NEENAH – Sports are said to make for great theater.
Anyone who packed into a crowded Pickard Auditorium on Thursday night to watch a truly unique high school wrestling match would have to agree.
When it was over and Neenah had secured a 38-28 Fox Valley Association wrestling win over Hortonville, there were no shouts of “bravo” or “encore” from the crowd.
But it was as clear as the lights on Broadway that most fans, athletes and coaches involved in this rare athletic event on an auditorium stage seemed to enjoy what was billed as the “Rumble in the Rocketorium.”
Pickard Auditorium has been a venue for plays and concerts for years, but Thursday’s match marked the first time the historic theater was used for a sporting event. A wrestling mat was rolled onto the stage floor and a pair of overhead spotlights highlighted the action.
“This was awesome,” said Hortonville coach Chris Gennrich. “I wish we could do it at every dual meet we go to. This was good. It’s just great for the sport — the atmosphere, the fans, everything.
“Maybe I’m getting old and crass but I feel, and I think a lot of wrestling coaches feel this way, that people consider wrestling a second-class sport. Everyone is into basketball. They get center stage, the Friday and Saturday night games, and we get Thursday nights. But tonight, this was different. The kids felt special. They felt like they were on center stage.”
Neenah coach Kyle Kleuskens said the event began in the planning stage last March at the end of the wrestling season.
“Actually, a parent suggested that it might be a good idea, then one of our assistant coaches, Kevin Beauchamp, and I kind of ran with it,” Kleuskens said. “I thought it was awesome, just something different for our sport and not your typical high school wrestling match. We had a middle school match, too, along with a JV match, and all those kids are never going to forget being able to compete in this type of situation.”
Neenah heavyweight Luke Higgins won’t forget the evening. With the Rockets holding a 29-22 lead and three matches remaining, the senior clinched the Rockets’ victory by pinning Hortonville’s Jakob Marty in a brisk 1:05.
“It was probably one of the most fun experiences of my life,” Higgins said. “Being out there with a ton of fans in the crowd and wrestling on a stage against a really good team was a unique experience, something special. It was just a real cool atmosphere.
“I knew going out there that if I pinned him, it was over. So I was looking for the pin. I was able to get him on his back and get the pin.”
In climbing to 3-1 in the FVA, the Rockets got additional pins from Brandon Beauchamp (120), Isaac Bethel (126) and Logan Lehrer (182), while Beau Yineman (195) won by technical fall.
Hortonville, a WIAA state team tournament qualifier last season, received pins from Jacob Barnett (126) and Eric Barnett (113).
The Polar Bears competed without Elliott Luker, their outstanding 160-pounder, while Neenah wrestled without Julian Donnelly, a solid starter at 126 pounds. Both sat out with injuries.
“We knew Elliott Luker was going to be out and came in expecting to win,” said Kleuskens. “Honestly, the coin flip played a big part of it. We won it and got some of the matchups we really wanted. It was an exciting dual meet and great for the fans.”
Gennrich was so impressed with the event that he’d like to see it repeated, perhaps in Hortonville.
“I’m going to push for our home dual meets to be on our stage,” Gennrich said. “Why not? It’s not used for anything but musicals. Why not use it for wrestling. too.”
NEENAH 38, HORTONVILLE 28
120: Brandon Beauchamp N pinned Noah Heimmermann 3:51. 126: Jacob Barnett H pinned Jarrett Radies :23. 132: Isaac Bethel N pinned Leighton Serrano 1:38. 138: Joe Cleereman H major dec. Seth Geiger 9-0. 145: Nathan Lichtfuss H won by forfeit. 152: Colin Schuler H dec. Montana Jones 6-4. 160: Delontae Mills N dec. Josh Werner 8-4. 170: Kirkiland Hills H dec. David Oyler 3-1. 182: Logan Lehrer N pinned Bradley Schneider 1:05. 195: Beau Yineman N won by technical fall over Griffen Cartwright 19-4. 220: Marshall Kools N dec. Brady Buchman 9-2. 285: Luke Higgins N pinned Jakob Marty 1:05. 106: Anthony Hefter N dec. Austin Wasmund 8-6 OT. 113: Eric Barnett H pinned Briar Hass 1:54.
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg