MHS wrestlers have high hopes

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Dennis Semrau/Special to the Times-Tribune
Bryce Falk and Middleton’s wrestling team has great expectations this season./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Finding a theme for the 2022-23 Middleton Cardinals wrestling team was a no-brainer.

Following the release of the movie ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, the Cardinals jump-started their pursuit of excellence with the theme ‘Ready for a dogfight.’

“We’re ready to compete, ready to fight,” second-year head coach Joe Miller said with gusto.

“We feel in year two, we’re going to make a big leap. In year one, we were coming out of COVID with a lot of restrictions. It was kind of a work in progress.”

But the Cardinals earned four individual titles in placing third at the Big Eight Conference tournament and advanced Bryce Falk and Reese Miller, Joe’s son, to sectional competition.

Senior co-captain Tiem Nguyen said the best is yet to come.

“Last year, I thought we were ready to win conference,” he said. “We had the most individual titles. I think this year our whole team has the goal to be first at conference.”

Falk, who is the top returnee after posting a 32-13 record and winning conference and regional titles at 170 pounds last year, said the potential is there to become a dominant force.

“We try to be the best we can be every day in practice,” said Falk, a two-time co-captain who also earned All-Big Eight Conference first-team honors at running back this fall and is a sprinter on the Cardinals’ track and field team. “We have a lot of new guys so the basics are the main fundamentals we’re working on. That’s our key priority right now.”

Joe Miller said the Cardinals’ program made tremendous strides a year ago.

“We all know the expectations,” Joe Miller said. “We’re all in and excited and have a really good group. We think we can absolutely compete for a conference title. That’s the goal, and the kids put it on the wall in the room, and we talk about it every day. That’s the goal we’re working towards.”

Middleton failed to qualify anyone for the boys individual state tournament last season, but senior co-captain Seth Bunn said the Cardinals are poised to change that anomaly.

“We have a lot of new people coming in at the lower weights and the upper weights will be experienced and strong,” said Bunn, a fourth-place finisher at the Big Eight tournament. “I’d like to see our team get to state. But you like to see us always making progress every day.”

Senior co-captain Mattie Papenthien, who placed fourth at 132 pounds at the inaugural WIAA girls individual state tournament last January, agreed.

“We have a lot of new wrestlers,” she said. “But the guys have a great work ethic. They are willing to put in the work to get better. We have a lot of strong candidates to advance to regionals and sectionals and state. Right now, we’re focusing more on technique and conditioning, getting ready to wrestle for six minutes.”

While the program’s immediate goal remains winning the Big Eight Conference championship, it is followed by sending multiple qualifiers to the WIAA individual state tournament at the Kohl Center and eventually qualifying for the WIAA team state tournament at the UW Field House.

Joe Miller, an alum and former Cardinals’ standout wrestler, said those are all attainable goals.

“I love Middleton athletics and Middleton wrestling,” Joe Miller said. “I enjoy being back coaching at my alma mater. The community support has been incredible. The parents have been incredible. The school district has been incredible.”

Yet, the ultimate prize — team state — is a feat that hasn’t been achieved since Joe Miller competed for the Cardinals. Middleton’s only three appearances at the WIAA team state championships came in 1992, 1993, and 1994.

“When I grew up, we were one of the big deals in town. That’s the goal,” Joe Miller said. “That Friday night in December and January, you want to be at Middleton High School watching the wrestling team. I’m looking forward to building this program back up.”

Following is a quick look at the Cardinals’ potential lineup this season.

106 pounds — Joe Miller said he is still looking for someone to emerge as a starter.

113 ­— This weight remains open pending competition at 120 and 126 pounds.

“Someone who skin-folded at 120 or 126 may decide to drop to this weight,” Joe Miller said. “We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. We will have wrestle-offs this week. By the time we have our first match, we will have someone in there.”

120 — Senior Joe Cristoforo moves up from 113 where he had some spot duty last year

“He got a big win at the Lindeman Invitational, which is a big event for us,” Joe Miller said. “He got about a dozen matches and was a .500 wrestler for us. He was a fill-in who should start as a senior.”

126 — Freshman Aiden Dowd moves into the lineup following a successful middle school and youth career.

132 –—Sophomore Reese Miller moves up three weight classes after qualifying for sectionals as a freshman. He posted a 23-18 record and finished fifth at conference and third at regionals in his varsity debut.

“He was our freshman of the year and is one of our leaders,” Joe Miller said of his son, who is recovering from surgery for a broken nose but is hoping to be ready for the season-opening meet. “The expectation is that he is in the hunt to be a state qualifier this season.”

138 – Another freshman Sam Zanton moves into the starting lineup after becoming a two-time youth state champion.

“He is probably one of the most decorated youth wrestlers we’ve had in the history of the program,” Joe Miller said. “He started in the youth club and wrestled for me at Glacier Creek Middle School. He won state as a sixth and seventh grader and is ready to go. We expect big things from him and should be one of our better kids this year.”

Senior Mattie Papenthien, a co-captain, will also see some time at this weight.

“She’ll wrestle with the guys up until regionals,” Joe Miller said. “She won 14 boys’ matches last year, which tells you the impact she had. She will get a lot of boys’ matches this year. Once the state tournament series starts, she will compete in the all-girls division.”

Joe Miller said Papenthien, who placed fourth at 132 at the inaugural WIAA girls individual state tournament last year, will compete in several girls’ tournaments this season.

“The Northern Badger has a boys and girls division,” Joe Miller said. “She will do two to three girls’ tournaments during the season and a half dozen boys’ tournaments. She will switch to girls’ competition in January.”

But there is no doubt that Papenthien has a presence in the room.

“She runs the show,” Joe Miller said. “Bryce is the captain who leads with his example on the mat and his work ethic. Mattie does everything else. She runs the warmups. She organizes the team poster.

“She is anywhere from top 10 to top 12 in the country at her weight. She’s being recruited by all the main schools that have women’s wrestling in college.”

145 — Fin Grauwels, a freshman, who was a state runner-up wrestling for Glacier Creek last year, is tabbed the starter.

“He has been very active in the offseason workouts and is a year-round wrestler,” Joe Miller said. “A football player, he is a good multi-sport athlete who will step right in and compete for a conference title as a freshman.”

152 — Sophomore Camden Baker moves into the starting lineup, after gaining some valuable starting experience between 138 and 145 pounds late last season due to injuries.

“He won a huge dual meet for us against Madison La Follette in the conference showcase last season,” Joe Miller said of Baker. “He won the JV conference tournament to gain a lot of momentum late in the season. He trained all off-season in our off-season workout program. He had a nice football season, too.”

160 – Senior Seth Bunn moves up two weight classes after posting a 14-22 record and placing fourth at conference at 145 pounds last year

 “A football player, he was also one of my middle school guys who came up through the youth program and wrestled for me at Glacier Creek,” Joe Miller said. “He was a state qualifier in our youth program and is one of our leaders.”

170 — Sophomore Eli Quesada moves up two weight classes this year to earn a starting role at 170.

“He has a great work ethic and got some experience last year wrestling probably a handful of meets,” Joe Miller said of Quesada. “He should be a top-three candidate in the conference this year. I’m looking forward to getting him in the lineup.”

182 — Bryce Falk moves up a weight class after posting a 32-13 record at 170 and winning conference and regional titles.

“He’s as good as anyone in the state when his game is on,” Joe Miller said of Falk. “He spent most of the second half of last season ranked in the top 12 and made it to the sectional semifinals.

“He was winning in that match with 30 seconds left when in a fluke accident, he got knocked out of bounds and was unconscious so they had to basically stop the match. He was literally 30 seconds away from going to state last year. He is literally the leader of the team and comes in ranked in the top eight.”

195 — Returning letter winner Tiem Nguyen moves up from 182 after finishing 4-12 a year ago and placing sixth at conference.

“He’s probably one of the hardest workers on the team,” Joe Miller said. “He didn’t have the youth background a lot of these guys do. But he’s put in a ton of work in the off-season and is one of the real leaders in practice. He absolutely has a chance to win a conference title.” 

220 — A three-year starter at 220, senior Gavynn Cooper returns after placing sixth at conference and finishing 14-19 overall last season.

“He was fifth at regionals last year and is another guy who has paid his dues,” Joe Miller said. “He is in contention to be a sectional qualifier.”  

285 — Senior Adam Elshaboury returns at heavyweight after missing last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon he suffered during football season.

“He wrestled varsity as a freshman and sophomore and was a sectional qualifier as a freshman,” Joe Miller said. “He had a good football season and is completely healthy and ready to go.”

Middleton opens the season at the Watertown Early Bird Scramble on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Sun Prairie United, a co-op of East and West high schools, will host the annual Big Eight Conference tournament on Feb. 4 and a Division 1 regional on Feb. 11. For the first time, the top two teams at regionals advance to a team sectional, hosted by Baraboo on Feb. 14.

Waunakee then hosts an individual sectional meet on Feb. 18 with the top two place-winners advancing to the individual state tournament at the Kohl Center  Feb. 23-25. Team state will again be held at the UW Field House on March 3 and 4.

Joe Miller said another reason for optimism was the selection of Bunn, Falk, Nguyen and Papenthien as co-captains before the season.

“Usually it was an end-of-the-season award or a coaches’ award,” Joe Miller said. “Some of the seniors came to me before the season and said ‘we want to vote, we want to take on more responsibilities.’

“I said, ‘this is great. This is your team and not mine.’ The seniors organized it, they had a vote and those were our top four vote-getters. Each one brings a different aspect to our team. They are obviously the ones most respected in the room because they were voted on by their peers. I couldn’t be happier they chose to do it this way.”






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