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Many changes at state wrestling tournament

The state high school wrestling tournament has really changed in the past 19 years.

I covered the state wrestling tournament as a sports writer for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1985 to 1995 at the old St. Paul Civic Center when the tournament featured a two-class format.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, I returned for the first time since to cover the Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus Road Crew, who eventually tied for the consolation title in their first trip to state as a team.

So many things have changed starting with the facility. The Xcel Energy Center building is state-of-the-art compared to the Civic Center. Instead of returning to my hotel and night to write my wrestling stories, media can submit their stories and photos electronically from the media center.

The tournament is now also three classes, which I like because it increases attendance and allows more athletes to enjoy the state experience with eight more teams competing. The format has also changed recently, with team competition taking place on the opening day and individual wrestling on Friday and Saturday. I like this because it really emphasizes the team element of the sport, and then allows the focus to switch to individuals after the first day.

There are things that haven’t changed. Some of the same dominant teams from two decades ago are still top programs – like Foley, Simley and Apple Valley. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the passion for the sport – from the wrestlers and coaches to the fans. It was great to witness the energy of a large crowd at the Xcel facility on Feb. 27.

It was great to see the support for the Road Crew as hundreds of fans from Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus schools joined together in St. Paul. And they had plenty of excitement as the Road Crew wrestled in some of the closest matches of the tournament, especially in the consolation semifinal and final.

In the consolation semifinal against Milaca/Faith Christian, the Road Crew built a lead, and then held on as heavyweight Jared Adkins lost a close decision that tied the score at 28-28, but still allowed the Road Crew to advance by the win criteria tiebreaker. After the match, Road Crew coach Travis Hoffarth told Adkins “that was the greatest loss of your career.” Adkins wanted to win the match, but he protected the team victory by not surrendering a major decision.

The consolation final against Totino Grace of Friday, the match again came down the Adkins as the Road Crew was trailing 34-31. Adkins needed overtime to earn a 5-2 decision and force a tie for the consolation title. There was a lot of pressure on the Road Crew senior as his match was tied through the first two overtimes and the crowd offering support with the chant “Jared, Jared.”

The Road Crew may have been new at state, but they had a veteran lineup with nine seniors facing younger teams like Milaca/Faith Christian and Totino Grace. They also had a balanced lineup with seven wrestlers compiling more than 20 wins this season.

“We showed that we belong here, and that we can wrestle with anyone,” Road Crew coach Travis Hoffarth said. “I’m proud of our kids. They battled back all year.”

Key injury comebacks

Senior Jace Loge and sophomore Nate Adkins, who both had key victories in the consolation championship tie with Totino Grace, made impressive physical comebacks to join the Road Crew late in the season.

The two wrestlers weren’t expected to compete because of setbacks before the season as Loge was recovering from hip surgery and Nate Adkins had suffered two concussions. But both received medical clearance to return to wrestling late in the season.

“It was an honor to comeback and help the team,” said Loge, who had surgery to repair a degenerative growth in his hips. “The recovery was supposed to be six months, but my therapist helped me return in two and-a-half months. I did a lot of work in the weight room.”

Wrestling success in college

Speaking of the Road Crew, two Pequot Lakes’ graduates are enjoying success at the collegiate wrestling level.

Concordia of Moorhead junior Chris Harrison, a 2011 Pequot Lakes graduate, has qualified to wrestle in his first NCAA National tournament March 14-15 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Harrison advanced by winning the 184-pound title at the NCAA West Region meet. He helped the Cobbers set a program record with seven national qualifiers. Harrison, 26-8 overall, also helped Concordia finish second as a team at regions.

Another Pequot Lakes graduate, Randy Rager, received NJCAA Non-Scholarship Coach of the Year after his Rochester Community & Technical College wrestlers finished 11th overall, and first among non-scholarship teams, at the NJCAA National in Spokane, Wash., last weekend. Rager is still the all-time leader in career wins for NCAA Division II while competing at the University of Minnesota-Morris in the late 1990s.