KAUKAUNA – Quick pins and easy wins aren’t a part of the wrestling landscape at the Cheesehead Invitational.
Both come as easy as crawling across a mat of broken glass and barbed wire.
The power-packed event at Kaukauna High School is loaded with elite wrestling talent and recognized as one of the finest high school wrestling tournaments in the country.
It’s where the best of the best collide, and where outstanding records get blemished and sometimes bludgeoned.
“It’s really tough — you don’t go up against unranked guys,” said Kaukauna junior Zach Lee, ranked No. 2 at 152 pounds in the Wisconsin Wrestling Online Division 1 state individual rankings. “Everyone’s good and everyone competes really hard. You have to wrestle all six minutes to win a match.”
Experienced prep wrestlers like Lee and teammate Mason VanAsten understand what a tremendous learning opportunity the Cheesehead offers. It’s more about sharpening skills through top-notch competition than winning matches.
“I love how hard the competition is,” said VanAsten, a senior ranked sixth at 220 in the WWO Division 1 rankings. “I know it will push me to become a better wrestler because you’re going against the best in the nation.”
A total of 31 teams — two more than last year — will compete in the prestigious two-day tournament that starts at 5:15 p.m. Friday and runs through Saturday night. It is the 18th year for the Cheesehead, which draws powerhouse teams from across the country and offers a hybrid-style bracket that gives wrestlers multiple matches and the opportunity to compete both days.
The competition is extraordinary. Twenty-three of the teams are state-ranked and seven boast a national ranking from Intermat Fab 50, Flowrestling or The Open Mat.
“We have most of last year’s schools back and it’s going to be a great tournament as usual,” said Kaukauna coach Jeff Matczak. “The tournament is growing and that tells us a lot right there. We’re proud of what we’ve got going.”
Nationally ranked teams are Lockport (Illinois), Kasson-Mantorville (Minnesota), Montini (Illinois), Apple Valley (Minnesota), Southeast Polk (Iowa), Stoughton and Kaukauna.
The two-time defending state champion Ghosts are ranked 49th nationally and No. 1 among the state’s Division 1 teams.
The top 16 teams from last year’s field return and the Cheesehead title is up for grabs. Mt. Carmel (Illinois) won last year’s tournament with 582 points, holding off another Illinois opponent, Carl Sandburg, by a 582-557 margin. Kaukauna was 14th at 284.5. Wrightstown was 24th at 158 and Freedom was 28th at 143.
“Lockport is ranked really high and I think they’d probably be the favorite to win it,” said Matczak. “You have your traditional powers like Apple Valley is back and Kasson-Mantorville. Mt. Carmel won it last year and they’re very good again. We beat Stoughton by one in last year’s state finals and they were a junior-loaded team, so they might be up there in the trophy hunt.”
Teams making their first Cheesehead appearance are Desert Vista, which makes the lengthiest trip from Arizona; Metea Valley (Illinois); and two Wisconsin schools, Fennimore and Mukwonago.
“Fennimore was the Division 3 state champs and it’s good to get them here,” Matczak said. “Our state will be well-represented along with Iowa and Illinois. It’s a really nice blend of talent.”
Seventeen of the wrestlers are ranked nationally, including Brady Berge of Kasson-Mantorville, who is rated No. 1 at 160 pounds. Berge is a two-time Cheesehead champion along with Real Woods of Montini. Austin O’Connor of St. Rita (Illinois) has won three Cheesehead titles and will attempt to become the third four-time champion in tournament history.
“We see this tournament as a teaching thing,” said Matczak. “We just want our kids to compete out there. They may not come out with a glamorous record. They may go 4-4. But if they went against tough kids and fought hard in the matches and scored some points, there’s something to be gained right there.”
Freedom, ranked third among the state’s Division 2 teams, returns to the tourney along with Wrightstown, which received honorable mention in the WWO D-2 poll.
“It’s a tournament where your pretty good and middle of the road kids get to see what really good kids look like — how they train and how they prepare,” said Freedom coach Justin Lancaster. “Everyone wants to be good, so they kind of mimic those kids the next couple weeks and practice a little bit different.
“It’s also a very humbling experience for some of our kids who are at the top right now. It’s one of the best tournaments you’re going to find.”
Lee was the highest area finisher in last year’s Cheesehead, taking fourth at 126.
“Aside from state, this is my favorite tournament of the year,” said Lee. “If you can compete with these kids for all six minutes, you will know exactly where you are at.”
The Ghosts’ Trent Leon is ranked second at 138 in the WWO state rankings, while teammates Lee, Keaton Kluever (third, 285), John Diener (fourth, 113) and VanAsten also have high state rankings.
Mitch Garvey (5th in Division 2 at 126), Sam Peters (fifth, 138) and Evan Vosters ( seventh, 152) are Freedom’s top-rated wrestlers.
Wrightstown’s Ben Klister is ranked No. 2 at 160 in the WWO Division 2 ratings.
“As a team, we always really look forward to this,” said VanAsten. “It’s one of our biggest tournaments of the year. When you’re competing against this type of talent, it makes you want to work harder.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or email@example.com; on Twitter @twfroberg
When: Friday and Saturday. Wrestling starts at 5:15 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Kaukauna High School.
Zach Lee and Mason VanAsten talk about the Cheesehead Invitational at postcrescent.com