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Willmar notebook: Pro wrestlin’ for the family

Tony Denucci spent his early years in South Philadelphia but the stout Italian teenager would graduate from Rosemount High School in Twin Cities where he was on the Irish football and track teams.

He got a college business degree but his passion for weightlifting launched an offer from the legendary Vern Gagne to join his American Wrestling Association. He began his pro wrestling career in 1988.

He has lived in Elk River with his wife (they have three daughters) for 10 years and is CEO of the American Wrestling Association. Bruce Strand, sports editor at the Elk River Star, once described the go-getter as “A pro wrestler with a Christian outlook, squeaky-clean image, and a separate career in auto financing … best known locally for his wrestling fundraiser to help local sports teams.”

His annual fundraiser for Elk River football draws over 2,000 people.

The AWF comes to Willmar on Nov. 24 for a fundraiser by the Willmar Takedown Club. Two week later the AWF will be at the Becker/Big Lake hockey fundraiser.

Denucci told me he loves the Vern Gagne-era characters but today’s pro wrestler is more athletic, aerodynamic, stronger and faster.

“This is a show for the kids,” he said. “You won’t hear any swearing. Parents aren’t afraid to bring their children.”

He knows what he’d up against, including the sensory overload of video games.

“This is a big, bright show,” he said. “At intermission, the wrestlers will all sign photos and the children can have their pictures taken with them. We’ve had these shows in churches; it’s a product that fits anywhere.”

Except night clubs. There are no adult beverages at AWF events, so Denucci says there is no need for bouncers at his shows. He expects each AWF wrestler to be a role model. In fact, he maintains, his voice rising, pro athletes should consider another occupation if they don’t expect to be a role models.

The event is a leap for the Takedown Club. President Tim Kremer stated that 700 fans are needed in the seats before they start making money. Besides the cost of bringing in the event, there is the gym rental.

Kremer said 100 percent of the proceeds, after expenses, go to the booster club.

“We are using this fundraiser to help purchase new wrestling mats which cost $12,000 to $14,000 each, a huge undertaking that required us to think differently about possible fundraisers,” the Takedown president stated.

The Willmar appearance will be videotaped for “Sunday Shockwave,” seen 10 a.m. every Sunday on Twin Cities (the) CW 23.

Ever ready Gruhlke

Tom Gruhlke looks ready to compete at a high level in Senior Olympics wrestling. He’s fit and limber and doesn’t hesitate to get on the mat and mix it up with young adults.

His new job at Ridgewater College might be called the Gruhlke Reunion Tour. Already in the can are three distinguished decades as a high school coach for the 56-year-old Aitken native and Concordia College grad.

He will have to adapt to recruiting, but college wrestlers, he finds, learn quick and are fast to pick up details. The work ethic and commitment is impressive.

Gruhlke started coaching at Bird Island in 1981 and has coached at Buffalo Lake-Hector, BOLD, when the Warriors won a state title in 2004, and most recently Eden Prairie. He also spent time at Hutchinson as a volunteer coach.

He said the years at Hutchinson, BOLD and Eden Prairie importantly put him in contact with coaching peers steeped in knowledge and enthusiasm.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Gruhlke said, “without the support of Lynn and Les Plumley, and Perry Jahnke from BOLD, and Joe Gribben and Mike Grant at Eden Prairie, plus the coaching staff from Hutchinson. Those learning experiences were crucial in my philosophy and coaching style.”

Tom and wife Cindy, a school teacher, live on Lake Washington by Darwin. For 30 years Tom has operated an insurance agency out of Olivia. They have three grown children and two grandchildren, where he relishes every chance to pin his affection.

Card boys hoops

The Cardinal boys have in a week of practice since the girls and boys flip-flopped to keep boys basketball in primetime and at the Target Center, which will host a national men’s hockey tournament late in March when the boys are typically center stage.

Coach Steve Grove counts 6-foot-4 Kyler Johnson as the only returning starter. Five-ten Tyler Stegeman, 6-2 Dylan Schueler and 6-0 Joel Carter all saw significant varsity time. Adam Nibaur, a 6-6 senior, is the fifth projected starter.

First off the bench will be 6-5 Austin Grove, 6-4 Josh Holtz and 6-1 Brady Damhof.

“We are excited about the potential of this group,” commented Grove. “We hope our size and length will create problems for our opponents.  A lot of these kids have put in numerous hours in the gym preparing and their hard work has been paying off.”

The CLC Jamboree is today at Halenbeck Hall. The Willmar opener is Nov. 30 at Mankato West.

Wolters CLC’s first

Nate Wolters, three times all-conference in the Central Lakes, led the St. Cloud Tech Tigers to a 35-1 record in Central Lakes contests his junior and senior years, the lone loss to Willmar in his junior year (2007-08). He went on to star at South Dakota State. The 6-foot-4 point guard is starting for the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging a team-high 32 minutes per game. He is scoring just under 9 ppg with 5.3 assists.

He’s the first CLC athlete to play in the NBA, a fact confirmed by St. Cloud Times sports reporter Andy Rennecke. Mark Oberding, who has played in more NBA games (946) than any other Minnesota-born player came out of nearby Melrose.

‘Wonderful World’

Calvery Lutheran Church was packed a week ago Friday for the funeral of business teacher Sandra Kocka, whom I remember best for a million-dollar smile and a genuine friendliness. Her life, I learned, was also defined by music. The three-dozen strong Bugstad Cousins sang a stirring hymn, evidence of a musically gifted North Dakota clan from which Sandra sprung.

Strictly personal, but I was stirred, as was the congregation surely, by the Cardinal Choir’s take on “What a Wonderful World.” Jordan Martins, a three-sport athlete, had the first solo and it was well … wonderful. And Scott Freitas and Courtney Hoffman followed with equally powerful solos. Choir director Neal Haugen later told me 86 choir members were in the loft and at the end 78 for a rousing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with some of those playing instruments. Along with Haugen the instructors were Sue Michelson, Terry Brau and Bryan Mara. “Battle Hymn” was already in the choir’s playbook but they just worked up “Wonderful World” that week, per Sandra’s request.

Haugen said Calvary acoustics were exceptional. Unfortunately, the music offerings were not recorded.

On the fly

n Jayne Cole, a senior on the Luther College cross country team, has been named to the 2013 Iowa Conference Fall All-Academic Team. An All-Conference runner, Cole is an anthropology and international studies major with a GPA of 3.52.

n Alissa Tinklenberg started her final home season setting her first individual pool record in the Vic Gustafson Pool at Gustavus Adolphus timing 2;00.22 in the 200 backstroke in a double dual-meet Gusties win over Minnesota, Mankato State and St. Cloud State last Saturday. She also won the 500 free (5:17.94). Also in the Gusties lineup from Willmar are diver Bennet Woltjer and freestyler Michael McLain. From Montevideo are sprinter Tommy Payne, Adam Peters, Tyler Gort and Aaron Erickson.

n St. Cloud Tech will be looking at artificial turf as part of a possible renovation of 71-year old Clark Field, now condemned. The project, including a new west grandstand, is pegged at over $3 million. Jim Dahl, president of the alumni association, will make an effort to contact 20,000 living alumni to raise half the money.

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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