Before the season, it was expected that the St. Croix Central wrestling team would be young.
But when the team's top returning wrestler is sidelined with an injury and two other top returnees leave the team to concentrate on lifting, it left the Central wrestling team with an incredibly young lineup to start the 2017-18 season.
The Panthers opened their season a week later than other Middle Border Conference teams, given that time to recover after the football team advanced to the WIAA Division 4 state championship game. With a team so young taking the mat, the Panthers lost their opening match to New Richmond, 63-9.
The wrestlers the Panthers put on the mat Thursday had a combined five partial varsity seasons of experience among them. Still, the Panthers were able to get three wins. Senior George Vondriska earned the first win with a 9-3 win at 160 pounds. Junior Nathan Berends was able to score a 6-1 win in the 285-pound match. Freshman Charlie Magee put a positive note at the end of the match for the Panthers, winning a wild 113-pound match, 16-11.
Central coach Brad Holzer said the team has 14 freshmen and sophomores out, but only four have more than three years of wrestling experience. That means there is a great deal of teaching and learning going on in practices.
The team will rely on veterans like Vondriska and Frank Holter to provide leadership. Returning state tournament qualifier Ryan Larson is recovering from a football injury. Holzer said he doesn't anticipate Larson wrestling until after Christmas.
Holzer said there were some positive surprises in the opening match. Berends showed good poise and knowledge in winning his first varsity match. Magee wrestled extremely aggressively. He built up a big lead, gave back nearly the entire lead, then finished with a smart third period to close out the win.
For as young as the Panthers looked on Thursday, they appeared to be a vastly sharper team on Saturday when they competed at the La Crosse Logan Invitational. The Panthers placed fourth out of 10 teams in the tournament.
That showing was led by sophomore Erik Collins who won three matches to be the champion at 120 pounds. Senior Frank Holter was the second place finisher at 145 pounds, pinning his first two opponents before he was pinned in the finals.
Vondriska and freshman Tadon Holzer were third place finishers. Holzer lost to a state-ranked wrestler from Arcadia in the opening round. They met again for third place and Holzer controlled everything, winning 9-0.
Sophomore Oliver Olsen earned his first two varsity wins in the tournament, on a pair of pins in the 220-pound bracket.
Coach Holzer said the goal for the team was to finish in the top five in the tournament, so the fourth-place performance was reflective of the team's progress.
"Every kid showed positives," Holzer said.
The Panthers resume their conference schedule this Thursday when they host Baldwin-Woodville. The Panthers will also be in action Saturday, taking part in the Osceola Invitational.