‘Jacks close year on matsOvermatched by the daunting size, strength and speed of opposing wrestlers, the Lumberjacks struggled at last Friday and Saturday’s Section 7AA Individual Wrestling Meet at North Branch High School.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
Usually this time of year you can find Al Denman preparing one of his Cloquet-Esko-Barnum wrestlers for the state tournament.
But for the first time in the program’s history, he’s not.
Overmatched by the daunting size, strength and speed of opposing wrestlers, the Lumberjacks struggled at last Friday and Saturday’s Section 7AA Individual Wrestling Meet at North Branch High School.
Their performance on the mats marked the only time CEB hasn’t sent a wrestler to St. Paul in their short-lived, four-year saga. But for Denman, that’s OK.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Denman about sending five wrestlers to state in the program’s first three seasons. “You just don’t see that anywhere these days. And even though that didn’t happen this year, I was very proud of the efforts our kids put in. They gave it their all and did their best.”
Nine ‘Jacks entered the over 160-participant field of top-notch wrestlers from around the area. And according to Denman, things weren’t easy from the get-go.
“There were really some exceptional wrestlers down there this weekend,” he said. “All 14 weight classes were very competitive from top to bottom, which made it very tough on our kids.”
Cloquet senior Cody Hraban led the trio of ‘Jacks who placed, as the first-year standout and Great River Conference champ placed fourth at 189 pounds. Cloquet junior Jake Baker added a fifth-place finish at 171 pounds, while 112-pound Esko eighth-grade star Reid Borchardt claimed sixth.
“This weekend was a lot of fun,” continued Denman. “The gym was full both days and the atmosphere was fantastic. It was just a good weekend of wrestling.”
The meet concluded a rough season for the ‘Jacks, who were plagued with injuries, sickness and — some kids calling it quits.
“Early-season, mid-season, end of season, you name it, kids quit, and that just killed us,” said Denman. “Everything that could’ve gone wrong for us did. It was just one of those years.”
But when talking about the kids who stuck it out, Denman was pleased.
“These kids came out knowing they were going to lose and that’s just no fun,” he said. “But it wasn’t about Ws. It was about heart and courage, and these kids had a lot of it. It’s not easy losing, but these kids persevered and made me so proud.”
CEB finished the season with a 3-20 overall record, managing a pair of team victories against Hinckley-Finlayson and one against Virginia.
“It’s been a brutal year,” said Denman. “Numbers have been low for us and we’ve taken a lot of forfeits, but we’re not alone; you see that a lot with the sport these days. Unfortunately, it never used to be that way.”
But even with lacking numbers, Denman is staying positive.
“Wrestling is a 10-year process and we’re only halfway there,” he smiled. “We’ve been blessed with a lot of early success and now we’re going to be rebuilding for the next couple years with a lot of youth and inexperience.”
The team will return just Baker and Borchardt next year who, according to their coach, are expected to make another strong push for the state tournament. A pipeline of youngsters, including the largest number of girls of any school in the state, is also keeping Denman optimistic for the program.
“It’s been hard and we’re down right now,” Denman continued. “But in my mind, four or five years down the road, this program is going to as tough as they come.”