"These guys have earned some respect": Pirates have high expectations on the mat
Some coaches will tell you they couldn't care less about where their team is ranked; that they don't feel the need to buy whatever hype outside observers are selling.
Wes Hanson isn't one of those coaches.
In November, Minnesota wrestling website The Guillotine released its first preseason rankings. Five Crookston wrestlers were ranked in the Top 10 of their respective weight classes (four were ranked in the most recent rankings, released Sunday), and as a team, the Pirates were named a "Lean and Mean" team, ranked just outside the Top 10.
"It tells you that these guys have earned some respect," Hanson, who's going into his sixth year as Crookston's head coach, said then. "And they've accomplished a lot already."
Last season, one of the Pirates' most notable attributes was their youth. Their regular lineup consisted of seven freshman and one eighth-grader, and they had only one senior.
Their other most notable attribute? Their talent. Five Pirates — Carter Coauette, Ethan Boll, Ethan Bowman, Hunter Knutson and Zach Brown — qualified for the state tournament as individuals, Crookston's largest contingent since 2011.
"We had a strong showing last year individually," Hanson said. "We won some big duals, but we know that we can be a lot better if we learn how to work together as a team and really put that as our focus."
Things start at the top with Brown, a senior and a three-time state tournament qualifier, is Crookston's most accomplished wrestler. His 137 career wins rank him 10th all-time in Pirate history, and at 120 pounds last season, he went 35-11 and finished fifth at state. This season, he's ranked No. 6 at 126 pounds.
Brown's one of four Crookston seniors this season. Cameron Weiland, who Hanson expects to compete at 138 pounds, went 34-15 last season and tied a school record with 28 pins and comes into the season ranked eighth in his class. Nolan Dans is a returning All-Conference honoree after finishing fourth in Section 8A last year and going 33-12 while switching between 120 and 126 pounds. Cade Coauette, who went 15-19 last year, is expected to compete at 182 pounds.
"They've been with our program all the way from elementary through," Hanson said. "Now it's their time to really leave a mark."
The Pirates also have an army of youngsters who started making their marks last season. Boll, who's ranked No. 2 at 195 pounds going into his sophomore season, is coming off a 39-8 record and a sixth-place finish at state last February. Bowman, ranked No. 4 at 120 pounds, went 35-11 during a breakout freshman season. Carter Coauette went 28-11 and made it to St. Paul as an eighth-grader in 2020. Knutson won a section title at 145 pounds as a freshman, and will compete at 170 this season. Braxton Volker won 32 bouts, 23 by pin, as a freshman, and will be in the mix at 138 pounds once again. Sophomores Layten Fuentes and Hunter Kresl will be relied on at 220 pounds and at heavyweight.
In addition, there's a number of Pirates who will get their first real taste of varsity experience. There's freshman Evin Trudeau, moving into the lineup at 106 pounds after being too undersized to compete last season. Also in the lower weight classes is Spencer Ness, who Hanson said has looked especially sharp in practice. Hanson also has plenty of faith that Casey Weiland, only a seventh-grader, can make an impact at 145 pounds.
To make a long story short: almost everyone is back, one year older and one year stronger. From the right angle, Crookston has the look of a team destined for greatness.
But here's where things get a little bit interesting.
The Pirates' individual success far outshone their team performance last season. Their 12-9 record in duals was decent, as was their postseason performance: a close section quarterfinal loss to Fosston-Bagley, a team that went on to take the section's No. 1 seed, Frazee, to the wire.
Crookston sent as many individual wrestlers to state as did section champion Badger/Greenbush-Middle River. It has more wrestlers currently ranked in the Top 10 than any other team in Section 8A, and returns more state qualifiers than anyone else. But this season won't be an individual showcase.
Due to COVID-19 regulations, there won't be any individual tournaments during the regular season (Hanson is optimistic that there will be individual tournaments for section and state, but hasn't heard anything certain). No Rodd Olson Invitational, which the Pirates traditionally host in December; no Rumble on the Red in Fargo. Instead, their schedule consists of 16 triangular meets, where they'll go down the lineup and take on two teams in one night.
For Crookston to make the most out of its most-anticipated season in a long while, it will have to adopt a team-first mentality to an even greater degree than normal. In wrestling, that can mean a lot of different things.
It means focusing on earning team points and savoring them as much as actually winning. It means wrestlers being willing to move up and down different weight classes to allow the team to secure the most dual points possible, even at their individual expense. In particular, Cameron Weiland noted that the Pirates have a number of versatile wrestlers who are adept in multiple weight classes.
"We all communicate and talk about what weight we're gonna go and how it's gonna play out as a dual team," Brown said. "We're not really worrying about ourselves at this time of year, it's more so team based, and we'll go wherever we gotta go and do whatever we gotta do for our team."
Then there's team chemistry in a traditional sense. Getting along with each other, motivating each other in practice and supporting each other in meets.
Hanson, who referred to his team as a "band of brothers," doesn't think his team will struggle in that facet.
"There's times when we get to a point during a practice where we're exhausted physically and mentally, and that's where it shows," Hanson said. "Guys band together and rally around each other and pick each other up when guys' spirits are down.We pushed really hard these first few weeks to get us ready to compete here. I think the chemistry is great. These guys have grown up together."
Added Brown: "We're all pretty close, whether it's in the wrestling room or outside. A lot of the guys in this room are all hanging out outside school, going ice fishing, or just doing all this extracurricular stuff to where we can bond as a team."
Another challenge of a schedule devoid of individual tournaments: it's often at these tournaments where the Pirates match up against their toughest opponents, are pushed the hardest and ultimately find out where they can most improve. Hanson and athletic director Greg Garmen have had to replicate that as much as possible.
Right now, it appears Crookston successfully pulled off that feat. The Pirates are scheduled to face "all the best teams in northern Minnesota," in Hanson's opinion. They'll take on Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City and Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale/Parkers Prairie, both Top 10 teams in Class A, and Class AA Top-10 opponents Detroit Lakes and Thief River Falls. Traditional Section 8A powers Badger/Greenbush-Middle River, Frazee and United North Central line Crookston's schedule as well.
But it's not only for the benefit of individual wrestlers, of course. In facing so many strong teams, the Pirates are putting all of this season's fanfare right on the line.
They're aware of what those outside the program say they're capable of. They're aware of the breakthrough they made last season.
And they have a pretty good idea of where they can go from there.
"At the end of last year, we were in the mix to compete for a section title," Hanson said. "Ultimately, that's our goal, to hopefully take over the section."
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