There are moments that veteran Homestead wrestling coach Ernie Millard would like to 'fire' himself for not getting more kids out this winter (he has less than 20), but he can't argue about the quality of athlete he has on the team as both Cooper Hunt at 113 pounds and Tyler Denmark at 170 advanced to this week's WIAA State Tourney.
Denmark helped the Highlanders make history as he impressively pinned his way through the sectional competition at Whitefish Bay on Feb. 20 to earn his berth while later that day, Hunt scored a dramatic last-second takedown against Germantown's Kevin Tamboli in the wrestleback to claim his slot.
The history that Denmark made for Homestead is that his title marked the third straight season that the Highlanders have had a sectional champion. That hasn't happened since the great 1994 state champion Vince Farina won four in a row.
'I am just so proud of both of them,' said Millard. 'Tyler put in a tremendous amount of work to get this far and he's really done well since we found the right weight class for him. Cooper is a super hard worker with great resiliency. He will just not stop coming at you.'
Hunt (17-9) will get Stevens Point powerhouse Dylan Koontz (40-0) in his first-round match while Denmark (34-9) has a very advantageous first-day bracket as he will challenge Wisconsin Rapids' Dylan Hall (30-12) when first-day state competition commences at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Kohl Center in Madison.
First-round and quarterfinal bouts will be held that day, while consolation and semifinals (7 p.m.) will be held on Friday, Feb. 26, and championship matches will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27.
Millard said that the sophomore Hunt will get some excellent experience while Denmark should have a chance at possibly earning a top-six medal if he keeps the path he's going on.
'He had been at 160 for most of the season with a little back and forth going on,' Millard said, 'but ever since we've moved him up to 170, he's won four tournaments. We just felt it was best for him. Let his aggressiveness work for him.'
And it certainly did pay off for him at the sectional, as he dominated the proceedings. He pinned a Marquette opponent (1:31) in the first round before overpowering an Arrowhead opponent (3:59) in the semifinals. In the finals, he flattened Hamilton's highly-regarded Ben Sciortino (34-8) with a pin in just three minutes.
Denmark said he has been wrestling for seven years and noted that the last two years of work with the Askren Academy has really paid off. He was a sectional semifinalist last season.
'The last few weeks I've really put in a lot of work,' he said, 'because these are the matches that count. I think my shooting is a lot better and I'm a lot better on my feet than I was before.
'This is an amazing opportunity; there are no words to describe how I feel right now. I've heard that the tournament is breathtaking. I've never been there and I'm really looking forward to it.'
Hunt's story this season is an interesting one, said Millard.
He had an opportunity to go to the Conserve School near Eagle River this past semester. It's an environmental awareness, hunting, fishing and agricultural school that kids can take advantage of during their high school career.
Hunt said he had a great time at the school but he didn't get back to Homestead until late-December, well after the wrestling season had started.
'So he got a little bit of a late start, but he worked very hard,' said Millard. 'We just needed to get him into wrestling shape.'
And it was his conditioning that paid off for him in the sectional. He pinned a Nicolet opponent in his quarterfinal (0:43) and then beat Marquette's well-regarded Tom Dineen, 6-4, in the semifinal. In the final, he ran into Menomonee Falls' two-time state qualifier Austin Lasanske. He fell behind early and could not quite catch up in a 6-4 loss.
That put him in with Tamboli. Hunt trailed most of the match and was still down 5-3 in the third period. Tamboli got hit with a stalling call that made it 5-4 and the Homestead coaches yelled at Hunt to keep the pressure on. He got the takedown at the edge of the mat just a second before the buzzer went off.
'I just told myself, don't breathe, just go,' said Hunt. 'All that mat time I put in really helped. The coaches told me to just keep moving and let my instincts take over. This is really surprising. I didn't think I would be in this position at the start of the year, but this is everything I've worked for.'
'We begged him to keep moving,' laughed Millard.
Three other Highlanders ended their season with first-round losses at the sectional, including Doug Lennon at 152 (26-11), Mile Wolfram at 182 (22-17) and Michael Schears at 195 (20-19).