Woodbury’s Justin Herold-Plakut has been wrestling varsity since seventh grade, so he’s no stranger to big meets. But when it came down to the Class 3A, Section 4 championship dual against Stillwater on Feb. 16, he felt the raw emotion of the sport.
“I was starting to get physically sick just being so excited,” the junior captain said. “And after my match I just wanted to wrestle some more.”
He didn’t get to wrestle anymore that day after his triumph at 160 pounds. But he will get to wrestle just a little bit longer this season since the Royals’ team victory earned the school its first trip to state.
Woodbury had a chance to go to state four years ago. In a section final matchup against Stillwater, the Ponies narrowly edged them, 29-27, by winning the final heavyweight bout.
When the teams hit the mat once again this month, “It was almost exactly like that match,” said Herold-Plakut. “But this time we won.”
In eerily similar fashion, it came down to just a few points again in the final match of the night. Royals heavyweight Josh McClain, considerably undersized at 201 pounds, ousted Stillwater’s Peter Palacek 9-2 for the 285-pound weight class victory. It clinched Woodbury’s 32-27 victory for the team title and a spot at this week’s state tournament at Xcel Energy Center.
“It was about the best feeling ever,” Herold-Plakut said. “We’ve worked so hard over the years just to have a shot at making it to state. We finally pulled through. We did it.”
Herold-Plakut, who is ranked second in the state at 152 pounds behind Apple Valley’s Mark Hall, is one of the four captains who make up the core of Woodbury’s squad. He’s registered a sterling 36-3 record. Sophomore Ben Donnelly, ranked sixth in state at 132 pounds, has a 33-6 record, while junior Howard Jones, at 160 pounds, and sophomore Ty Johnson, at 120 pounds, have each hit the 30-win mark as well.
The four of them went through a captains’ training book with Smith before the season.
“We have our team thinking more like a team and wrestling more like a team and competing more like a team,” Herold-Plakut said. “Knowing your team needs you and scoring those extra bonus points when you can — that has always been important to us, but I think we are emphasizing it more.”
After the 2009 team lost 13 of 14 varsity wrestlers to graduation, Woodbury has been rebuilding ever since for a trip to St. Paul. There were some growing pains after that season, which was head coach Justin Smith’s first year on the job. He credits former Simley wrestler David Donnelly, a middle-school teacher in Woodbury, for helping the program grow to the point where it can consistently produce varsity wrestlers.
Leadership, good coaching and a burgeoning feeder program has started to reap some rewards. With the Class 3A state tournament starts on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center, the team is ready to make history.
“Our team has definitely set the goal to place at state,” Herold-Plakut said. “It’s a standard goal, but I really think we can do it. I’m pretty optimistic about it.”