COKATO — Bryan Clemen remembers how awkward his first road trip with his new team was.

Used to coaching just the Dassel-Cokato wrestling team, Clemen was driving a van filled with kids from D-C and Litchfield after the two school districts voted to form the Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield co-op on June 24 for D-C and July 8 for Litchfield.

Going to a wrestling camp in Decorah, Iowa, the four-hour trip was uncomfortably quiet.

“It felt like your typical junior high dance,” Clemen said. “Three DC kids in the back, three Litch kids in the middle, DC kids in the front. Not a whole lot was said.”

By the time they headed back to Minnesota, the tension had eased and two schools were starting to merge as one team.

“By the end, they were joking around, having fun and being teenagers,” said Clemen, who is a co-head coach along with former Litchfield head coach Dan Buker. “The kids bonded very well together.”

And now the new co-op is ranked eighth in Class AA and is looking for a state berth when the Section 6AA tournament begins. Second-seeded D-C/Litchfield faces seventh-seeded Rocori at 6 p.m. Thursday at Litchfield High School. The section semifinals and finals take place Friday at Zimmerman High School.

As separate teams, Litchfield last made state in 2006. D-C last qualified in 2001.

“Everything we’re doing right now is in preparation for Thursday and Friday,” Buker said. “We like our chances and all the guys are prepared.”

Co-op talked about

Rumblings about a co-op started emerging about this time last year. Dassel-Cokato and Litchfield already had co-ops in hockey and boys swimming. The groundwork was there to merge wrestling teams.

Both schools looked at the long-term outlook and decided the best way to keep each program viable was to merge. A key point was getting kids proper practice partners across the lineup.

“You hear things from both ends but it gets to the point of putting together 14 guys who can compete versus four weight classes then give up three forfeits, compete a few more times and give up some more forfeits,” Buker said. “That’s the route we were headed.”

Clemen added, “Looking at it for our numbers in middle school and below, then looking at Litch’s numbers middle school and below, a need was still there. … We were looking at a long-term solution. The numbers now and long enough down the line, to me, made it a viable option.”

It was a strange concept for the athletes to grasp at first.

“It was a little weird thinking about being paired with our biggest rival,” said D-C senior 170-pounder Noah Halonen. “But once we got combined, it went together pretty smoothly.

Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield's Jerry Simes hangs onto Eden Valley-Watkins' Taylor Ludwig during their 138-pound match on Feb. 6 at Litchfield High School. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield's Jerry Simes hangs onto Eden Valley-Watkins' Taylor Ludwig during their 138-pound match on Feb. 6 at Litchfield High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Jerry Simes, a junior 132-pounder from Litchfield, added, “We were pretty big rivals. They beat us in sections the year before. But we didn’t have too much hatred for them. They were nice people. And I was excited because we’d have a great team and great partners to drill with.”

To incorporate both teams under the D-C/Litchfield umbrella, the team sports singlets with D-C blue and Litchfield green.

“It took me a meet or two to get used to it,” Halonen said. “It reminded me of the (Seattle) Seahawks right away.”

Great football season

Helping matters in an off-hand way was most of D-C’s wrestlers also being a part of the football team that made the Class AAA state championship game. After the football season ended on Nov. 30, D-C’s football players-turned-wrestlers had to adjust quickly instead of dwelling over the new guys in the room.

“Doing anything like this, you want to have the crew together. It wasn’t a challenge, but it was something different,” Clemen said. “There wasn’t a lot of eyeing each other up, asking how this is going to go. It was hop in and get going, get in shape so you can get competing.”

And, the co-op has seen success early.

D-C/Litch went 15-2 in duals during the regular season and has won 14 straight heading into the Section 6AA tournament as the No. 2 seed. That includes wins over third-seeded Annandale/Maple Lake (50-19) and fifth-seeded Big Lake (49-18).

And D-C/Litchfield has done it with a varsity group evenly filled with Litchfield and D-C athletes. In the Feb. 6 Class AA rankings, three wrestlers from Litchfield (Alex Joedeman, 113 pounds; Eddie Simes, 126; and Jerry Simes, 132) and two from D-C (Jude Link, 152; Beau Nelson, 195) are top-10 wrestlers.

“Me and my dad were drawing (the lineup) up months before the season and it pretty much worked out perfectly,” Jerry Simes said.

“In a way, it was a natural lineup fit,” Buker said. “You’re starting to see those guys wrestle for each other instead of trying to earn bonus points for themselves. … Doing that for your teammates, they’ll come back and do that for you, too.”

With Foley leaving for Section 7AA and taking its streak of 12 straight state appearances with it, the door is open for D-C/Litchfield to make it to St. Paul. The only team seeded higher than D-C/Litchfield is Becker. The Bulldogs won the regular-season match-up 33-32 on Dec. 19.

“You learn about the individual matches and where you need to save points,” Clemen said about the Becker dual. “It goes back to every point matters and shaving a point here or there.”

For these former-rivals-turned-teammates, what once started with a painfully quiet van ride hopes to turn into a deep postseason run.

“As the season has gone on, we’ve went from being a Litchfield team and a Dassel team combining to just being one team,” Halonen said. “The separation of the two old teams has kind of went away as the season’s went on as we started working together and working on a common goal.”