Minnesota's state high school wrestling tournament takes place at the Xcel Energy Center (Photo/David Peterson)
From an outsider standpoint, the first weekend of March in Minnesota is just another state tournament for wrestling junkies. I understand we are a small minority of the population, but this time of year wrestling fans don't leave the state. There are roughly 10,000 of us not going on cruises, not going to Florida, Arizona, or Mexico. We stay put and settle in for the best three days of the year in Minnesota.
St. Paul has been the host for this event every year for a long time. There was a one-year hiatus while the current home to the Minnesota Wild, the Xcel Energy Center (or simply the X as we call it), was being built. That year the tournament was hosted at Target Center, home to the Minnesota Timberwolves in downtown Minneapolis. It was awkward and almost everyone is glad it moved across the river where it belongs. Although the format has changed over the years, the weekend in its current form, crowns three state team champions and 42 individual champions. The dual meet (team) tournament has been running all day on Thursday for several years. There is argument whether it should be moved to Saturday to prevent forfeits that are inevitable. No one argues for the team and individuals to take place on separate weekends. Having them both on the same weekend is unusual nationwide, but Minnesota fans are hooked.
There are always plenty of subplots going on. Usually everyone pays attention to the numbers and throws around phrases like, "He's a two-timer." There are a few numbers that deserve special attention. This year three wrestlers have a chance to become four-time state champions. One of them will have a chance to become a five-timer next year, while another has a chance for six in two years. We are talking hallowed ground here and it's a little too early to talk about.
Tommy Thorn of STMA won his fourth state championship (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)Tommy Thorn of STMA finished a perfect 49-0 and easily rolled through his bracket to finish at the top of the podium. He had three pins leading to the finals and finished with a convincing 12-0 win in the championship. No one scored a point on him. Thorn capped off his career with a gaudy 199-6 record, but there was something deeper going on here. Tommy and his older brothers Mike and David combined to win 11 state championships, which set a Minnesota record for the most number of state wrestling championships won by brothers. Mike and David were both two-time All-Americans at the University of Minnesota, and Tommy has signed to wrestle for the Gophers.
Cameron Sykora of Border West also cruised to his fourth state championship, outscoring his opponents 57-1. He had four technical falls and finished his junior campaign with a perfect 35-0 record. Sykora will enter his senior year with a 176-13 career record.
Mark Hall of Apple Valley capped off an undefeated season (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)The final athlete to win the coveted fourth was Mark Hall of Apple Valley. Hall, who is ranked No. 1 among all sophomore wrestlers in the United States by InterMat, rolled through the tournament as easily as he seemed to roll through the season. He capped off a perfect 48-0 season hitting the bonus trifecta with a pair of pins, a technical fall and a major decision. Like Thorn and Sykora, Hall did not come close to losing.
Thorn, Sykora, and Hall showed the fans why every Division I wrestling coach would welcome them as future students.
For most of the past two seasons in the large-school division (AAA), there has been a hot rivalry brewing at 220 pounds. Alex Hart of Prior Lake and Paul Cheney of Apple Valley have traded wins. They each have two victories over each other and most fans opened their tournament programs to that bracket to see if they were on opposite sides. Sadly, Minnesota is one of the last states to ignore seeding and it's simply a draw based on sections. Most fans drew a collective sigh of relief when they noticed these two big bruisers were on opposite sides and would likely meet in the finals. These two guys couldn't be more different.
Hart is about as easy-going a young man as you will find. He's extremely laid back and has a smile that could melt snow. He's really a football player in a wrestler's body. When asked about his accomplishments, he smiles and says he has two losses he's proud of. "I lost to Destin McCauley and Broc Berge. Pretty cool, huh?" He has no intention of wrestling in college. Instead he will put on the shoulder pads and should attract a generous scholarship. Wrestling doesn't burn in his veins, but he's deeply proud of his accomplishments. He wants this title and he's certain he's going to win it.
Paul Cheney is the returning gold-medal winner and the favorite. He has a distinctive personality that borders on eccentric. He will be wrestling for a Division II program, Minnesota State University-Moorhead. This will be Cheney's last match of his high school career, while Hart has one more season to go.
Alex Hart won his first state championship at 220 pounds (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)In his opening match, Hart drew a tough opponent and survived a 7-6 win. He went on to pin his way through the quarterfinals and semifinals. Cheney opened his tourney with a pin and scored a pair of convincing wins to make the finals on Saturday night.
When the time came for these two to square off, almost all the fans were on the edge of their seats. Hart scored a pair of takedowns in the first period and took a 4-2 lead. Neither wrestler could hold the other down as the match was decided by takedowns. Hart walked off the mat with a tough 8-5 decision and a big smile. It was his first state championship.
There was plenty of intrigue in the 120 AAA bracket. There were no returning state champions, but there were some national stars: Fargo Greco-Roman champion Mitchell McKee of STMA and Cadet Triple Crown winner Gannon Volk of Apple Valley. In addition a future star, Alex Lloyd of Shakopee, an eighth-grader that entered the weekend with a perfect record of 37-0. Most experts predicted a Volk vs. McKee showdown in the quarterfinals with the winner getting Lloyd in the semifinals. Again, since the tournament is not seeded, the premier matches were going to take place early. There are deep emotions all over this anticipated McKee vs. Volk matchup.
Gannon Volk fell to Mitchell McKee in the state quarterfinals (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)Volk is a quiet and respectful senior. He has always been small and it took many years to get big enough to make the Apple Valley lineup. It finally happened last season. He was easily the favorite at 113 pounds and spent most of the season ranked No. 1. Two weeks before sections, his teammate Maolu Woiwor dropped to 113 pounds and Volk lost the wrestle-off. He was forced to put on weight and knew he would face Tommy Thorn to get that coveted state title. He came up short in the finals, losing 9-1, as Thorn won his third title. This senior season was the year for Volk. He was at the correct weight class and there wasn't going to be a teammate in the way. Although Apple Valley has a giant target on their back and is often called the "Evil Empire," Volk is one of the good guys. He's a serious student and wants to be an engineer. He handles himself with dignity and grace.
Mitchell McKee's story was everywhere by the time the state tournament arrived. There were newspaper stories printed and local TV stations clamoring in on the young man who recently found out his dad is dying of cancer. The medical experts gave Mitchell's dad, Steve, the bad news about his life expectancy. He wasn't supposed to make it to the state championships. But here was Steve being pushed around in a wheelchair, cheering his son on. He was not going to miss this. No chance. Many expected McKee to already have a state title before this season, but it had not happened. He lost a close 7-4 final to Cameron Sykora as an eighth-grader. Last season, as a freshman, McKee took a surprising upset loss to Taylor Venz of Farmington in the semifinals, 9-6. So this season we had a pair of wrestlers that no one really wanted to see lose. The pressure was high on both. This was Gannon Volk's last chance. This was Mitchell McKee's chance to win it for his dad.
As expected, McKee and Volk met in the quarterfinals. Volk knew he would need to win with takedowns and get out from bottom. It wasn't meant to be. The match was anti-climactic. McKee won convincingly, 7-0. In the semifinals, McKee took on Alex Lloyd and won 6-2. It wasn't as close as the score since these two wrestlers belong to the same wrestling club, PINnacle, and know each other well. Lloyd would go on to take third over Volk.
Mitchell McKee hugs his father Steve after winning his title (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)In the finals, Mitchell McKee's opponent was Malik Stewart of Blaine. By this time the only people cheering for Stewart were his teammates, friends and family. The other 10,000 fans wanted the storybook ending. McKee made quick work of Stewart with a first-period pin. After shaking hands with opposing coaches, McKee made it over to the front row where his dad was waiting. Steve McKee struggled to rise from his chair and embraced his son. They held each other as Mitchell's shoulders trembled as he finally let the emotions drain from his body. The crowd rose to its feet as these two men continued with their arms wrapped around each other while they both cried. Those tears were shared in some fashion with all of us. That special moment, shared with us, will live in Minnesota wrestling history long after we remember the wrestling matches.