By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
DENMARK – It’s not that Gabe Wertel takes anything for granted. It’s not that he’s cocky.
But, every so often, the 195-pound Denmark High School junior admits to foregoing a pin of an opponent so that he can work on some new moves or hone some of his old ones.
He’s not toying with anyone and he doesn’t ever feel like he’s risking a loss. He’s just trying to make himself a better wrestler with one enormous goal in mind: a second straight trip to the state tournament, this time with a spot on the podium.
Thus far, his I’ll-pin-you-later strategy has not resulted in any disastrous consequences: Wertel is 38-0 and ranked fourth in the state in Division 2 in the 195-pound category.
Wertel’s coach, Tim Kapinos, laughs – sort of – at his star wrestler’s admission. Kapinos knows that Wertel is focused and is motivated and is becoming an emotionally mature, enormously talented and strong athlete who has taken on top competition and dispatched them all, often with little resistance.
“He’s having a tremendous year,” Kapinos says, as his Vikings prepare for this weekend’s regional tournament at Valders, from which Wertel is expected to emerge still unbeaten. “Last season he had some success and we all knew that with his athleticism, if he cleaned up some things technique-wise, he could make it back to state and to the podium.”
Like so many wrestlers who wind up with outsized success, Wertel is a third-year junior, meaning he has plenty of big-match experience under his belt in his third season. Wertel has remained at 195 since he was a freshman, and while his weight has remained steady, his strength has increased.
Wertel posted a 29-11 mark his first season, finishing second at regionals. Last year, he went 28-11, won a regional title and finished second at sectionals, qualifying for state. He went out in the first round, but just having that experience should pay huge dividends.
“Yeah, it gives me a lot of confidence,” says the laid-back three-sport star, who plays football and baseball. “I’ll see a lot of the same kids (at regions and sectionals) that I’ve already beaten. The regionals set up pretty well so I probably shouldn’t have a lot of trouble.”
Kapinos says, yeah, having been there takes a lot of the angst and anxiety out of play.
“Just being there at state, he knows what the atmosphere is like and knows what it’s all about,” Kapinos says.
Of course, he has to get there first and with a 38-0 mark, the pressure becomes more about keeping that unblemished record. Kapinos says it’s not easy to carry that target on your back because everyone is gunning for the unbeaten guy. Everyone wants to hang that first ‘L’ on him.
Despite his success the past two seasons, despite reaching state as a sophomore, nobody is more surprised by Wertel’s explosive season than Wertel himself.
“You know, last year with 10 or 12 losses, I didn’t really expect this,” he says. “Coming in this year with a lot of big tournaments and against Division 1 guys, being unbeaten is something I wouldn’t have imagined. But I’m just competing better and better. I’m stronger and I don’t do anything crazy out there. I just stick to the basics. I’m a lot smarter wrestler, offensively and defensively. I kind of know what move to make and when to make it. I just feel I’m in control.”
Kapinos says a lot of it simply a matter of what he calls Wertel’s “freakish athleticism.” And, he goes on, Wertel is finishing his shots better this season, following through and dominating when he’s on top.
“He’s finishing a lot of matches this year that maybe he didn’t last year,” Kapinos says. “He’s got some great pinning combinations. A lot of it comes down to having more confidence.
“But the power is what really separates him.”
The dominance has been downright, well, dominant. His 25 pins – five in under a minute – ties him for second all time in a season at Denmark with Brian Schaetz, behind only state champion Brock Bergelin. Two other wins are major decisions and only three have been by decision (six have come by forfeit). Perhaps even more impressively, Wertel, in 32 non-forfeited matches this season, has surrendered a grand total of … 15 points. Kapinos doesn’t think he has been taken down once, meaning most of those are escapes and Wertel gave away many of those.
It is, in other words, a singular season, one that includes six Invitational titles.
So, has rarely being pushed through the first two months created a disadvantage for Wertel?
“It does concern me a little,” Wertel admits. “I just have to make sure I’m not caught off guard. I wonder if I get into a six-minute or an overtime match what will happen?”
Kapinos said Denmark’s more recent studs, Bergelin and Joshua Frerk, faced the same situation, either unbeaten or largely unchallenged while preparing for the gauntlet of the sectionals and state.
“It’s a matter of staying focused in practice,” he says. “And it’s great for Gabe that he has partners in the room who really push him every day, guys like (220-pound phenom) T.J. Weidman or coaches like Ben Thiem and John Goral. Those guys really help get him prepared for that next level.”
Assuming that Wertel cruises through this weekend’s region as expected, he won’t face any of the other top eight in the WIWrestling Online rankings at the following week’s sectional. If he reaches state again, the three currently ranked ahead of Wertel – Neillsville/Greenwood/Loyal’s Stephen Buchanan (ranked 1), Viroqua’s Tyler Hannah (2) and Campbellsport’s Matt Koelbl (3) – would all have state tournament experience under their belts, albeit at different weight divisions. Buchanan won state at 182 a year ago, while Koelbl won a pair of matches at 182. Hannah finished third at 170.
“I haven’t looked that closely yet, but all those kids come with different sets of skills,” Kapinos says. “But we look at our schedule real closely each year to make sure that when we reach the state level, we’ve faced enough top-notch competition and enough tough kids that’s there’s nothing they’re not prepared for.”
Wertel is another in a long line of recent Denmark wrestlers making a name for himself. He is well aware of the program’s growing history of success and how special it is to be part of it.
“It means a lot,” he says. “I never really expected to be undefeated this far into the season and when I look at the past years and some of the older guys like Brock (Bergelin) and Joshua (Frerk) I never considered that I could be up there close to guys like that. I guess I’m getting there.”