Stoughton wrestling has been a fixture at the WIAA Division 1 state team tournament the last five years. After a four-year stretch of runner-up finishes to Kaukauna, the Vikings captured their first title in 30 years last February.
“Some people talk about defending a title. That’s not the way we look at it,” co-head coach Dan Spilde said. “That title was last year’s team. This is a different team and there’s another title out there that we want to win.”
The Vikings return 15 letterwinners from last year, while losing just eight. Five of those were starters, though, including Tyler Dow. Dow finished second at 160 pounds and is now wrestling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aodan Marshall, a state qualifier at 285, is also gone.
The Vikings’ biggest challenge will be filling their upperweights, which were most affect by graduation following last season.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to fill the shoes of those top four or five guys, but a lot of our guys did a really good job of lifting and trying to get bigger in the offseason to fill some of those weights,” Spilde said. “They are doing a great job so far. We have a great strength coach (Bobby O’Brien). We’ve just got to keep building on that.”
Last year’s state team tournament victory culminated a historic 24-1 season, which saw Hunter Lewis win an individual state title at 120 pounds and Braeden Whitehead finish runner-up at 126. Both are back this season. Brooks Empey (182) and Cade Spilde (138) each placed sixth individually as well, and Luke Geister-Jones (170) is also back after qualifying for state last season.
Lewis, a North Carolina State University recruit, returns looking to become just the third Viking to finish with 200 wins. He has a 147-23 record in three seasons. His 87 falls is also well within 2016 graduate Andy Iverson’s career record of 103.
Senior Cade Spilde and Geister-Jones have 120-49 and 65-48 career record, respectively, and are hoping to end their careers on a high note.
Junior Gavin Model was a sectional qualifier last year but just missed the state cut, placing third at 138 pounds. Sophomores Luke Mechler (132) and Alex Wicks (106) also finished third at sectionals and missed the individual state cut.
Mechler did plenty to prepare in the offseason and was a USA Wrestling Greco Roman National runner-up and freestyle All-American during the offseason. Perhaps no one has entered the program in recent years with the resume of Nicolar Rivera, who was crowned USA freestyle National champion as an eighth-grader.
“You can’t do much more in the offseason than Nicolar did,” Dan Spilde said. “We’ve only had a couple of national titles in Stoughton ever. For him to do it as an eighth grader coming in is pretty impressive.”
Spilde said although there are several little things that Rivera can do better, he’s such a talented athlete and is confident that he can score from anywhere, that’s what gets him a lot of his wins.
Senior Ethan Devore was a two-time state qualifier in Minnesota, whose family moved to Stoughton this season.
“At the beginning of the season, a lot of those kids that keep themselves in shape and wrestle a little bit in the offseason, they’re really ready to go,” Spilde said. “The rest of them, it’s really a matter of getting them honed in for the rest of the season and everybody gelled.”
Each season bring with it new challenges. Defending the team Badger Conference and state team title are just a few of those challenges.
“The biggest challenge will be have a healthy team that is hot at the right time of the year,” co-head coach Bob Empey said. “We hope to be one of them.”
Dan Spilde said the Vikings schedule is geared toward helping the Vikings hit their stride at the end of the season.
“We bundle up a lot of dual tournaments in the first three or four weeks of the season,” he said. “Then we kind of go into individual tournaments as we get closer to the winter break. We have the Badger State and The Rumble on the River out in Fargo and then we have the Cheesehead.”
That kind lets the Vikings see where they are individually, while setting up their top wrestlers against the best of the best. It’s also a good opportunity for the rest of the team to see where they fall.
“Brooks Empey is a perfect example,” Dan Spilde said. “He was .500 early in the season before placing top six at the Cheesehead. He ended up finishing in the top six at individual state.
“That’s what it’s about, trying to build some of those guys into that, and creating competition for our best kids.”
The Vikings finish out the regular season with a bunch of duals, including a Jan. 25 meeting with Milton inside the UW Fieldhouse.
“It’s kind of exciting to see how we can perform as a team, how we can score points at individual tournaments and then bring it back together for tournament season in February,” Dan Spilde said.