The recently blond-dyed members of the Centennial wrestling team ran wind sprints during practice in preparation for the state meet this week in St. Paul.
Centennial’s wrestling team had extra motivation at this year’s Class 3A, Section 5 tournament. Not only did the Cougars want to advance to the state meet, they also wanted to exact revenge on Champlin Park, a big rival that knocked them out in the semifinals last year by only two points.
“That was pretty hard in the locker room afterward,” senior 113-pound Mike Mischke said.
At this year’s section tournament, Centennial used its mental resilience to top Champlin Park by 12 points in the semifinals. The Cougars went on to beat Osseo in the final and advance to the team state tournament, which will take place Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.
“We knew it was going to be our toughest round going into the tournament,” Mischke said. “It was very stressful in a way. It took a lot of just mental preparation. [We] pretty much just hung out in the [team] room all day and we didn’t talk to anybody. … We bonded pretty well.”
Senior 220-pound Andrew Gustafson said it was his team’s mentality that helped it avenge last year’s bitter loss.
“The largest part of the match is mental,” Gustafson said. “The whole goal going out there is to try and break the other guy and make the other guy quit. Once that guy quits, you’re going to win the match.”
Coach John Bergeland, who has coached at Centennial for 14 years, said this team is one of the hardest-working he’s coached.
“In this sport there is such a need to get mentally and emotionally prepared,” Bergeland said. “For them to be contemplative in here, to be thinking about their match, thinking about their warm up and then choose to get after it, shows how much they have matured over the course of the year.
Bergeland said the wrestlers have become “a real team instead of a bunch of guys who were good enough to be able to go.”
In addition to showing Centennial’s mental strength, the Champlin Park match also displayed another valuable quality — depth — that it will take into its state tournament quarterfinal match with Owatonna.
Bergeland said his team is balanced with solid scores in the lightweights, upperclassmen leadership in the middleweights and two wrestlers with 35 wins or more on the season in the heavyweights.
“We’ve got guys up and down the lineup that are pinning, you know, winning consistently,” Gustafson said. “And it’s something we haven’t had — a whole lineup where we’re dangerous from bottom to top.”
Bergeland said this depth gives his team options and flexibility when deciding matchups. Centennial’s goal since the beginning of the season has been to finish in the top four at the state meet .
Owatonna is the No. 4 seed. Centennial is No. 5.
“If we wrestle determined and doggedly, maybe we can make it,” Bergeland said. “But it’s going to take everything.”
But the team isn’t all serious.
Last Monday following practice, all 19 varsity wrestlers dyed their hair blond to celebrate Centennial reaching the state tournament. They went as a team to a barber shop owned by a youth team member’s dad and had the youth club president, who is also a licensed cosmetologist, bleach everyone’s hair.
Sophomore 106-pounder Jack Bergeland said it has been a tradition on the team for a long time.
“They wanted to do something to kind of be as a team,” Bergeland said. “They thought it’d be pretty funny to be blond and ever since then it’s been a tradition.”
“It’s a great group of guys and I love them. They’re pretty much family,” senior 195-pound Justice Davis said.
Gustafson said it won’t be hard for him and his teammates to keep the momentum from the section tournament going — as long as they are mentally focused.
“Really if I decide I want to get it done, it will happen,” he said. “And we fully believe that, myself and the coaches.”
Megan Ryan is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.