The last Saturday night of February at the Kohl Center was a very special one for Wausau West’s Colin Baine and Edgar’s Luke Nowak.
Both realized their dream of becoming a state champion and standing atop the podium with a gold medal around their necks and wall bracket in hand.
A week later at the UW-Fieldhouse, the Wisconsin Rapids wrestling team captured its 21st WIAA Division 1 championship.
The two individuals were in very different situations entering their championship matches.
Baine (46-6) was the clear underdog against defending state champion Izzy Balsinger from Chippewa Falls. Not only had the Chi-Hi wrestler handily defeated Baine a week earlier in finals of a Division 1 sectional, but Baslinger was a big fan favorite.
“I liked the fact that I was the underdog last year, and I’m sure the majority of the people in the Kohl Center thought Izzy would win,” said Baine, who will wrestle up at 126 pounds this year. “It was a great feeling to win and made me feel good that I improved that much in one week. He really beat me bad at the sectional, but I didn’t think about that. I just focused on what I could do and listened to my coaches.”
As the first Warrior wrestler to win a state title as an underclassmen, Baine already has made history at West. He can add to his legacy with another championship.
“We’ve never had a junior win state or a two-time champion and Colin has put himself in a position to make history for our program,” West coach Troy Fabry said. “Colin is a competitor and he’s one of those guys who seeks out a challenge, and last year in the state finals, it was a big one and he came out on top.”
As a state champ, Baine knows he will have a bull’s eye on his back, but is taking a positive spin on it instead of letting the pressure get to him.
“I know people will be gunning for me, but I’m not going to worry about other people and focus on my goals,” Baine said. “Of course I want to win another state title, and another goal is to be undefeated.
“I’m just going to keep wrestling my style and hopefully that will be enough in the end,” Baine added.
Adding fuel to his fire is the fact that the Warriors are the No. 1 ranked Division 1 team in the Crossface preseason rankings.
“It’s a good feeling to be No. 1, but it’s November and coach always tells us, ‘It’s not where you start, but where you end.'”
Nowak, a state runner-up as a sophomore, who defeated Coleman’s Jordan Schaal twice during the regular season, was the clear favorite and he waned to erase the disappointment of finishing second.
Nowak (39-3) pinned Schaal in 4 minutes, 44 seconds to win the Division 3 title at 170 pounds.
“After my sophomore year, people kind of expected me to win last year,” Nowak said. “My goal is to win again because I didn’t like the feeling of finishing second.”
Like Baine, Nowak has worked hard in the off season to put himself in a position to capture a second title.
“Finishing second as a sophomore was a huge disappointment for Luke,” Edgar coach Kevin Koch said. “He worked hard last year to win his first and he’s going to have to even harder this year, because it’s twice as hard to win two state titles.
“He knows there will be pressure on him, but he doesn’t worry about it,” Koch added. “It’s a new year and if he wins again, it will be a different feeling and hopefully he comes out on top again.”
Wisconsin Rapids, the most dominant program in the sport, lost more horsepower than usual after winning the Division 1 title last year.
Despite returning just one state qualifier, senior Ben Campbell, the Raiders are ranked seventh in the Crossface preseason rankings.
“We graduated a group that won a lot of state medals and anytime you have kids as talented as they were, it’s tough to replace them,” Rapids coach Scott Benitz said. “This team is going to be a work in progress all season. We have a lot of young an inexperienced wrestlers, but they’re working hard and learning everything we’re teaching.”
At last year’s state team tournament the Raiders defeated Hartland Arrowhead 35-22 in the first round, nipped Wisconsin Valley Conference rival Wausau West 29-27 in the semifinals and topped Hartford 33-25 for the championship.
In those matches, the Raiders leaned on some newcomers, who came through, even if for just one match to help secure the title.
“This group hasn’t proven themselves at any level, but this is going to be a much different team in February than we are now,” Benitz said. “We have a lot of competition in the room and I’m not sure I’ll have the same lineup twice in a row this year. It’s going to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to see how this team develops.”