There are few feelings in sports like being in the building for a competition that has a playoff atmosphere even during the regular season.
Each roar from the crowd shakes the bleachers. There are moments where everything feels silent and defining at the same time. For Class A wrestling programs in West-Central Minnesota, the playoff atmosphere is a regular occurrence.
The Guillotine is no stranger to giving out high rankings to area small-school wrestling programs. As of Jan. 10, Minnewaska came in at No. 5 with Bertha-Hewitt-Verndale-Parkers Prairie at No. 6. Just outside of the top 10 is West Central Area-Ashby-Brandon-Evansville, which is a part of the Lean and Mean category. Add to that the fact that back-to-back Class A state champion Long Prairie-Grey Eagle-Browerville and perennial-power Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa are not far down the road, and it creates quite a gauntlet for area programs to go through every year.
"You take 70% of the top 12 teams in the state, and you'll find them on our schedule this year," Minnewaska head coach Justin Viss said. "We need to focus on our wrestling and what our program is doing. It's really easy to look around and see what other programs are doing. It comes down to figuring out what we need to do to be the most ready at the end of the regular season."
Filling out a lineup is somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game. Each team looks at the potential matchups and hopes to pencil in wins before stealing matches that will decide whether or not a team wins or loses. However, with so many of the area wrestlers ranked in the top 10, there's a looming sense of unpredictability.
"If the season were to start right now, there's one spot in our lineup that isn't filled, or it's going to be filled by an inexperienced wrestler," WCA-A-B-E head coach Brandon Gruchow said. "The lighter weight classes are going to have a lot of our younger guys. We have many guys who are close, but it comes down to somebody being willing to take that next step. You need to have a solid lineup all the way through to win in this area. Our program has been very lucky to find guys that have taken themselves to the next level and shown they can compete like the rest of our team."
What Minnewaska, B-H-V-Parkers Prairie and WCA-A-B-E all have in common is a culture that is committed to reloading.
Making the state tournament is an incredible accomplishment with such good competition in Section 5 and Section 6 from this area. For B-H-V-Parkers Prairie, the time spent at the Xcel Energy Center in March over the last two seasons has helped motivate the younger wrestlers to crack the starting lineup.
"We talk about it with our guys quite often. We are very fortunate to make it to state the last two years," head coach Bill Wagner said. "When you get to send the whole team down there, you get an extra three weeks of practice compared to when just the individuals go. Keeping everybody in the wrestling room and showing them what state shows them, what they are shooting for and what the dream is. -- it pushes kids to get them in the weight room and put in the offseason work."
For Minnewaska, the Lakers' attempt to make a state tournament will be done without head coach Chip Rankin. He's currently deployed overseas as the Task Force Bayonet Commander until April. In steps Viss, one of the assistant coaches who is looking to keep Minnewaska near the top of its section.
"I'm extremely lucky to be able to work with Chip over the last couple of years, and we did a lot last year to prepare for him being away," Viss said. "My dad was a head coach down in Chatfield for 30 years, so I've watched him do it my whole life. I'm learning week-by-week, and that's how we are taking things. We have some awesome coaches in Jarred Oftedahl, Dane Ankeny and Riley Gustafson. Their wrestling knowledge is unbelievable, and they're guys I can lean on."
Minnewaska has four wrestlers ranked in the top 10 in their weight classes. One of them is Tyson Meyer, a back-to-back state champion at the 170-pound weight class. He's currently listed as the top-ranked 182-pounder in Class A after going 89-1 the last two years.
Jakob Swalla is the second-ranked 285-pound wrestler in Class A. He joins Jacob Blair (No. 9 126-pounds) and Easton McCoy (No. 6 132-pounds) in the state rankings. All four leaders hope to push the Lakers over the hump, but it's a tall task.
Minnewaska's section includes three of the top five programs in the state. According to The Guillotine, perennial powerhouses in Long Prairie-Grey Eagle-Browerville and Belgrade-Brooten Elrosa are the first and third-ranked teams.
"We lost some good wrestlers last year who were state place winners," Viss said. "But coming back, we have a lot of leaders, including seven seniors. I think a lot of them are going to be big contributors this season. Watching what our seniors can do this year will be a big thing for people to look forward to."
B-H-V-Parkers Prairie has gotten over the hump of a competitive section tournament the last two years, which has come at the expense of knocking out WCA-A-B-E. The two schools met in the regular season and the section championship last year in close matchups, with the Raiders pulling out two wins.
This time around, Wagner doesn't have his stud state champion in his back pocket. Craig Orlando, a three-time state champion in the 285-pound weight class, graduated, leaving some big shoes to fill.
"Everybody always looked to Craig because he's a class act, and he's been there so long," Wagner said. "The hard part for this team is trying to replace that. We have a lot of really classy seniors. Not just on the mat, but in the classroom. Jason Koehn has been a leader, and I'm sure he'll step up. Brock Peterson and Hunter Dean are leaders. It's nice to have kids like that from each school."
The Raiders have the talent to make another run with six wrestlers ranked in the top 10. Bennett Arceneau is the ninth-ranked 106-pound Class A wrestler, while David Revering is fifth in the 113-pound rankings. Deagen Captain (120), Gideon Ervasti (195) and Jaden Finck (285) are all ranked sixth in their classes, while Koehn is the fifth-best wrestler at 152 pounds.
The Knights have plenty of talent too. Hunter Gruchow is the seventh-ranked wrestler at 113-pounds. Anthony Sykora is 10th at 145-pounds, while Jordan Lohse is the second-ranked 160-pound competitor. Even though he will have his hands full with Meyer, third-ranked Nathan Kisgen is one of the top wrestlers in the state at 182 pounds.
With how much top-10 talent lies in this part of the state, there could be duals and triangulars that feature multiple kids who will wrestle for state championships.
"Everybody knows how many talented kids there are on a lot of these teams," Gruchow said. "Even looking outside of the top 10 teams like Ottertail has given us a run for our money. They almost knocked us out before the section championship last year. Wrestling here is about taking care of business and not getting ahead of yourself. If you show up, put in the work, and commit to being the best, you're going to have a chance at being successful."