By Gary Larson
Mille Lacs County Times
Talk about fantastic finishes!
Milaca scored pins in the final four matches to top Mora 45-25 in the championship match of the Section 7AA Team Wrestling Tournament Friday night at Nashwauk.
The victory advanced the Wolves to the Class AA State Team Tournament for the 10th time, all during Randy Zimmer’s 24-year run as head coach. Milaca will face top-ranked Simley, the defending Class AA champion, in the opening round of the state meet Thursday, March 2, at 11 a.m. at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The final 20-point margin over Mora is more than a little misleading. The Wolves trailed 25-21 heading into the final four weight classes.
Milaca needed to either win three of those four matches or win twice with a pair of pins.
“Our backs were against the wall,” said Zimmer, whose team handled Hibbing 54-15 in the semifinals earlier in the evening. “We had four good wrestlers coming up and I felt we could turn things around. But, you never know what can happen.”
One thing the Wolves didn’t know heading into the match was that they would surrender six points at 132 pounds where they had junior Jonah Gahm, who’s ranked No. 2 in Class AA at that weight in the latest state rankings by The Guillotine magazine.
Milaca jumped to a 17-0 lead behind technical falls by sophomore Ray Hoffman at 106 and junior Joey Curtis at 113, a major decision by Joe Moscho at 120 and a decision by senior Chris Newgard at 126.
At 132, Gahm moved to an early lead over sophomore Nick Kastenbauer.
Things looked good for the Wolves and not so good for the Mustangs.
But, suddenly Gahm went down with a dislocated shoulder. He wasn’t able to continue and Kastenbauer got the victory and Mora got six points.
“When Jonah went down it opened the door for us,” said Mora Coach Tom Youngblom, whose team rocked defending-section champion Grand Rapids 42-18 in the semifinals. “And, we were able to roll for a while.”
The Mustangs won four of the next five matches and got pins from senior Brent Nelson-Schroeder at 145 and junior Codie LaFromboise at 170. Ninth-grader Josh Otten’s major decision at 152 accounted for Milaca’s lone points during that stretch.
Senior Jake Earl started Milaca’s closing surge with a pin at 182. Senior Justin Ladehoff followed with a pin at 195 and sophomore Brandon Merten clinched the section title and state berth with a fall at 220.
Senior heavyweight Jordan Ahner closed the match out with his third pin in three matches in the tournament.
“It’s one of the best finishes ever for Milaca,” said Zimmer, whose team had defeated Mora 42-19 Feb. 2. “It was very exciting.”
“The pin by Earl really turned things around,” said Youngblom. “Once again, Randy had his team primed for the section tournament.”
Milaca will take a 28-9 record into the state meet.
The coaches of the eight state teams determined the seeding for the tournament in a poll which put Simley (25-3) at No. 1, Scott West (23-0) at No. 2, Foley (25-1) at No. 3 and Kasson-Mantorville (24-5) at No. 4.
Their first-round opponents were determined by a random draw.
In the other quarterfinal matches, Scott West will face Monticello (13-12), Foley will meet Windom Area/Mountain Lake (19-5) and Kasson-Mantorville will meet Perham (21-5).
The team tournaments will all take place March 1.
Milaca’s wrestlers will now set their sights on the Section 7AA Individual Tournament Friday and Saturday at Mora. The opening session is Friday at 4 p.m. The meet continues Saturday with the semifinals at 11 a.m.
The top two placers at each weight will gain berths to the state individual tournament.
“We always look at getting four or five state entrants,” said Zimmer. “Any more than that is a real bonus because of the tough competition.”
NOTE: Gahm’s status was uncertain as of Tuesday….
Milaca returns to the state team tournament after a one-year absence….
Zimmer on facing Simley: “They’re a great team but we’ll show up.”
(Next week’s Times will include a special state tournament section.)