Saturday morning was the final regular-season home triangular for the Alexandria wrestling team. For the Cardinals' three seniors, it was not only the last chance to compete in front of the home crowd but also an opportunity to look back on how far the program has come.
Alexandria dominated Mahnomen-Waubun and Pierz. After beating the Thunderbirds 55-17, the Cardinals picked up a 53-24 win over the Pioneers.
"We keep pushing for improvements every day, and the guys are responding," Alexandria head coach Aldon Struchen said. "They're active and working hard in the practice room. That's ultimately what it takes to be successful in any sport. They're motivated, and they're coming together as a team."
Freshman Mason McGrane (106) had himself an impressive morning. He kicked things off for the Cardinals with a 10-0 major decision win over Mahnomen-Waubun's Dominick Neison. In his second match of the day, he trailed Pierz's Chase Becker 8-7 in the third period before rolling him up for a pin.
"We knew what we had with Mason last year when he was barely making the minimum weight as a 106-pounder," Struchen said. "He's had a target on his back this year. He's an exciting wrestler to watch because he goes big. Sometimes he makes mistakes positionally. If he can clean up some of those technical things, I'm excited to see what he can do the rest of this season."
Seventh-grader Brenden Bryce (113) had a match against Mahnomen-Waubun's Beau Sumdahl that went the distance and some. Trailing 4-2, Bryce took down Sumdahl with 10 seconds left in the third period for the tying two points before going on to win in overtime.
"There's a learning curve for a seventh-grader being in a varsity role," Struchen said. "He's got the tools, and he's a thinker. The more experience he gets on the mat and the more committed he gets to the techniques he's using, that confidence will come. He's going to have a great career."
Saturday was about the seniors. AJ Sparr picked up a pair of forfeit victories to hit a career milestone– wins 100 and 101 in his career.
"Compared to when I first started in this program, this is a completely different team," Sparr said. "We've been building this for years. The community we have here is so positive. Over the years, this team kept wrestling fun for me. Every day when I walked into practice, I knew I would have fun with these guys."
JP Rodel (170) also won both his matches. He pinned Mahnomen-Waubun's Tatum Bennet before winning by forfeit over Pierz. Tate Runge (160) completed a 6-0 senior day with a 6-2 decision win over Pierz's Ross Boser after a forfeit win over Mahnomen-Waubun.
"These three are the big brothers on the team for a lot of the guys," Struchen said. "They've been together since the youth days. I can' say enough about these three guys. They're the captains for a reason."
During his time on the varsity roster, Sparr has seen Alexandria go from a group that couldn't fill the entire lineup to a team hoping to shake things up in the section playoffs.
"Coming into this year, we didn't know what kind of numbers we'd have or who would fill what weights," Sparr said. "We were giving up forfeits every match before this year. To be able to fill the lineup, come out swinging and have a chance against every single team we wrestle against is an unreal experience. We love having this opportunity."
A team section title run hasn't been part of the picture during Sparr's career until now. Even though some of the top teams in the field will be a tough out come March, Sparr is excited to get an opportunity to compete without forfeits in his final run.
"If we don't win the section this year, it's soon to come," Sparr said. "Our team is still young. Most of this team is made up of freshmen and sophomores. I can't wait to see where this team is at in two years, and I'm going to watch them at state. That's the road we're on right now. If we keep building on Struchen's word, we'll get there."
Struchen has a couple of guys who will look to make it to the state tournament as individuals. Blaze Nelson is a regular at the Xcel Energy Center and went 2-0 with a fall victory of Mahnomen-Waubun's Garret Eyinuck.
Kelly Johnson (145) had a breakout year in his freshman campaign and has followed it up with an impressive sophomore season. After his major decision and fall victories on Saturday, Johnson is 12-6 on the season.
"The big adjustment Kelly has made is wrestling 25 pounds heavier than he did last year," Struchen said. "He was wrestling younger kids last year, and now he's wrestling young men. Kelly is super strong, but it's an adjustment of style. The improvement among this team has been incredible. They're coachable, and it's a super fun group to be around."
The road will get more challenging for Alexandria before the postseason starts, with many of the top teams in the section left on the regular-season schedule.
"Some of those top-four teams in the section in Detroit Lakes, Pequot Lakes and Perham, are all coming up," Struchen said. "If the section ended today, we'd be a five or a six seed out of 11 teams. We're excited to see where we are at against those guys because this team has changed. We're ready to go and see what we can do."