By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
DENMARK – There’s a reason the Denmark High School wrestling coaches – hardened men, all – find themselves a bit reluctant to get on the mat with T.J. Weidman.
“I don’t even like to wrestle him,” says head coach Tim Kapinos with a laugh. “He’s got what I call man-strength. I’ll send other coaches over to wrestle him. T.J. is getting himself ready for adulthood.”
Weidman, who is soft-spoken and humble during a phone interview, is something else entirely when he steps onto the mat, staring down his opponent, according to Kapinos, “like that kid stole his lunch money.”
It’s a good mindset to have in such a rugged, mentally challenging sport, but Weidman comes by it with a little extra motivation.
Sixteen months ago, during a Viking football practice, Weidman felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as he attempted to shove aside a blocker and get to the quarterback. While he played two games in 2017, an MRI revealed a torn labrum that ended his season. In December of that year, Weidman had the surgery to repair it, forcing him to miss his junior wrestling campaign after a promising sophomore season that included a 27-14 mark and a Division 2 regional championship.
There was three months of shoulder immobility followed by three months of rehab, and now, six more months down the road, let’s just say Weidman is back in business. On Thursday he will carry a 25-1 mark into Denmark’s huge battle with Freedom, then return to Freedom on Saturday for a tournament where he has a good chance to face his lone conqueror this season, Wyatt Hughes of Burlington.
The loss to Hughes came in a fall in the semifinals of the prestigious Fond du Lac Cardinal Invite on Dec. 15. It was frustrating, but Weidman, who wrestles at 220 pounds, has shaken it off – the frustration, anyway, if not the loss itself.
“I was pretty much in control of that match,” Weidman says. “But he just got me and was able to throw me on my back. It was disappointing at the time, but the coaches just told me that carrying around an undefeated record can be pretty tough. Plus, it makes for a lot of motivation.”
He Makes It Look Easy
Still, 25-1 with titles in both the Battle on the Bay and the Fred Lehrke Tournament, is impressive coming off a year away from the sport. It hardly surprises Kapinos, who says Weidman did all the right things to get back to this level, including dedicating himself to the weight room, eating right, focusing in practice and working hard with trainer Jordan Robinson after school each day. Kapinos chalks it all up to the hunger from missing what was a promising junior season. He says the 220-pound class in Division 2 stacked up well for Weidman in 2018.
“Yeah, it was frustrating,” Weidman admits. “Just knowing that I could have beaten a lot of those kids. It’s great getting back on the mat again but I would have liked to have done it last year.”
Of his 25 wins thus far, 19 have come by pin, including five straight in a sweep to the Battle on the Bay championship. Kapinos says that the high percentage of wins by fall is no indication of the level of competition Weidman has faced.
“Don’t be fooled by how easy he makes it look,” he says. “He’s definitely wrestled tough competition.”
WI Wrestling Online has yet to show Weidman the love a 25-1 mark might otherwise engender. He has yet to crack the Division 2 top 12 at 220, though he has received Honorable Mention in each of its four rankings since the beginning of the season. Kapinos doesn’t worry about such things, saying the fact that Weidman didn’t wrestle as a freshman and missed his junior season makes him an unrecognized name to this point.
“That kind of stuff is for spectators and fans,” Kapinos says of the rankings. “Sure, we look at them, but the true indication comes in February when we get into the tournament series. Then I think people will begin to understand how good he is. He needs to make a name for himself.”
Kapinos isn’t the only coach at Denmark to admire Weidman’s fierceness and dedication. First-year head football coach Tom Neuman might not have enjoyed such a successful inaugural season – 5-5 and a postseason berth – without his senior linebacker’s dominance this fall. Despite playing just nine games, Weidman led the team in tackles with 82, including five sacks and 14 for loss. He also forced three fumbles.
“TJ was one of the most physical linebackers I’ve ever coached, college or high school,” Neuman says. “He is a great tackler, which I believe his wrestling background helps immensely. TJ always played with a tremendously high intensity level while being able to remain focused on the task at hand. He was always on the attack and would use his hands and great leverage to shed blockers and get to the ball carrier, and when he got there, he brought a ‘punish’ attitude with him.”
In A Different Mode
Kapinos says he knew back in July that Weidman was poised for a final run at something special in his final season at Denmark. He had already demonstrated great potential as a sophomore when he won a regional title, also at 220.
“The injury left him chomping at the bit to get back on the mat,” Kapinos said. “In the summer at the wrestling camp we attended, he went undefeated. And I mean he dominated. He made those kids look silly. When we saw that, me and the other coaches said he was going to have one heck of a senior year. Then, at our first match at Kiel (Weidman went 5-0 with three falls) he manhandled everybody, and we knew it was going to be a fun year for him.”
While Weidman says his left shoulder gives him no trouble, he is starting to experience pain – resulting from perhaps the same type of injury – on his other side. It’s something, he says, that he’ll just have to push through and see where it takes him.
“My body was ready to go,” he says of his return in the fall. “I still had my strength. But I just really needed to focus on my moves. I’d lost some of my fluidness and my moves while I was out. But my coaches and teammates have helped me along and now I think they’re coming back.”
Where it all leads is anyone’s guess. The competition should be wide open at 220 and Kapinos says it will be a tough road to state. He can definitely make it happen, Kapinos says, and state remains a big-picture goal. But effort goals — doing the right thing day-by-day and setting yourself up for the best chance to reach state — is the real emphasis in practice.
“Focus on each experience as it comes,” Kapinos says. “We’ll get a better gage at Freedom and at (the Pulaski Invitational later this month). Some of those same kids will be in the picture at regionals.”
Kapinos’ only regret is that Weidman is getting only two years out of his wrestling experience at Denmark. The ones that end up really shining tend to wrestle all four seasons. Viking stars such as Brock Bergelin and Joshua Frerk are recent examples. As a result, he says Weidman may be technically a little bit behind those with more experience but that his strength allows him to overcome that.
“And he’s picked up some things,” he says. “You don’t need 20 moves, just two or three go-to moves and positions. He’s come to learn that. He has enough in his arsenal to do well at regionals and the year-end tournaments.”
Weidman has also been helped along by those former Viking greats and he stresses just what a great motivation it was as a sophomore to watch Bergelin and Frerk.
“The way Brock would control kids,” he says. “He has such great moves. Whenever he shows up at practice, I just take everything he has to say.”
The immediate goal is to not get overconfident while at the same time entering each match with the attitude, as Weidman puts it, that “I’m not going to let this kid win. He’s the same weight as me so he shouldn’t be able to beat me. I’m just in a different mode, just telling myself I’m not going to lose.”