Tommy Thorn (in blue), at 120 pounds, is one of four St. Michael-Albertville wrestlers ranked No. 1 in his weight class. He has already won two individual state titles.
There's no swagger to the top-ranked high school wrestling team in Minnesota. There's no gamesmanship or cockiness or veiled contempt for their opponents.
The St. Michael-Albertville wrestlers are all business when they take the mat. Sure of their abilities, they are mindful that they have done everything expected of them to show they are the best, with one big exception:
Defeat Apple Valley.
The Knights have shown tantalizing hints that it's their year to dethrone the seven-time Class 3A champions. The two teams competed twice during the season in the same competition -- in the Minnesota Christmas Tournament and the Clash Duals -- and both times St. Michael-Albertville came out on top.
But the two powerhouses have not met head-to-head, as they might a few weeks from now in the state tournament.
"We know what we're capable of," Knights coach Dan Lefebvre said. "But there are no paper champions. We have to beat Apple Valley if we want to be considered the best."
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You have to go back to Owatonna in 2005 to find a school not named Apple Valley that won the Class 3A wrestling team championship. The Eagles have long been the gold standard, a team so deep and dominant that awarding the state team title has frequently been a foregone conclusion.
This year, however, the thaw began. Apple Valley's longtime coach, Jim Jackson, retired. The pipeline of younger wrestlers started to slow. While Apple Valley remains formidable, the murmur in wrestling circles that this could be the year another team could step in and wrest the title away has grown louder.
The biggest reason was a group of kids from a wrestling hotbed a half-hour northwest of the Twin Cities. They are gym rats who not only love to wrestle, but they have been loving it together for a long time.
Thirteen of the fourteen starters in the lineup grew up in the youth program at St. Michael-Albertville, where wrestling is more a way of life than just a sport.
"It's all about our work outside of the season," senior 145-pounder Lincoln Mallinger said. "In June, when other kids are playing video games, we're in the wrestling room, having fun and building relationships."
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St. Michael-Albertville's wrestling success is well-established. The program is one of a handful in the state that have become synonymous with high achievement, including 22 state meet appearances and six state championships. The Knights won four consecutive Class 2A titles from 2004 through 2007. They have been runners-up to Apple Valley three consecutive years since moving up to 3A in 2010.
Those close to the program knew this season was filled with promise. The Knights trot out the state's deepest lineup, with 12 of their 14 starting wrestlers ranked in the top 10 at their weight in Class 3A. Four are ranked No. 1 -- Mitchell McKee at 106 pounds, Tommy Thorn at 120, Ricky Briggs at 182 and Mitchell Eull at 220.
"We always envisioned this season," senior heavyweight Michael Kessler said. "The guys in my class and in a few classes after me are so into wrestling, I'm not surprised at all."
While the potential was obvious, the Knights point to a Saturday in late December when their hopes turned into realistic goals.
They took part in the Clash Duals in Rochester, considered the nation's best high school dual-meet tournament for attracting prominent teams from around the country. When the day was over, they finished first, one point ahead of Montini Catholic of Illinois.
"That's the last time we really celebrated," Briggs said. "I remember sitting on the bench and seeing everything that we needed to happen happen. At that point, we realized that this could be a great year."
While many teams would have started to feel the pressure of the big victory, Kessler said he and his teammates did just the opposite. After all, these were buddies. And what is better than succeeding with lifelong friends?
"I don't think pressure is always bad," he said. "We have high expectations. That's a good thing. It's hard to worry about them too much because these are just the guys I grew up with."
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St. Michael-Albertville is ranked No. 3 in the nation according to the Amateur Wrestling News and No. 6 in the InterMat.com rankings. Despite being Minnesota's top team in those rankings and finishing the season undefeated, they still consider themselves underdogs.
With good reason. They have yet to win a Class 3A championship. And they have yet to get past Apple Valley.
"We're training like we're No. 2 because, until we beat them, we are No. 2," Briggs said. "We won The Clash and we're ranked No. 1, but we're still hungry."
Thorn, who has won two individual state championships, said, "The state title is the goal. Everything else is nice, but it's the state tournament that matters."