A half century of Prairie du Chien wrestling

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The 1969-1970 Prairie du Chien High School wrestling team was, front row: R. Dyer, J. Brown, B. Stuart, J. Kramer, J. Howe, M. McWilliams, P. Stark, B. Lorenz and J. Weber. Second row: C. Miller, J. Key, B. Harris, G. Achenbach, D. Schilter, T. Fischer, D. Horkeimer, J. McKillip, B. Hazen, M. Dickey, K. Kuckenbecker, R. Lathrop, G. Benish, R. Seeley, Coach Paul Bebow and M. Erdenberger.

Coach Paul Bebow shares a moment with 145-pound state qualifier Bob Seymour. Seymour took fourth at the 1972 State Tournament.

Mike Lenzendorf’s arm is raised as the Division 2 State Champion at 275 pounds to cap a 44-0 2004-2005 season.

 

By Ted Pennekamp

 

Prairie du Chien High School wrestling is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, having begun during the 1969-1970 school year after interest in the sport grew over the previous few years. The program has had several highlights over the years and is continuing to build a tradition of success.

Prairie du Chien sports historian Derick Kelly says the Hawks were starting the program already a good decade plus behind most schools in the area, especially in the Southwest Wisconsin Athletic League which was quickly becoming known as one of the toughest small-medium sized school wrestling conferences in the state. The Hawks went 1-6 in 1969-70 as an independent team before joining the SWAL for the 1970-71 season.

The first head coach for the Hawks was Paul Bebow and he coached the Hawks for six seasons until 1975 when Nick Campbell took over as head coach after coming to Prairie High to teach and coach after the closing of Campion High School. Following in their footsteps as PdC wrestling head coaches were Tom McGarvie, Gary Collopy, Bob Kopecky, Doug Rogers, Tom Nelson, Pat Ramp, Aaron Amundson, Mel Dow, Clay Koenig and current head coach Jason Thiry.

“The tradition of Prairie wrestling is one that has strong ties to the past teams,” said current head coach Jason Thiry. “Many wrestlers still come back and support the current teams. Wrestling is one of those sports that helps you understand what brotherhood is all about. It is a special feeling when the alumni come back and bring the presence around the current athletes of knowing that they at one time went through the same pain, struggles and success that our current athletes go through each day.”

The Hawks struggled team wise for quite awhile over the years especially with numbers, but they still managed to produce some highlights, said Kelly. Team highlights from over those years included dual wins at River Valley in 1973 and 1993 (two of only five dual wins at River Valley so far in program history) and winning the Onalaska Invitational during the 1986-87 season, the first tournament ever won by the program.

Individually, the Hawks struggled with the one class system in Wisconsin High School wrestling that lasted until 1979. Even after the introduction of three classes/divisions in 1979, there was still a limited number of wrestlers who could qualify for sectionals and state in each weight class throughout the 80s and 90s which was made even more difficult due to the overall toughness of the SWAL and eventual Southwest Wisconsin Conference (SWC). The 13 other schools that make up the SWAL and SWC have a combined 185 individual state champions and 21 team state championships.

After a family move to Prairie du Chien in 1971, Bob Seymour (who placed sixth at state at 138 pounds as a junior for La Crosse Central) would help put PdC wrestling on the map by becoming not only the first wrestler in school history to qualify for the state tournament but the first PdC wrestler to place at state when he placed fourth at 145 at the 1972 WIAA State Tournament. The following year saw Kem Kuchenbecker follow up those program firsts by Seymour by becoming the first wrestler in program history to make the state semifinals at any weight (doing so at 138 pounds) before placing third in the 1973 tournament, a feat not matched by any Prairie wrestler until 2004. In fact, from 1974-2003, the Hawks only had three wrestlers qualify for the state tournament - Jon Nelson (fifth place at 112 in Class B in 1987), Matt Morel (fifth place at 130 in D2 in 1991 (Morel would become a D3 All-American wrestler at UW-La Crosse), and Seth Yager, whom in his first year of high school wrestling as a junior, became the first PdC state qualifier in 12 years by qualifying in the brand new 220-pound weight class. He would also become the first Prairie wrestler to ever qualify for state multiple times.

Thanks to a large effort in the building of the youth wrestling program in Prairie du Chien during the 1990s by many people, but especially to the work of volunteer coaches such as Jiggs Davis and Rick Lange, Prairie wrestling began to see an increase in numbers and talent at the start of the new millennium, noted Kelly. The combination of an ever improving youth program and new head coach Mel Dow led to a new era for Prairie wrestling. The 2003-04 season saw the Hawks set many program records as the program challenged for its first ever team conference championship though it came up short in the end behind Cuba City/Southwestern. The Hawks won 15 duals, including a win over eventual D3 State Champion Iowa-Grant (one of only two dual losses the Panthers had that season), placed seven wrestlers on the all conference team, sent six wrestlers to sectionals (tying the program record set the previous season) and a program record of four state qualifiers (a record that would stand for 14 years) in Zach Elliott (the first Prairie freshman to ever qualify for state), Eric Adamany, Seth Yager and Mike Lenzendorf.

“My greatest memory was seeing the community grab onto the excitement and support the kids, coaches and program,” said former Coach Mel Dow. “It was really a sleeping giant being on the boarder of Iowa and in what many argued was the toughest conference in the state.

“Watching the numbers grow in the program as well as those who came to support them is unforgettable.  We needed to do a considerable amount of marketing to become a buzz. This included T-shirt give-aways, posters, the mat light, expanding the club opportunities, more competitive events and many others.  Some early on questioned it, but everyone needed to see there was great potential.

“Through those years, there were so many people that contributed to the growth and success. Every wrestler who was strong enough to give it a try, still has my respect to this day. We pushed them and made them believe they were the hardest workers out there.”

Dow said milestones in the growth were when the team hit rosters of 40-plus wrestlers, Matt Achenbach qualifying for sectionals and Seth Yager qualifying for state. Both led to the run of state qualifiers and placers which quadrupled what was in the program’s previous history that is still going strong today. The community service the kids did through those years taught lessons well beyond competition, the Push up for Pennies is still going strong. The school’s first ever conference title, Mike Lenzendorf’s state title and the 2004 Bi-State titles were all milestones the team built from. 

“Getting the kids to believe in themselves and each other was everything behind the program,” Dow said. “We intentionally challenged them to strive for something more in practice, in competition and off the mat. I believe all of this combined led myself and my family where we are today. Back in the middle of it all, we took on Stoughton. Many questioned it, but our kids needed to see that they compete the same way as the state’s best. Now I am in Stoughton.”

Dow said his son Tyler (now with the Wisconsin Badgers) became the wrestler he is today because of Prairie wrestling. In his formative years, Tyler saw Prairie’s program grow, and the work ethic and the excitement that PdC teams brought. 

“When Mike Lenzendorf won his state title, a little boy saw only one way for it to be done,” said Dow. “Each time I see one of our former wrestlers, I thank them for what they gave our team, school and community, not to mention our family.”

The 2004-05 season saw Prairie wrestling take yet another large step towards becoming a state contending program by winning a share of the school’s first ever conference championship in wrestling (splitting the title with Dodgeville and Lancaster in the final year of the SWAL Large), winning 15 duals for a second consecutive season, being ranked as high as fourth in D2 by WIWrestling.com, winning the Division 2 group of the annual Bi-State Classic Tournament held at the La Crosse Center (placing fourth overall out of 51 teams), placing second at the SWAL Conference Tournament, sending five to sectionals and having three more state qualifiers in Zach Elliott, Casey Bode (Elliott and Bode being the first sophomores in program history to qualify for state) and Mike Lenzendorf. The season was wrapped up with an incredible state tournament run by Mike Lenzendorf as he capped off an outstanding 44-0 season that saw him defeat many tough challengers as the #1 ranked wrestler at 275 pounds in Division 2 from start to finish. The finish was certainly no exception as he had to win both his semifinal and championship matches in double overtime, including escaping with 17 seconds left in his D2 Championship Match to become Prairie wrestling’s first ever state champion and program record holder for most wins in a season and career (both records since broken).

Derick Kelly notes that Prairie wrestling since 2005 has become one of the most consistent programs in Southwest Wisconsin behind the head coaching of Mel Dow, Clay Koenig and Jason Thiry, alongside assistant coaches Mike Rogge, Alex Osterkamp, Jon Quamme, and many others, especially at the youth and middle school levels. 

The Hawks won a share of the SWC Championship in both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons before winning the program’s first undefeated and outright conference title in 2017-18. They have sent an amazing two dozen wrestlers to state over the last 13 years, including the program’s first ever four-time state qualifier in Taylor Elliott (also the first in program history to wrestle in two state finals matches), and a new program record of six state qualifiers in 2018 (Matt Rogge, Traeton Saint, Blake Garcia, Nick Rogge, Stephen Ronnfeldt and Colten Wall). Not only did the 2017-18 season also set program records for most dual wins in a single-season (21), most consecutive dual wins in a row (16), fewest dual losses in a season (2), most in-season tournaments won (4), most all-conference selections (11) and most sectional qualifiers (9), but it also marked the first time the program has ever had multiple wrestlers make the state finals in one season (Traeton Saint, Nick Rogge and Stephen Ronnfeldt).

“The success the program has experienced in the past two years is a tribute to the parents, athletes and youth and middle school coaches bringing those athletes through the ranks and helping them understand what it takes to be a good wrestler,” said Coach Thiry. “We always preach team first with our program, and our athletes understand that decisions that we make are for the betterment of the team. As individuals, if they take care of themselves, they will always end up taking care of the team.”

Prairie du Chien is currently ranked sixth in Division 2 and has seven wrestlers in the state rankings. The future continues to look bright for Prairie du Chien wrestling.

“I follow the team as close as anyone can, the program and those associated with it are still so near and dear to my heart,” said Coach Dow, who was head coach from 2000 to 2010. “Clay took over for me when I left and Jason was a former coach of mine. Along with my lifelong relationships with Mike Rogge, Alex Osterkamp and Cory Koenig, it is hard to stay away.” 

“Mel realized a strong youth program was vital,” said Mike Rogge, who has been an assistant coach since 2002. “Now, we not only have excellent youth and middle school programs, we also have intense club-based practices. We also bring in clinicians from all over the country.”

Rogge said a recent clinician was Bo Nickel of Penn State who came to Prairie du Chien this past summer. Nickel is considered by many to be the best college wrestler in the United States.

In addition, as the program has grown, so has the team’s fan base, and success continues to build.

“Our fan support is incredible,” said Rogge. “We are wrestling before packed houses.”

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