Rather than wilt under the bright lights of the Kohl Center, Stoughton wrestlers Nicolar Rivera and Brooks Empey shined as the aggressors in their respective Division 1 state championships.
Each grappler pinned his opponent in the finals Saturday, Feb. 29, as the 120-pound Rivera won his second consecutive state title and Empey ended atop the 220-pound podium after a runner-up finish at 195 last season.
The top-ranked Rivera finished his sophomore season 48-0 and remained undefeated in his prep career at 106-0 after taking down third-ranked Kaukauna senior Mason Campshure in 2:27.
Rivera, the reigning 106-pound state champion, got to Campshure’s back at will in the first period on the way to an 8-1 lead. He then executed his signature “foot jab” early in the second to set up his pin.
Rivera started the move by extending his right leg toward Campshure. Both wrestlers took a step backward before Rivera lunged forward, grabbed Campshure in a headlock and took him to the mat.
“Usually, I do it to check the guy,” Rivera said. “If they’re not paying attention or have slow reactions, I’ll hook their legs and bring them back to me. If I miss it, which I do about half the time, the guy is still off-balance and I can set up other moves.”
Rivera celebrated his victory with a gainer flip before hugging his coaches. One of his mat-side coaches was teammate Braeden Whitehead, who had his senior season cut short because of fears of further ligament damage to his left knee.
“I wanted to push him to do something I came up short of doing,” Whitehead said. “He wants to win four state titles; I know that’s a special goal of his. I wanted to help one of my best friends reach that goal.”
Whitehead, the state runner-up at 126 as a sophomore, had the knee surgically repaired last March after suffering a ruptured patellar tendon. He competed in several matches this season and served as Rivera’s practice partner ahead of the postseason.
“I owe all of my success to Braeden,” Rivera said. “He pushes me every day in practice. Wrestling him gets me in much better shape. I honestly think he could’ve won a state title if he didn’t get hurt.”
Rivera turned each of Holmen senior Alex Pellowski’s shots into takedowns in an 18-7 major decision in the semifinals Friday, Feb. 28. He pinned Nicolet junior Aaron Johnson at the 3:42 mark of their first-round match on Thursday, Feb. 27, then took down Stevens Point freshman Kale Roth at the 1:35 mark of their quarterfinal bout.
The normally-stoic Empey was emotional walking off the mat after pinning eighth-ranked Greenfield junior Skyler Gill-Howard (41-4) in 28 seconds in the championship match.
“Doing this after working hard in all of the practices and seeing all of the names on the board (in Stoughton’s wrestling room) means everything,” Empey said. “To put my name on the board is unreal.”
He saved the biggest hug for his father, Vikings co-coach Bob Empey.
“When I came to Stoughton, I wanted my children to experience the greatness of this program, and I wanted to experience how fathers in the program before me felt,” Bob Empey said. “I’m honored I got to experience what they’ve been through. This is what I want all our kids to experience.”
Brooks Empey (53-1) scored a takedown five seconds into the match and got a count three seconds later before Gill-Howard slid out of bounds. One more powerful throw from Empey set up the pin.
Brooks Empey spent most of the season ranked No. 1 at 220 by WiWrestling.com, and he lived up to the hype with four pins in the state tournament.
He took down Ashwaubenon junior Nathan Moynihan at the 2:23 mark of their semifinal match, needed one takedown to pin Homestead sophomore Alec Perelschtein in 16 seconds in the quarterfinals and racked up 12 points before pinning New Berlin West/Eisenhower junior Noah Nieberle at the 3:47 mark of their first-round bout.
“I believed and trained like I was the best,” he said. “Everyone who faced me was in my way. Next year, the only thing that changes is everyone else will be trying to take my spot. But they’ll all still be in my way.”