By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
DENMARK – It might sound like a cliché, but like most clichés, it has the virtue of being true and simple. And when faced with something as daunting as wrestling for a state championship in Madison, where the eyes of the prep sports world will be intently focused, true and simple is what you want.
“It’s obviously a bigger facility,” said Denmark coach Tim Kapinos, who will accompany three Viking qualifiers to state on Thursday. “But like we tell the kids, the mats are the same size — forty by forty with a thirty-foot circle. Most of the kids will have some nerves because it’s important to them, and they’ve worked so hard to get to this point.
“But once that first whistle blows, those nerves will go away real quick.”
Winning sectionals last weekend and qualifying for the Division 2 state tournament are Vikings’ Gabe Wertel, Ethan Schwartz and T.J. Weidman. Weidman, a 220-pounder, is the only senior of the bunch. He is also the only one of the three not to have experienced the fish bowl of the Wisconsin State Wrestling Tourney. Weidman, who has put together a 42-2 mark, missed last year with injury so he is making the most of his final chance.
Wertel, a junior, brings a 44-0 mark into the 195-pound bracket, while the sophomore Schwartz (138 pounds) is making his second straight appearance after breaking through as a freshman in 2018.
Schwartz has put together a 32-6 record, with most of those losses coming while wrestling a weight class higher and often against DI foes.
Schwartz earned the most dramatic sectional championship at Wrightstown on Saturday, rallying from a 6-2 deficit to decision Craig Elsen, 9-6, in the title bout.
“Once he rallied the third period wasn’t even close,” Kapinos said of Schwartz’s win over WIWrestling’s fourth-ranked D2 wrestler at 138. Schwartz is ranked fifth. “That match was the best I’ve ever seen him wrestle. He’s stronger than he’s ever been, but his strength is his technique. He’s a very smart wrestler and can move fluently from one move to the next.”
Kapinos says Schwartz is also opportunistic, seizing on any hole in his opponent’s attack.
Schwartz shouldn’t be daunted by anyone he sees after taking on DI’s fifth-ranked 145-pounder and third-ranked 138-pounder in the Battle on the Bay early in the season as well as DI’s fifth-ranked 138-pounder at Fond du Lac.
In his bracket, Aidan Medora of St. John’s Milw. (30-0) would seem to be the guy to beat. Schwartz opens on Friday morning after drawing a first-round bye. He’ll take on the winner between Maverik Ott and Dalton Schams. Win that, and he’s possibly looking at a battle with Medford’s Andy Poetzl (40-10). Traeten Saint of Prairie du Chen (40-6) joins Medora, Poetzl and Schwartz as the top four in the bracket.
As a freshman, Schwartz won the region and finished third at sectionals. He went 1-2 at state, falling 3-2 in the wrestle backs.
Unbeaten Stephen Buchanan (45-0) is on the same side of the bracket as the unbeaten Wertel, and that could set up a potential quarterfinal battle between the only undefeated wresters in the 195 division. But there are plenty of other threats in this bracket, from Viroqua’s Tyler Hannah (38-2) to Campbellsport’s Matt Koebl (39-3).
“Someone might say, well, how can someone 44-0 end up on the same side as a kid with 45 wins,” Kapinos says. “Someone might say, too bad for Gabe. But I’ll tell you, there is nobody right now who wants to face Gabe. And he has to look at it that way.”
Wertel cruised through the sectionals with a major decision, a decision and a fall in the championship. Kapinos says that, like Schwartz, Wertel has never been better.
“As a state qualifier as a sophomore, Gabe was great,” he says. “But he’s twice the wrestler this year. He always has that strength in his back pocket, but now he’s doing it a lot more with technique.”
Wertel is ranked fourth in D2, behind Koebl, Hannah and top-ranked Buchanan.
Wertel drew a bye in the opening round and will take on the winner between Marcus Orlandoni and Bryce Burns on Friday morning. A win would likely earn him that battle with Buchanan.
Wertel is coming off a 28-12 sophomore season, a regional championship and a runner-up at sectionals. He lost in the first round in Madison.
Weidman’s bracket is the most wide open, with assistant coach John Goral suggesting that 10 times through the bracket might yield 10 different winners. Kapinos says Weidman’s upperclassman status might give him some advantage or at least make him hungrier. Weidman was already pretty hungry entering the season after an injury sidelined him all of last year.
The 220-pounder could possibly face the man who handed him one of his two losses this season in Jake Rau of Medford. Rau (31-2) must get past Trevor Daffinson (27-7) in a preliminary battle on Thursday.
In that 4-2 loss to Rau in the Freedom Invitational final, the two were tied late when Weidman took what may have been an ill-advised shot and gave up a takedown in the last second.
“But he’s been wrestling better than he has all year,” Kapinos says. “His endurance has never been better.”
Weidman won in three falls to win the sectional last week and improve to 42-2. If Weidman beats the Rau-Daffinson winner, he would likely face Matthew Shorer (39-5) in the quarters. Bodie Minder (39-8) and Joe Schulte (28-3) also received byes.
Joshua Carroll, the top-ranked D2 wrestler at 220, was upset by Carter Grewe in the sectional quarterfinals. Weidman is ranked third and Rau second at WIWrestling.
“Since this will be his first trip to Madison, the first thing we tell them is you can’t look too closely at the brackets,” Kapinos says. “A kid can get psyched out if they see someone that’s ranked above them they might meet early. T.J.’s a senior, but he’ll have butterflies. But he’ll be ready. Early in the season his confidence wasn’t as high.
“If he’s not confident now, I don’t know when. He’s beaten so many quality kids in such a tough weight bracket. He’ll be ready to roll.”
The team will be sent off with a pep rally at 8:10 in the old gym on Thursday morning. Weigh-in at state will be on Thursday.
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