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Four Hilltoppers earn state wrestling berths

OSSEO — After losing three, multiple time state place winners, including a pair of two-time state champions, to graduation last year, some may have thought Glenwood City would be hard pressed to send another quartet to the state wrestling tournament once again this year.

But this year’s Hilltopper seniors are a resilient group to say the least.

Four of the Toppers’ five sectional participants, all seniors, earned state berths, matching last year’s tally, following the conclusion of the 2014 WIAA Division 3 Individual Wrestling Sectional held Saturday, February 22 at Osseo-Fairchild High School.

“I felt like it was a great day,” said Shane Strong, Glenwood City’s head coach. “We got a great group of seniors.”

A couple of which have just a few years of wrestling experience under their belts which makes the feat of qualifying for the state championship a bit more amazing.

Isaac Tuttle (170), Donovan Fornal (220), and Brennan Kessler (285) each finished second and Blayze Wood (182) took third to earn trips to the state wrestling championship this Thursday – Saturday (Feb. 27 – March 1) at the Kohl Center in Madison. Fellow senior and sectional qualifier Jeff Kopacz missed the state-meet cut at 195 pounds. Tuttle, who finished third at 170 pounds a year ago, will be making his second state appearance. It will be a whole new experience for Fornal, Kessler, and Wood as they prepare to compete in their first-ever state championships.

“If you look at Donovan and Jeff, they did not come out for wrestling until ninth or tenth grade and to be able to accomplish what they did is amazing,” said their coach.

“To make it to the state tournament with the short number of years to prepare for that is pretty impressive.”

“The other thing that is impressive is that three out of the five are wrestling 20 pounds lighter than their weight class and sometimes more when it comes to Brennan.”

But is nothing different they have faced all season. This is a senior group that has welcomed and thrived on the challenges set before them.

“To show that resilience to go out there and battle is pretty impressive,” added Strong.

Three of Glenwood City’s four state qualifiers made the championship match in their respective weight classes.

Tuttle, 32-8, was the first to try for gold. After making the finals with a pair of pins including a 28 second one against his quarterfinal’s opponent Nick Filkens of Clear Lake, Tuttle himself was tamed by the pin. Third-ranked Kyle Heinsohn of Cameron ended the 170-pound championship at 1:43 with a fall over fourth-ranked Tuttle.

Less than an hour later, Tuttle would have to battle once again just to retain his silver medal which he did, beating Kevin Fesenmaier of Spring Valley/Elmwood 9-4 in the wrestleback. He also defeated Fesenmaier a week earlier, by fall, when the pair battled in the regional final.

“He came out and wrestled tough,” noted his coach. “His double leg has looked very good lately and I like how well he is wrestling.”

Tuttle also celebrated a milestone last Saturday as he was recognized for his 100th career win. A feat that he had actually achieved a week earlier.

“Isaac actually picked it up last weekend but I did not tell him,” said Coach Strong. “I told him that it would be during the sectional tournament so it was a little extra motivation for him to get that 100th win. He actually hit 105 for today.”

Although he was not striving for 100 wins, Donovan Fornal, like Tuttle, was in the hunt for gold. And like his 170-pound teammate, Fornal used a pair of pins to put himself in position to compete for that precious medal at 220 pounds. The lanky senior posted a 4:43 pin over Clear Lake’s Chant Lablanc in the quarterfinals and then stuck Emil Walleser of LaCrosse Aquinas just 1:40 into their semifinal match.

Awaiting Fornal in the championship was second-ranked 220-pounder Ben Stone of Cumberland. The Beavers’ junior grappler was as solid as his namesake and took control early and eventually pinned Fornal at the 3:07 mark. Fornal did not have to wrestleback as he had already beaten third-place finisher Chant Lablanc in the quarters.

Brennan Kessler also made an impressive run to the heavyweight championship despite surrendering several pounds to his opponents throughout the day and year for that matter.

He was the third Topper senior to score pins in each of his first two sectional meet matches.

Kessler needed less than a minute to gain the win in his quarterfinal’s match with Brycen Valiga. Kessler pinned the Phillip’s heavyweight in just 53 ticks. In his semifinal match, Kessler would again find victory via the pin. This time he put a solid Ethan Luedtke of Northwoods/ Solon Springs to the mat in 5:13. Luedkte was ranked sixth in the latest D3 poll. Kessler was honorable mention.

But Kessler’s run to the title came up short in the championship were he surrendered a 7-0 decision to Donny Ralston. The Bruce heavyweight is currently ranked third and showed why as he dominated against Kessler.

Blayze Wood rounded out the Toppers’ state-bound, senior contingent when he took third at 182 pounds.

Wood picked up a solid 11-5 win over Bayfield/Washburn’s Jesse Andrews in the quarters. That win put Wood in a semifinal showdown against state-ranked Jaylen Lansin from Cumberland. Lansin scored a 9-0 major decision that sent Wood to the consolation side of the bracket where he scored a 3:01 fall over Aquinas’ Isiah Brown and a 9-4 win over Bo Balko of Ladysmith in the third-place match. The victory earned Wood a shot at second in a 182-pound wrestleback. But Turtle Lake/Clayton’s Damion Blechinger rallied for a 4-2 win to retain the silver.

Glenwood City’s chances to get all five of its senior through to state looked promising after Jeff Kopacz opened with an 8-1 win over Dante Pizzini of Aquinas in a 195-pound quarterfinal match. But Kopacz’ chances for a medal and state berth evaporated with a 6-3 semifinals loss to Flambeau’s Zach Lund and a heartbreaking first-period pin at the hands of Clear Lake’s Mitch Lien in a consolation match, which eliminated him from competition.

For the four remaining Glenwood City seniors, they have one last week to make memories and capture their dreams.

“I didn’t even think that it was possible,” said Donovan Fornal after the sectional meet. “My goal was just to do my best in every match and it happened for me today.”

“My goal is just to go to state and win one match,” added Fornal. “I am going to go out there and wrestle hard.”

For fellow teammate and classmate, Brennan Kessler, his goals are a bit more lofty.

“I’m looking to win it,” said Kessler. “There is no reason I can’t.”

“Glenwood City had another heavyweight that was 200 pounds and he won it,” said Kessler referencing Glenwood City’s 1995 state heavyweight champion Frank Kohler. “He is my inspiration.”

As for their head coach, Shane Strong, he is just “excited for next weekend.”

All four Hilltoppers will open the state tournament in Thursday night’s (Feb. 27) preliminary which starts at 7:15 p.m. Winners of those matches will then advance to Friday afternoon’s quarterfinal round.