College Wrestling: From hard times to good times for Ridgewater
Battling low numbers, sickness and injuries, the Warriors will send four wrestlers to the NJCAA National Championships
WILLMAR — The hardships have been steady for the Ridgewater wrestling program.
Inheriting a team that had just one wrestler the previous season, head coach Joey Brown’s first season in 2020-21 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally able to take the mat this winter, the momentum frequently stopped and started for the Warriors. There were cancellations due to weather and COVID. In the wrestling room, the team dealt with bouts of illness and injury.
“It felt like we couldn’t get on the mat to save our lives,” head coach Joey Brown said.
The Warriors were able to persevere through those hard times and will send four wrestlers — Wil Yasseri, Tristan Lang, Rick Jones and Sawyer Varpness — to the NJCAA Wrestling National Championships on March 4-5 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Yasseri (157 pounds) and Lang (133) automatically qualified for nationals after taking second in their brackets at the Region 13 National Qualifiers Sunday in Willmar. Jones (197) and Varpness (141) made it as wild card selections.
“Going from one guy on the team to four going to the national tournament is a good turnaround in a short window,” Brown said. “I’m really happy with how things went at the regional tournament.”
After competing in a dual meet against St. John’s on Dec. 3, the Warriors’ chances to compete dried up due to myriad issues. During one stretch, Brown said there were only three wrestlers at practice as sickness and injuries piled up.
“We (the coaches) jumped in and started wrestling guys and we made it work,” Brown said. “The best thing about wrestling is if you got a partner, you can get a workout in. It was tough but we pushed through it and we’re better because of it, I think.”
Jones and Yasseri were two of the fortunate ones, never missing time due to illness. Yasseri was 9-5 this season while Jones has the highest match total on the team at 9-8.
“That kind of put us at our limits,” said Jones, a former standout at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg in his first year with the Warriors. “It was pretty hard to stay motivated hoping that the next tournament would happen and not get canceled.”
Said Yasseri, “Our whole team handled it pretty well. We did what we could. If you were sick, just stay away until you got healthy and come back. Just keep the grind up.”
When Ridgewater had wrestlers competing at the North Country Open on Jan. 23 in Collegeville, that’s when it appeared the team was finally finding its footing.
“As a whole, we probably wrestled the best at St. John’s,” said Lang, who placed fourth at 133 pounds at that tournament. “I figured we’d struggle a little bit with not being able to wrestle for a month but everyone showed up and was ready.”
Jones (third, 197) and Johan Rodvik (fifth, 197) also placed at the North Country Open.
“You have that lull in the middle of the year where we weren’t able to compete and you think ‘gosh, is what we’re doing working,’” Brown said. “Then they get on the mat and you’re like ‘yep, it’s working.’”
At the Region 13 tournament, Lang and Yasseri both reached the championship matches at their respective weights. Lang lost a 5-2 decision to Rochester Community & Technical College’s Cael Bartels. Yasseri fell to another RCTC wrestler, William VonRuden, in a 10-6 decision.
Yasseri already had a chip on his shoulder coming into the season. A three-time high school state entrant from Rogers High School, Yasseri missed state his senior year.
“I’m confident he would have went a fourth time but he had a rough (super) section,” Brown said, discussing the changes to the 2021 Minnesota state tournament due to COVID-19 protocols.
In his first year at Ridgewater, Yasseri has two goals in mind heading into nationals.
“I definitely had more fire in my belly to get it done this year,” Yasseri said. “I really want an All-American this year; that’s the main goal. … And hopefully, I get a rematch with (VonRuden) at nationals.”
Lang, who wrestled at Hutchinson, is 7-4. All season, he kept his focus further down the road, focusing on nationals in March over whatever issues hovered over the Warriors’ schedule.
“For the four of us that made the national tournament, it’s what we wanted to do and we had our eyes on the prize all season,” he said. “Every road block we had, everyone stepped over it.”
The region coaches voted on six wild card selections during the tournament. Brown said with the grind that 141 and 197 was all season, those weights were a no-brainer for extra selections.
For Varpness, a former Glencoe-Silver Lake wrestler, this has been a year in the making. Originally set to wrestle for Ridgewater in ‘20-’21, he was left to his own devices when his first season got canceled.
“I was just working and working hard,” Varpness said. Then when the ‘21-’22 season started, “I had a back issue right away from being at practice and not being used to that. I lost all my conditioning, too, so I had to get it all back.”
Varpness is 5-5 this season and is feeling confident in his ability again heading into nationals.
“My first matches back, I would get gassed really quickly,” Varpness said. “When we went to Itasca, it was back; I was out-conditioning everybody.
“(At nationals), I want to push the pace fast in the beginning so I can gas (my opponents) quick.”
Jones’ plan of attack is to be aggressive at nationals and “make it a fight the entire time.”
He’s also relishing the chance to be on a wrestling team that’s on the upswing after so many hardships.
“It feels like high school, honestly,” Jones said. “We’re family; we’re close. We all deal with each other; no one hates each other. We all wrestle and cheer for each other. It feels good to be on a team that’s coming up.”
Editor's note: Ridgewater wrestling coach Joey Brown is not related to West Central Tribune sports reporter Joe Brown