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Panthers happy to see post-season arrive

St. Croix Central’s Brian Gibb (left) hoists an opponent into the air during one of his matches in the BRC/DSC Challenge on Saturday. (Photo by Bob Burrows)

After the week they had last week, the St. Croix Central wrestlers are happy to focus all their energy into this Saturday’s WIAA Division 2 Regional Meet in Ellsworth.

Last week, the Panthers faced dual matches against the two best teams in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference. Then they took part in the annual Big Rivers Conference/Dunn-St. Croix Conference Challenge, which was jam packed with top quality opponents.

The Panthers took their lumps in the two dual matches. They lost to Spring Valley 63-9 on Tuesday and 54-18 to Boyceville on Thursday. The Panthers ranked 11th among the 12 teams in Saturday’s tournament.

Central coach Brad Holzer wasn’t discouraged at all by Tuesday’s loss to Spring Valley, the top-ranked Division 3 team in the state. He credited the Panthers with putting up competitive efforts in nearly every match. One of the best efforts came from Ryan Gulich, who decisioned one of Spring Valley’s top wrestlers, Zach Newton, 4-3.

The other Central win came when senior Brian Gibb scored a pin in the 182-pound class.

The outlook wasn’t as glowing on Thursday. The match started at 285 pounds, meaning the Panthers gave up forfeits in the first three classes. The Panthers then gave up pins in the next four matches. They were suddenly staring at a 42-0 insurmountable deficit.

Give the Panthers in the upper weights some credit, because they won four of the final seven matches. Gulich took down another sturdy opponent, beating Wyatt Hanson 5-4. Trent Smith beat another of Boyceville’s better wrestlers, Jon Harnisch, 5-0.

Gibb got another pin, putting away Clayton Windsor in the second period. Decker Grass recorded Central’s win with a first period pin in the 220-pound class.

The losses leave the Panthers with a 12-6 final dual meet season record.

If Saturday’s BRC/DSC Classic is viewed as a primer to get the Panthers ready for this Saturday’s WIAA Division 2 regional meet, then it takes on a more favorable view. Seven of the 10 Panthers competing were able to place in their weight class.

Trent Smith was Central’s top finisher, placing third in a lethal 145-pound class. His only loss came against River Falls standout Darius Wright. In the third place match, Smith faced Jed Schlegel of Spring Valley. Smith finished strongly to deliver Schlegel’s fifth loss of the season against 30 wins, 3-2.

“That’s a great win going into the tournament series,” said Holzer. “He’s gotten his strength back. He’s beating kids in the third period.”

Gulich and Gibb were fourth place finishers. Gulich and Newton met again in the semifinals. This time, Newton got the first takedown and that was the difference in the 3-2 final decision. In the third place match, Gulich lost 8-2 to Menomonie’s Cole Bartz.

Gibb came close to putting himself in a position for an upset in the 182-pound semifinals against Sebastian Larson of River Falls. The Panther coaches thought Gibb should have been awarded two back points at the end of the second period, which would have given him a 6-5 lead. With Gibb trailing, he had to take more risks and Larson caught him for a four-point move that put the match out of reach.

Kyle Larson wrestled well, earning second team all-Dunn-St. Croix Conference honors at 170 pounds. He opened with a 3-1 loss to Kevin Fesenmeier of Spring Valley. He then strung together three wins to come back to fifth place.

This Saturday the Panthers travel south to compete in the Ellsworth Division 2 regional meet, which also includes Baldwin-Woodville, Bloomer-Colfax, Cornell-Gilman-Lake Holcombe and Prescott. Holzer said he’s hoping the Panthers can get five, possibly six wrestlers through to the Division 2 Amery sectional meet the following Saturday.