Throughout its history, the wrestling program at Lutheran West had never won a team conference championship of any kind. There had been numerous individual champs, and wrestlers who had advanced all the way to the state tournament.
But no team championships.
The Longhorns broke the ice last week during the third week of Patriot Athletic Conference duals at Brookside when they faced Columbia in the first round. When senior Ian Kroyer pinned his foe at 215 in just 27 seconds and Bryce Deblock did the same in 21 seconds at 103, Lutheran West gained the momentum and turned an 18-6 deficit into a 45-30 win over the Riders.
With the win, the Longhorns ran their Stripes Division record to 3-0, clinching the division title and giving the program its first-ever league title of any kind. Later that night, the ‘Horns topped things off with their first win against a Stars Division opponent, taking out Brookside, 39-36, to go 4-2 overall in the PAC.
Lutheran West will close out the PAC regular season tomorrow night at Buckeye, when it takes on the host Bucks and the Clippers.
“We set out goal early on to be the Stripes Division champion,” said Lutheran West head coach Dave Ressler, who went into the season with 25 wrestlers on his roster. That was up from 20 the year before.
“We knew we had the numbers, even though we had a number of wrestlers in their first year,” Ressler said. “But with the numbers we had competing in the Stripes Division, that we’d have a chance. At first we thought it would be Clearview, because they had a full team last year. But their numbers went down; then we realized Columbia had about the same number of wrestlers we did.
“With the numbers we have this year, we were able to move some people around if we needed to. So we knew Thursday night with both of us coming in at 2-0 that the match was for the division,” he said.
The match started at 145, with Columbia’s Brandon Medina pinning West’s Gevin Maxwell in 3:45 to give the Raiders an early 6-0 lead. Junior Jack Stillman, wrestling in his first match of the season, got the ‘Horns back in it with his pin in 2:47 to tie the score.
With a narrow 3-0 and 3-2 decision at 160 and 171, respectively, the Raiders took the lead. When Columbia scored a pin at 189, it was 18-6.
That’s where Kroyer stepped into the circle.
For the second week in a row, Ressler turned to Kroyer for a needed win in place of the injured Zac Zupancic. He didn’t disappoint, getting the quick pin and turning the momentum in the Longhorns’ favor.
In wrestling, depth becomes a key player when vying for a team championship. That depth comes from various places, Ressler said, and it paid off Thursday night.
“One who has been a very pleasant surprise is our heavyweight, Mike Eisenhardt,” Ressler said. “He was out his sophomore year and got a concussion the very first meet of the season. He wasn’t able to return until this year.
“It’s been a long wait to get him back,” he said. “He’s gotten 12 wins for us and fills a spot for us. Again, a lot of teams don’t have a heavyweight, so we’re picking up six points just by having someone at that weight class.”
Eisenhardt, who is 12-12 on the season, did just that against Columbia, winning via a forfeit. After that, Deblock, a sophomore, notched another pin for himself and earned his 23rd win of the season. That gave Lutheran West a 24-18 lead, earned Deblock his team-leading 16th pin and added more fuel to the Longhorns’ resolve.
“They still had the momentum going into those heavier weight classes,” Ressler said. “We stopped it at 215 with Ian’s pin and the forfeit at heavyweight., then Bryce comes out and pins the kid in 21 seconds. That pin really got the crowd wound up and behind us, and I think it kind of deflated Columbia little bit, too. It also helped our other guys to step up and get pins at 119 and 125 to help put the match out of reach.”
Columbia got a forfeit win at 112, but the ‘Horns came back with yet another pin as Izzak Zrnich, a first-year sophomore wrestler, got a pins in 1:00. Tri-captain Ryan Rusnak got a pin in 44 seconds at 125, and the Longhorns were rolling. Senior tri-captain Brad Watson earned a 3-0 decision over familiar foe Shane Lambert at 130 to raise his record to 29-2 to put Lutheran West up 39-24.
“Brad’s been the one to set the tone for the team. He’s really a good motivator,” Ressler said. “He’s always a clutch guy, a guy who can come through for the team. He wrestles in a tough weight class that involves a lot of decision matches.
“For example, this probably made anywhere from 12 to 15 times Brad has wrestled Lambert in the past two years. Brad’s never lost, but every single match is close. At EC, Brad won in overtime. On Thursday night, he scored three points in the second period and that was the difference.
“Ryan has really stepped up this year. He dropped from 135 at the beginning for the year to 125 and really turned things around from there. At 135, he was something like 5-6. Since he moved down, he’s put together a nice run and has 17 wins for us.
“Kurt Guelker is another captain who didn’t start wrestling until his sophomore year, and he’s got 15 wins for us this year at 171. Against Columbia and Brookside, he had to go up against two of their best kids and hung tough against both of them. Even when he loses, he saves points for us because he doesn’t get pinned or give up a major,” he said.
The Longhorns went on to put icing on the cake with their win over Brookside. Ressler said his team, which has four freshmen and seven sophomores on the roster, is coming together at the right time.
“The nicest thing is that the kids have really come together as a team,” Ressler said. “The encouragement that comes from the bench has been tremendous.
“Even the guys who aren’t starters, they’re starting to understand that, yes, wrestling is an individual sport, but it’s also a team sport when it comes to the dual meets,” Ressler said. “They’re really starting to know that just by being in the room and practicing with the starters every day is making them better. It’s making the starters better.
“It’s nice to have a full room. We’ve had times in the past where we’ve had six guys on the team. Since they’re all different weights, it makes it hard to have a good practice. Now we’ve got groups of four out there. They each have three other guys around their weight every day. That has made a tremendous difference in making us a better team,” he said.
After tomorrow’s dual at Buckeye, Lutheran West will participate in the Gribble Classic on Feb. 5 in Loudonville. After that, it’s the PAC Tournament on Feb. 12 at Keystone. The Division III sectional tournament at Brooklyn is slated for Feb. 18-19.