One of the most exciting prospects of the winter sports season might not be one you expect. In just one short year, Rhinelander wrestling Coach Paul Ellenbecker has revived a struggling program and is looking at making a run toward a Great Northern Conference championship. With five sectional qualifiers returning along with three 30 win wrestlers, this year has the makings of one to remember.
Led by junior Connor Johnson and senior Richard Klaver, the depth and focus of this team will make them one of the Great Northern Conferences toughest outs. Connor Johnson is returned from a season where he won 36 matches dropping only 2, and Richard Klaver worked his way to 28 wins and 6 losses. The leadership and experience of this team will be highly beneficial, and Coach Ellenbecker can’t wait to prove his team’s worth.
When speaking about goals for the upcoming season with Coach Ellenbecker, he is very vocal about the talent and potential his team has.
“When it comes to goals we want to be competitive. We want to win the conference, fill the team and have a full junior varsity team. We want to complete the year with a full JV team. Depth is huge in wrestling; we found that out last year because it was our biggest strength. We have some of the best numbers in conference right up there with Tomahawk, and our goal for the year is to go out and compete and get better every single week.”
Another benefit of the past year was the renovations to the weight room and workout facilities at the high school. Coach Ellenbecker spoke directly about how things like that effect his team, and how they can change the outcome of the season.
“We are so much stronger now than we were last year as a team,” explained Ellenbecker. “Our guys have filled out and everybody has bumped up a weight class or two. Our upper weights have been lifting for nine months and have been going hard. I’m excited because physically we are going to be able to match some of the teams I didn’t think we could last year.”
But the training will not be limited to the offseason; Coach Ellenbecker plans to keep his athletes working hard on the mats and in the weight room all year long, to ensure a healthy and well conditioned roster.
“We are going to be one of the hardest working teams in the weight room over the winter. I plan on lifting Mondays and Wednesdays in the morning, and its mandatory the kids lift to be on the varsity team. I expect everyone to be there except maybe freshman if rides are an issue.”
But all the training and goals in the world are for naught without the athletes. Luckily for the Hodags, talent and dedication are something that is ripe on this year’s squad. Coach Ellenbecker explained how the returning veterans coupled with some budding stars can help make this year’s team champions.
“We are returning a whole bunch of guys this year. We have Dakota Stone, Alex Reas, Connor Johnson, Bryce Bilogan, and Richard Klaver. There are other guys that are coming back also, who have less experience, and it’s a big jump coming from their first full year wrestling. Guys like Adam Woebbeking, Josie Schaffer, Tyler Morris, Jordan Lundt, and Zach Rinehart are all going to be that much more competitive this year. Going through the off season we can fine tune what they know rather than teaching them the basics, and I’m excited for that.”
But overall, Coach Ellenbecker recognizes that the biggest asset of this team is its incredibly deep pool of athletes and over achievers.
“We are going to have better numbers than probably 90% of the schools in the state,” says Ellenbecker. “We look to start the year with around 40 kids, with 14 varsity spots. That is enough for 3 full teams. If you can have competition in the wrestling room and guys constantly working to get better every day that is what is going to push us over the top. It says a lot of what kind of program we are building here and when you have the depth, competition, and athletes things are going to get better. I didn’t expect to have the program take off like it did; but there is a new buzz around school and the kids on the team have confidence. We just want to compete and get better every year.”