Although another dominant season is about to come to an end, the top-ranked Kaukauna wrestling team still feels it has some unfinished business.
The Ghosts open the WIAA state team tournament Friday at 5:30 p.m. against Menomonee Falls at the Kohl Center in Madison in an effort to finally capture an elusive state championship.
Since the state team tournament was created in 1992, Kaukauna has taken part 11 times, finishing second four times.
No experience was as painful as last season, however, when the Ghosts dropped a heartbreaking 28-27 decision to Wausau West in the title match. It’s something that has served as motivation from Ty Leethe second that match ended.
“It has,” Kaukauna coach Jeff Matczak said. “It truly had an impact on the kids and their work ethic. Losing is one thing, but how we lost. Coming so close, going into the last match or even the last few matches, feeling like we had a chance to win the tournament.
“We have a lot of kids returning from that team. We lost three starters, so we have 11 kids back. But there’s a lot of kids that were sitting at matside that watched that match that may not have competed that night that are going to be involved that have been a big part of this year’s team. It’s definitely been a motivating factor.”
Senior Evan Hietpas said his team doesn’t want to see a repeat this year.
“It’s been great motivation for us,” said Hietpas, who wrestles at 138 pounds. “Each of us, we’ve wanted to step it up and have been working hard and making sure that doesn’t happen this year.
“We just come in here and try to get one percent better every day. Work on the things that will get us to that next level that we didn’t get to last year. We’re not trying to do anything new. We’re just kind of refinishing the tools we already have.”
Hietpas said because the Ghosts came up short last season, they may actually be better this year than they may have been otherwise.
“I guess so, just because I think if we had won it last year, we probably wouldn’t have had as much motivation coming into this year and in the offseason,” Hietpas said. “It kind of pushed us to work harder rather than maybe if we would have won it, we would have thought ‘we’re good enough.’ The fact that it was so close, it makes you want to work that much harder to make sure you get that championship this year.”
Senior Kolton Jansen, who wrestles at 126 pounds, says the Ghosts can win, but must stay focused.
“It’s tough,” Jansen said of last year’s loss to Wausau West. “It’s obviously pretty prevalent on everyone’s mind right now. I think we’re a lot better team this year and we’re really solid throughout. If we wrestle up to our ability, I believe we’ll come away with a W.
“We just got to keep our main focus and stick to the fundamentals of wrestling. That’s what wins matches, not the fancy moves. Each team has talent and you have to beat their talent with our talent to come up with the win.”
Junior Robert Lee, who is coming off an individual state title at 132 pounds after pinning Burlington’s Josh Bird in five minutes, 13 seconds on Saturday, said his team needs to refocus.
“We have to get the right mindset first,” Lee said. “After the state (individual) tournament, some of our wrestlers that wrestled down there broke a little bit. We’ll get them back on track. You just have to do what we’ve been doing all year. All the basic moves, all the basic setups. Just staying in our stance. All of the basic stuff we’ve been working on all year. If we present that down there, we should win.
“We’ve lost it a bunch of times before. Having a chip on our shoulder from last year gives us some motivation. We were so close but had it slip through our fingers. Having that loss just recently gets us motivated for this year. That will help us drive through the tournament.”
Unlike most years where there has been a dominant Wisconsin Valley Conference team, Matczak said he thinks this field is wide open.
Twenty of the 22 state team titles have been won by schools in the WVC, including 16 by Wisconsin Rapids, two by Merrill and two by Wausau West. Milton and Muskego won the other titles.
“All the teams on our side (of the bracket) were down there last year and they are all coming back like us,” Matczak said. “The only team we’ve wrestled on our side was Sauk Prairie. We wrestled them last year. I told their coach last year after we were done wrestling that ‘you guys are going to be back here next year and, hopefully, we’re back here next year and it’s probably going to happen.’ They’re on our side of the bracket.”
Menomonee Falls, Burlington and Sauk Prairie all took part last season. On the other side of the bracket, Bay Port and Mukwonago also return from last year.
“Menomonee Falls we did not wrestle,” Matczak said. “That is our first-round opponent. We have to really focus on them. There’s experience down there. Six, seven wrestlers were at the state individual tournament. These teams have had as much success as us as far as place winners and getting to the medals stand. They have good quality and depth across their lineup.
“On the other side, there are a number of teams that could come out of those four. Two of them were close competitors of Wausau West last year, just like us. Merrill lost in the sectional final to them and then Bay Port lost by two points in the semifinals to them. Both teams return the majority of their lineups, very similar to us. It’s a wide open field and it’s going to be very exciting.”
Depth will also be a strength for Kaukauna.
“One thing we’ve built into our program is a lot of depth,” Matczak said. “We have kids that we are capable of plugging in if we have to move someone to create a better matchup for ourselves or maybe to avoid a matchup we don’t want to see, or move somebody up or out of the lineup.
“This is one of the deepest teams we’ve ever had and so therefore that really helps in our preparation. That’s why you sell that to the kids in your program that we need that flexibility. There are quality teams down there and no one can just show 14 kids and just go out and win this thing.”