The Kenyon-Wanamingo wrestling team sent three wrestlers to the top-six podium at the Minnesota State High School League Class 1A individual tournament.
Junior Gavin Johnson was the top finisher, claiming third place at 138 pounds.
Also earning medals were senior Jaedin Johnson in fourth place at 170 pounds and junior Will Van Epps in fifth at 220.
K-W had four state entrants with freshman Ryan LaCanne making his debut alongside Gavin Johnson and Van Epps. It was the second trip for Jaedin Johnson, who placed for the first time.
"Overall, really happy with how the tournament went," K-W head coach Nathan Lexvold said. "Getting three out of the four to place is awesome. I wasn’t really sure how it was going to go. We got three to place and the one who didn’t is only a freshman, so he’s got a lot to work on and improve."
Blood on his teeth, a tweak in his knee and a smile on his face.
Kenyon-Wanamingo junior Gavin Johnson went through the 2022-23 wrestling season unranked in the top 10 state rankings in his weight class of 138 pounds.
He was set to prove the naysayers wrong, no matter the physical or mental cost.
Johnson needed a moment to have his right knee looked at by a trainer midway through his third-place match on Saturday. After a brief interlude, Johnson was given the "okay" to continue.
From there, he continued his domination.
Johnson (32-8) won a 6-0 decision against West Central Area-Ashby junior Solomon Wales (39-13).
"I wasn’t ranked all year long. They doubted me all year long," Johnson said. "I just had to prove a point and that’s what I did today."
It was the second time the two wrestlers met in as many days. Johnson won 5-1 in the championship quarterfinals.
"I knew he was going to come after me," Johnson said of the scouting report on Wales. "I knew he was going to be all up in my face, so I kind of tuned it back a little bit, got a little loose and just outmaneuvered him. That’s all it took."
Johnson wasted little time asserting his will, getting two points for a takedown just 29 seconds into the match. A penalty point gave him a 3-0 lead after the first period.
An escape at 1:22 and takedown at 0:29 in the second period gave him some breathing room. Johnson was given a stalling warning with 27 seconds left in the match, but he kept wrestling to keep Wales off the scoreboard via penalty or otherwise.
"That third place match Gavin wrestled really tough," Lexvold said. "Battled through, kind of tweaked his knee a little bit and had a bloody lip, but he came out victorious."
Johnson had a pad on his knee. It might be replaced by ice the next day.
"My knee was a little bit tweaked and it’s bruised really bad, but I just had to battle through it and got it done," Johnson said. "I don’t feel any pain really bad, I’ll just suffer the consequences tomorrow."
Those bumps and bruises, making weight, grinding out practice after practice make the wrestling season an enduring test.
"Man, it’s tough," Johnson said of the wrestling season. "Some days I don’t want to get up. Some days I don’t want to practice, but it’s all worth it in the end. Once you’re on the podium, there’s no better feeling."
Johnson looked like a seasoned vet wrestling at one of Minnesota's premier venues, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. It's home to the NHL's Minnesota Wild, as well as a concert the next night for rock and roll legend, Bruce Springsteen.
He finished the tournament with a 4-1 record with his only loss coming to the top seed, Jackson County Central senior Thomas Freking.
"There’s no better feeling," Johnson said of the experience. "You’re on top of the world out there. It’s just you versus one other person. You don’t see anyone else; it’s crazy."
One for the mantle
Jaedin Johnson knows where his fourth place medal is going. It will be kept in a place near and dear, rather, make that deer, to his heart.
"I usually hang [my medals] on one of my deer mount’s antlers," Johnson said.
He went big game hunting this year after a 1-2 record at last year's state tournament left him off the podium.
Johnson (40-6) opened the tournament with back-to-back wins on Friday to advance to the championship semifinals and ensure a top-six finish in his 170-pound class.
"I felt good. I started off the first day pretty good, 2-0. Came in the next day and felt good, but couldn’t get it done against my first kid," Johnson said of Saturday's semifinals loss to top seed Collin Boese of Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted. "Then I realized I’ve got to get it done so I could get close to third or fourth. Went out and beat that one. Third [place] it felt good to be in that match, honestly."
It can be devastating for a wrestler to lose at state, especially when it means a championship is no longer on the table.
If a loss doesn't spell the end of a tournament for a wrestler, that means it's time to move on quickly and salvage the highest finish possible.
"We lost to a lot of the tougher guys," Lexvold said. "So, it was nice for them to get the next best thing. It’s kind of one of the things I preach. ‘Yeah, it’s not always going to go the right way, but come back to get the next best thing because you’re going to be down on yourself if you don’t try to do that.’"
There can't be too much regret on the side of any of the K-W wrestlers, who all performed up to, if not above, their original seed and only lost to higher seeds.
After losing to Boese, Johnson bounced back with a 4-2 decision victory over Luverne junior Sam Rock (42-9). He then dropped the third-place match by a 7-2 decision to fellow Gopher Conference wrestler, senior Tate Hermes (39-6).
"What stands out is I haven’t placed at state before. It’s a fun experience," Johnson said. "I feel good about myself now after coming back from last year not placing and placing this year. It feels pretty good."
Johnson prasied the coaching staff to help him reach this point. Particularly Lexvold, whose tenure as head coach aligns nearly identically with Johnson's career on varsity.
"Overall, an awesome tournament," Lexvold said. "Him being a senior, it was pretty cool to see him bring back some hardware. I was really happy for him for that."
Johnson was pleased to have a contingent of K-W wrestlers alongside him after going it solo in 2022.
"It feels good having people here this year instead of last year by myself feeling the pressure," Johnson said. "It’s good having friends with me, having fun at the hotel."
Not to mention, Johnson no longer has to worry about making weight.
He had plans for a well-earned trip to the concession stand.
"I really like the frozen lemonades here," Johnson said with a grin.
Before he was a musclebound starting quarterback on the football field and wrestler on the mat, Will Van Epps was a kid with a dream.
"Every winter from when I was a little kid, we always had pep fests and we got to get high fives from the varsity wrestlers and all that," Van Epps said. "That was one thing I always wanted to do."
After taking fifth place at state in the 220-pound division, Van Epps will surely be receiving more high fives.
He rallied from an opening round loss to win three of his next four matches and claim a spot on the podium.
Van Epps (37-6) won the fifth place match over fellow Section 1 wrestler, Dover-Eyota senior Tyler Mix, by 6-1 decision.
It was the third win in as many tries against Mix this season after meeting in the regular season and section tournament.
"It was pretty much the same the other two times," Van Epps said of Mix' strategy. "I just had to stay in good position, not fall for any tricks and just wrestle my match."
There was no bad blood between the two after squaring off so often. The two embraced in a quick hug after the traditional post-match handshake.
Perhaps a kinship was felt in representing Section 1 and outperforming expectations.
While seeding is not officially noted on the bracket, it does help shape the 16-man bracket. Van Epps was the unofficial No. 15 seed and Mix No. 16.
"Me and Mix coming into this tournament, we were both, I think, underseeded, and we proved that," Van Epps said. "I had a little chip on my shoulder, for sure."
Van Epps couldn't pinpoint a single memory that stood out from his state debut. He just made sure to soak in the whole experience.
"I think just the tournament as a whole. I’ve never been to state. Just the weeks leading up to it, to the send-off, to getting here and wrestling all these matches," Van Epps said. "It was a fun and cool experience."
Lexvold credited Van Epps, whose only loss in the consolation bracket was a 1-0 decision.
"He had a really good tournament," Lexvold said. "In that consolation semis, lost a really close match 1-0. Dropped down to the fifth place match and wrestled really well. He wrestled that kid really tough. He’s seen him a few times, it was good for him to get that win and end the season on a good note."
The one lament Lexvold and company had was K-W not making the state tournament as a team. In most sections, the Knights would've had the squad to do so, but they were stuck behind Caledonia/Houston, which went on to finish in second place behind defending champion and top seed, Jackson County Central.
Medford, the team the Knights beat in the regular season finale to clinch the Gopher Conference title, advanced through Section 2 and was the consolation champion at state to take fifth place.
"Super, super successful season," Lexvold said. "The only thing is the team couldn’t make it. It would’ve made it a little bit better, but overall it was an awesome season. Super proud of the guys. A great dual meet season and then bringing home three medals. I can’t be more proud. It was a fun season."
Van Epps made it a point to illustrate the success he and his three compatriots at state had couldn't have happened without their teammates.
It took the whole roster for K-W to end the season with a 26-5 overall dual record, a 12-1 record against Class 1A and a perfect 5-0 record to claim the program's first conference title in 15 years.
"Shoutout to my teammates, that’s for sure," Van Epps said. "They got us ready. They wrestled us all year long. Shoutout all the seniors."