STOUGHTON — As the wrestlers exit the Stoughton wrestling room after practice each day, they are left with the impactful meaning of two words on the door: I believe.
That encompasses their self-motivation, trust in preparation and confidence built from past performances.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of believing in the stuff you have done,” Vikings co-coach Bob Empey said. “Believing in the preparation. Believing in what you’ve done during the season.”
Six Vikings carry that belief with them into the WIAA Division 1 state individual wrestling tournament, beginning today at the Kohl Center. Action in three divisions continues through Saturday night’s finals.
Two Stoughton wrestlers — 120-pound junior Hunter Lewis and senior Tyler Dow, the defending champion at 160 pounds — enter as top-ranked competitors in their weight classes, according to WIWrestling.com. Three-time state qualifier Lewis, after a runner-up finish at 106 pounds at last year’s state meet, seeks what Dow attained a year ago — a state championship.
“State is always a lot of fun,” Lewis said this week. “But you are there for business, too. I’m not going for silver. I’m going for gold.”
University of Wisconsin commit Dow believes that goal is realistic for Lewis (46-4), who begins competition against Menomonee Falls senior Alec Lind (16th-ranked, 28-12) this afternoon.
“I feel he has improved his game a lot,” Dow said, adding: “He can turn people and pin people when he needs to.”
“Hunter just never quits wrestling,” Vikings co-coach Dan Spilde said. “He wrestles year-round and he’s always working on his skills. He takes care of his body. He is a pure athlete — the kind of kid who improves at a faster pace than most others. It’s fun to watch him go and we’ll see what happens this weekend. I think he’s prepared.”
Lewis has a deep background in Greco-Roman wrestling. “He’s applying the strategies from Greco to enhance his Folkstyle skills,” Empey said.
Lewis, who earned a bronze medal at the Malar Cup tournament in November in Sweden, started strong during the prep season before enduring what he called a pit stop in midseason.
“I’m back on pace,” Lewis said. “It’s time to get back on track. It’s time to finish out the year strong. I need to get back on top. I definitely feel like I should get there. … I’m not really nervous about it. I have to go in there focused and it should turn out good.”
Lewis and fourth-ranked Jalen Spuhler of Hartford enter as favorites on their side of the 120-pound bracket, with second-ranked Dominic Dentino of Hartland Arrowhead and third-ranked Cole Gille of Pulaski leading a strong field on the other side of the bracket.
Dow (49-1), meanwhile, seeks to repeat as 160-pound champion. No complacency has entered his senior season, as Dow strives to keep improving for when he gets to UW.
“It is nice to be the defending champion, obviously,” Dow said. “But I feel a lot more people want to beat me. … I think it has helped me a lot, because each match I know they will give their best.”
He also realizes being top-ranked doesn’t give him any advantage once a match begins.
“It’s just a number,” Dow said. “That is what my dad (Stoughton athletic director Mel Dow) taught me since I can remember, and what my coaches here and coaches in Madison at Advance (School of Wrestling) tell me.”
Tyler Dow, state champion at 160 last year after finishing second at 152 as a sophomore, has tried to maintain a businesslike attitude this season. But he’s also made certain he enjoys the everyday grind. Otherwise, he said effort and performance can fluctuate.
“Wrestling at Madison, I have a future ahead of me that I know I have to improve everything,” Dow said. “I’m pretty good in most positions, but pretty good doesn’t get the job done in college. So, I am sharpening everything on my feet and on top and bottom.”
Added Empey: “I think the biggest thing for him is he has bigger dreams and wants to continue to get better.”
Dow’s practice sessions indicate that.
“He’s a workaholic,” Spilde said. “He’s constantly trying to get better. He’s always finding people who can challenge him. He’s definitely a student of the sport. He’s looking for what can get him more ready for his next step at UW. … But he’s not the only defending champion at that weight class, so it will be a challenge.”
West Allis Hale senior Peyton Mocco, state champion at 152 last year, is second-ranked at 160 this year. Mocco (50-1) is on the other side of the bracket from Dow.
“A lot of people have talked about how our match could be a good state finals match, and we are on opposite sides,” Dow said. “But, realistically, I don’t really care. To be the best, you have to beat everyone.”
Spilde also emphasized the one-match-at-a-time approach. But Dow’s 11-10 victory over University of Missouri commit Mocco at 170 at Whitnall’s Zelinski Memorial Duals in January would foreshadow an exciting match between the two.
“We hope that match happens, because it’s great for the sport,” Spilde said. “A lot of eyes would be on that match.”
The third-ranked Vikings also have been preparing for next week’s Division 1 team state. This year, the coaches will seed the top four of the eight teams in Division 1 during a meeting Thursday.
“We think we have our most balanced team we’ve ever had in Stoughton,” Spilde said. “That tends to make a good dual meet team. We hope that translates into great success at team state.”
The Vikings hope for similar success at individual state, where Stoughton sophomore Braeden Whitehead (seventh-ranked at 126), junior Luke Geister-Jones (14th-ranked at 170), freshman Brooks Empey (13th-ranked at 182) and senior Aodan Marshall (seventh-ranked at 285) join Dow and Lewis. Brooks Empey is Bob’s son.
“He’s a product of a great group of guys, a coaching staff and a program that embraces success, hard work and dedication,” Bob Empey said. “When you have that, great things can happen.”