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Cloquet freshman Conner Denman (white) cradles Esko senior Reid Borchardt in a headlock during Monday's wrestling practice in Cloquet. Tyler Korby/ Pine Journal

Cloquet-Esko wrestling program grows in numbers and skill

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Lumberjacks Cloquet, 55720
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

CLOQUET-- Over two hours into Monday night's wrestling practice in Cloquet, Conner Denman neared exhaustion when teammate Mitchell Borchardt lifted him up on his final few rotating pull-ups.

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"We go until the last person," said a sweaty Borchardt, just minutes after encouraging his good friend. "You don't finish when you finish. You finish when the team

finishes."

That team-first attitude has continued to center the Cloquet-Esko wrestling program, now in its eighth year of existence, since its inaugural varsity season back in 2006.

Back then, a dozen brave athletes were on the team, whereas Monday, many more -- now 30 -- were in the gym gasping, grunting and pushing the positively progressing program.

"Today was a good practice," said the program's only-ever Coach Al Denman Monday, joking with his team "we're 45 seconds early," at the end of it all. "Wrestling is exhausting -- the training never stops. But this is just a great bunch of kids."

Denman's own kid, Conner, was dripping sweat afterward, but the three-sport Cloquet freshman (in his third year of varsity), was the first to say wrestling is meaningful.

"It teaches you things other sports don't," said the 5-foot-9, 132-pound in-shape Denman, who will need to keep his weight managed from now until early March when the season is over. "It's hard work, but it's all worth it when your hand gets raised -- you just feel on top of the world."

Denman is atop a list of varsity-laden returnees with the 126-pound Borchardt, an Esko sophomore, and his older brother, Reid, a 138-pound senior. All three attended the J Robinson wrestling camp at the University of Minnesota last July, as the talented trio -- wrestling since they were in elementary school -- has their sights set on the state meet.

The trio will have to pin many of their opponents in order for the size-lacking Lumberjacks to win as a team, Coach Denman explained, but added Esko's Casey Kulas, Cloquet's Alex Land and Cloquet lightweight brothers Daniel and Seth Stevens will all be major providers.

Providing him his most-dominant winter sport since seventh grade, Reid Borchardt said the program is changed.

"Before, when I was younger, people would always diss on wrestlers -- none of that happens anymore," he said. "We've finally gotten that respect and it feels really good."

"They wrestle for each other" added Coach Denman.

Or, as in Monday's case, help finish the evening's

pull-ups.

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