takes: KMS wrestlers have a deja vu vibe going
High school sports are cyclical, especially in more rural areas where total enrollment numbers hardly reach triple digits. Sometimes those cycles skip a generation (or three) and others appear to flow seamlessly together.
KMS wrestling coach Wes Haglund certainly has seen his share of cycles in his 38 years guiding the Saints in Kerkhoven. This year's installment of grapplers have battled the injury bug all season which has led to a few blemishes on the team's win-loss record.
But that doesn't stop Haglund from finding comparisons to recent vintages. First on his list of comparisons is the 2009 state championship team that featured KMS legends Kevin Steinhaus, Mitch Hagen and Joel Bauman, among others.
That seems like a lofty comparison for a team that went 1-2 at their own quad but there's certainly some merit to it. Before we make the comparison, though, let's take another look at the state champs.
2009, a legacy
The Saints earned the top seed in 2009 in a year that began to mark somewhat of a shift in the Class A wrestling scene. Of the eight team field, only three of the teams from the 2008 tournament returned for a shot at the title in 2009 with ACGC, Kenyon-Wanamingo, and Frazee. For ACGC, it was one of 10 state tournament appearances from 2002-2015 and the second for Kenyon-Wanamingo, who has now gone on to compete in three other tournaments since 2008. Frazee, meanwhile, has been to as many state tournaments as the years I've been alive.
For the Saints, however, it was the first trip to the tournament in the school's history and they sure made the most of it.
The Saints' lineup was stacked from top to bottom in 2009 with Steinhaus and Hagen leading the way with undefeated seasons and individual state titles. Somehow Bauman, who eventually wrestled for the University of Minnesota with Steinhaus, lost twice that season but he went on to win a state title, as well, which is definitely less surprising.
As a team, KMS soundly defeated Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial 40-21 in the opening round, followed by a 33-26 victory over No. 4 Medford in the semifinal to set up a meeting with No. 2 Kenyon-Wanamingo in the final.
There are comparisons to be made between this year's team and the 2009 squad but one major difference came in the lower weight classes. While the 2018 Saints are dominant in the opening classes, their elders struggled at time getting out of the gates. So much so, in fact, that the Knights opened up to a 19-0 lead after the first five matches.
At 135 pounds, though, Aaron Doraska took a 12-10 decision win for KMS that kicked his team into gear. The Saints won their next seven matches, including pins from Steinhaus and Bauman, and took 32 straight points to earn the victory.
'We talking 'bout practice?'
If you strain your eyes at a meet involving this year's KMS team you may be able to see flashes of that 2009 team. They don't typically beat teams by 50 points and it's rare they earn complete sweeps. But they feature some of the best individual wrestlers in the state. That remains the same.
It's on the practice mat, however, that Haglund sees that 2009 team.
"In 2009, those guys wrestled each other every day," Haglund said about Steinhaus, Hagen, and Bauman. "It was like a state final every day in practice. They didn't want to give up a point, it was that competitive. I just crossed my fingers and hoped nobody got hurt. That was a lot of fun and pretty special."
That phenomena is happening again, just at the lower weight classes and with younger guys. Top-ranked Will Magaard (31-1) is one of Haglund's Swiss Army knives, bouncing around between 106 pounds, his natural weight class, to 120 pounds. Meanwhile, Magaard's brother, Chase (16-8), often takes charge at 113 pounds and Coy Gunderson (21-11) gets things going at 106 pounds.
"People better watch those guys in the first three weight classes," Haglund said. "Will makes each of those guys better. There's always competition in practice and that's just great."
Haglund says he sees a bit of Steinhaus in Will Magaard, citing the latter as one of the better wrestlers he's coached as just a sophomore already.
"If I played baseball, I would love to say I'm like Derek Jeter," Haglund said. "Will is like Kevin Steinhaus, and Coy and Chase are a lot like Will. These guys have great attitudes to be the best and that's why we were so good in 2009. (Will) has the same confidence as Steinhaus, Hagen, and Bauman. He knows nobody will beat him. It's really fun to coach kids that think nobody can beat them. I wish I could have had that same confidence when I was wrestling."
That confidence and hard-nosed practice style permeates throughout the team. When healthy, the Saints add in Jared Carlson (22-10), Jonathan Tostenson (27-5), Caleb Collins (30-4), and Dylan Rudningen (17-4) in the ensuing weight classes to create a vaunted opening group of wrestlers.
Injury bug bites
The last sentence includes the two words—"when healthy"—that have been the Saints' big problem this year. Despite making two-straight state tournament appearances and maintaining the core of the team, KMS is the No. 12 team in Class A, according to the Guillotine, and the third best in Section 5A.
It can be lazy to simply blame injuries but it's tough to argue in this case. Haglund said this year has featured more injuries in a season than he's seen at any point through his 38-year career.
Dylan Rudningen is one of the state's best middleweight wrestlers but has missed time due to injury that will likely leave him out until the section tournament and freshman Richard Jones has also missed time and wrestled while injured, dropping a few matches he may otherwise have won.
Forfeiting three or four matches hasn't been uncommon for the Saints this season and it isn't easy to come back from an 18-0 or 24-0 deficit.
The Saints were 1-2 at the KMS duals, which featured Section 5A competitor Long Prairie-Grey Eagle/Browerville and 2017 Class A state competitors Pipestone and West Central Area/Ashby/Brandon-Evansville. The win came 49-30 over Pipestone.
Rudningen and Jones were available but KMS was still forced to leave an opening at 120 pounds due to injury and that ended up costing the team in a six-point loss to LPGE/Browerville. Add in a couple of narrow two-point decisions that could have flipped a different way and that Friday night in January looks a lot different than it does now.
Some of these team losses could rack up some doubt in a team but Haglund is certain that isn't the case these days.
"It doesn't seem like it bothers them at all," Haglund said. "They know that we'll have the roster ready by tournament time. We'll have Coy at 106, Chase at 113, and Will at 120, then flow into Carlson at 126 and Tostenson at 132. We haven't wrestled like that all season because it's sort of just been injury after injury but that's a pretty solid lineup, I tell you."
Collins, a senior, earned his 150th career win that day and fellow captain Tostenson also is closing in on 150 wins. The heavier weight classes are where the Saints can drop some points but Ryan Torkelson (21-8) has been able to swing between classes to snag wins for the Saints when needed.
The leadership group, which includes Collins, Tostenson, Torkelson, Will Magaard, and Rudningen, has helped loosen things up, literally and figuratively, with new warm-ups that look more like Cirque du Soleil than your standard "touch-your-toes" bit. When most wrestlers spend their time running around the mat to warm up, Magaard and company can be seen doing backflips and cartwheels to get the blood moving.
"I've never seen anything like it," Haglund said. "It's different but I like it. It's fun to see kids that couldn't do any of it before, now they're doing flips and walking on their hands. It's wild."
The mood around the mat certainly is loose but the Saints also understand they're on the precipice of something special. A third-straight trip to the state tournament is within reach, not to mention a number of placements and possible champions at the individual level.
"These guys have a lot of respect for the past programs and how they were run," Haglund said. "They were the little kids that looked up to those guys from 2009. They saw how those guys were and they want to be even better than that."