CLOQUET - Between drills earlier this week at practice, Tyler Harms-Synkiew went to the side of the purple wrestling mat breathing heavily, sweating and needing a swig of water.
The Cloquet junior then was told he has small cut on his lip, as it lightly bled.
"Just my braces," Harms-Synkiew said.
Well-put for a kid who has been wrestling since he was in kindergarten, as Harms-Synkiew and fellow classmates Griffin Fjeld, Jordan Allen and Zeb Wehr are the braces for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton wrestling team this winter, and rightfully so.
While Harms-Synkiew has been grappling since around age 5, so have Fjeld and Allen, with Wehr joining the demanding sport a year later - all a part of the Cloquet Area Youth Wrestling Association.
By the time the foursome was in middle school, they had a half-dozen years of grasps, escapes and counter moves under their belts, and landed a spot on Al Denman's high school program.
Denman said the quartet of athletes took their lumps, but nowadays, as upperclassmen and fifth-year members of a Lumberjacks program now in its 15th year, they are the ones delivering the lumps.
"There comes a time when you start dishing it out and I think this is the year they start dishing it out," said Denman, the only head coach the program has had. "There's a time when it's your turn."
On Monday, Nov. 26, the four took turns wrestling with one another as Denman circled around the wrestling room at Cloquet High School, equipped with plenty of purple padding, a digital stopwatch mounted to the wall, television, sound system and a contingent of combat going on throughout the cozy wrestling venue.
"It's one of the best wrestling gyms in the state," Allen said.
On most occasions, Harms-Synkiew, Fjeld, Allen and Wehr would pair up, exchanging moves and takedowns as Denman and his staff looked on.
"It can get pretty intense," Fjeld said. "Sometimes, the coaches have to jump in because it gets too insane."
"Things get a little hairy at times," Denman said.
Still, the veteran coach knows he has something special with his group of juniors atop a group of roughly 30 wrestlers.
To Denman's chagrin, all four weigh about the same: 132-152 pounds, expanding four weight classes. The hardship however, is trying to fill other weights. Hence, in wrestling, identical weights don't equate to sure-victories.
Thus, game-planning for meets can be rigorous, having to shed weight within the week and fluctuate between classes. While Denman is as flexible and creative as he can to fill his roster, if two kids scale the same in that weight division, the game plan is simple.
A wrestle-off. Two kids wrestle, and one prevails.
"That's how it works," Denman said. "I don't decide. They do."
If you make it to the day of a meet, Fjeld said you have to be a tough customer.
"You have to be able to take some punishment," said Fjeld, who battled off finger, ankle, shoulder and elbow injuries all last winter to take third place in Section 7AA at 138 pounds - one step short of state.
"I've had some pretty tough matches, but I'm still here today," he said.
Meanwhile, Allen is a state cross-country runner, actor and traditionalist when it comes to the sport.
"I like it because of its pureness," Allen said. "Wrestling gives me the strength to finish off a race and running gives me the endurance to make it three periods."
"It's life," added Wehr as he strapped on his pads for practice. "I really like it."
And Denman really likes his core of competitors. In his time, Denman has sent seven wrestlers to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the state meet, most recently his son, Conner (4th), and Devin Reynolds, placing runner-up in the Class AA heavyweight division in 2017.
Now, the next group of Lumberjacks would like to fight for first their turn at the pinnacle.
"We just want to make it down to the Xcel," Wehr said. "It'd be amazing."
Their journey begins Saturday, Dec. 1, at Lakeville North, and they'll be at Brainerd the following weekend. Home matches will be in Cloquet and Esko as well.
"They all realize this is an investment and they're willing to go through it with each other," Denman said. "It's nice having four horses in the race. We have a two or three I think could have a shot at the state tournament. But, I don't tell them. I let them decide that."
"We don't look at it as who's the best," Harms-Synkiew added. "We're just always trying to get each other better."