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Willmar wrestler pays the price of excellence

By no measure was Drew Larson, a Willmar Senior High School student entering his senior year, underachieving as an athlete. He'd won 57 matches the previous two seasons, earned All-Central Lakes Conference honors as a junior and twice finished to...

By no measure was Drew Larson, a Willmar Senior High School student entering his senior year, underachieving as an athlete. He'd won 57 matches the previous two seasons, earned All-Central Lakes Conference honors as a junior and twice finished top four at the section meet.

He'd even attended a J Robinson five-day technique camp after his sophomore year. The next step for an ambitious wrestler would be Robinson's 28-day Intensity Camp on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

"I was talking to a friend about it," said Larson this week after practice. "I wasn't sure I wanted to give up a whole month of my last summer in high school. It was all of July, so it would be over my birthday, too."

The friend, Trent Gehrking -- a hockey player -- egged him on.

"He said to me, 'Why wouldn't you want to be the best you can be?' So that got me thinking a little more. I talked to coach (Tom) Beyer, and (assistant) coach (Carl) Carlson and my dad. They all said I should go."

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Robinson's camps mimic boot camp. Wrestlers are put under relentless physical and mental strain. Recruits either wilt or learn they are capable of more than they thought possible. July's record heat upped the ante.

Robinson, head coach of the Gophers, was an Army Ranger. Little wonder Drew was encouraged by his father to give it a shot. His dad, James A. Larson, is a former Army Ranger and his older brother, James A. Larson II, is currently an Army Ranger.

Larson also adds that his mother, Rose, was a nurse in the U.S. Army.

After the first long day, Larson remembers lying on the grass looking up at the sky and praying, "Oh, please God, let me make it 27 more days."

The days started early and went late. Run, lift, hard wrestle ... repeat. Instructors included NCAA champions and Olympic medalists; motivational talks raised the spirits of the tired teens. The three-mile "Buddy Carry" was a memorable physical test. The 145-pound Willmar wrestler and a campmate of similar weight alternated every 200 yards for 3ยฝ miles. The kids were so tired and sore when they took a trip to Valley Fair many sought benches off the midway to take a nap.

Did he ever think of leaving camp? Like dozens did? No way! He couldn't imagine what his father would say. And there was the matter of having paid a camp fee of $2,149, even if it was to suffer.

There were rewards. He ate like a horse, three times more than he eats now, he guesses. At the end of each trying day, a glow settled over the campers knowing they'd made it through another 24 hours. The 16-mile run at the end of camp was more a celebration for the superbly-fit survivors than drudgery.

He's not the first Cardinal to attend the legendary camp.

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Matt Wetterling, now a leader on the NDSU team, and Ben Monson also attended. Monson went from JV status to All-Central Lakes Conference in one year.

As for Larson, he said wrestling comes easier now, as does life in general.

"I used to sometimes give up when I got caught in a position, but now I feel there isn't anything I can't get out of. A lot of stuff doesn't faze me that once did."

He'll take a 4-0 record with three pins into Friday's home invitational.

On the fly

n Sam Sussenguth got his first taste of Division I basketball when North Dakota State University tipped Furman 60-58 Nov. 22 at the Bison Sports Arena. He had one assist in six minutes. He's one of eight Minnesotans on the Division I upstart. After the team lost at Texas Tech 85-81 legendary coach Bobby Knight made a special trip to the Bison locker room to compliment them on their excellent play, it was reported. The Bison host Kansas State Saturday.

n Bonnie Henrickson's Kansas Jayhawks (4-2) hosted South Dakota State and another former Willmar Cardinal on Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. SDSU beat Kansas, 53-48. Laura Nielsen is a freshmen for the Jackrabbits (5-2). Nielsen is just back after being sidelined by a dislocated finger.

n Peter Aus, who coached Cardinal boys hockey from 1984-92, got two of his largest victories in his 12th year as the Bethel College head coach when the Royals (2-0, 4-4) swept the University of St. Thomas 4-3 and 9-3 last weekend. Until the sweep on the Tommies' home ice in Mendota Heights, the Royals were 1-45 since 1987 against St. Thomas, including 0-38 in the regular season.

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