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State Wrestling: Pierz, Flyers face tough opening matches

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Two questions surrounded the Little Falls Flyers’ and Pierz Pioneers’ state team wrestling quarterfinal matches.

How improved are the Flyers since Feb. 4 and how much better is this year’s Pierz team compared to last year’s squad.

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Both questions will be answered Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center during the Class 3A (Little Falls) and Class 1A (Pierz) state team tournament.

The Flyers (22-8) will face the second-ranked Hasting Raiders in their opener. Hastings defeated Little Falls 58-13 Feb. 4 during the Anoka tournament.

“The last time we came out of the section in 1999 we went up against Hastings,” said Flyers head coach Mike Hendrickson. “When we faced them earlier this month we only won three matches, but we didn’t wrestle Swanny (Conor Swanson) at heavyweight. However, we may not get to wrestle him again as he hurt his leg in the individual sections. We’ll have figure out if he’s able to go.”

Hendrickson is a realist when it comes to his first-round match. Hastings is 27-6 with three of those losses in the Rochester Mega Meet to teams from other states.

The Raiders only have four ranked wrestlers, but will have seven competing in the individual tournament.

“We know they’re really tough. We know they are ranked second and we’ll have our hands full,” Hendrickson said. “But I think we’re in a great spot to pick up the consolation championship.”

Little Falls, which is ranked 10th, would likely face unranked Champlin Park in the consolation semifinals and, barring an upset, would likely face either White Bear Lake or Willmar in the consolation final. Both of those teams are unranked. The Flyers did not face Willmar this season, but know the Cardinals well from their days in the Central Lakes Conference.

“We are a very balanced team,” said Hendrickson. “I do think last year we had a better team, but we were in a really tough section. This year our guys wrestled really well in the section tournament and we had a full lineup. We were able to win a lot of tight duals during the season and we got the No. 1 seed in the section, which turned out to be a big key.”

Balance has also been the key to Pierz’s success. The 10th-ranked Pioneers enter the state tournament with a 26-4 record. They will open for the second straight year against top-ranked Jackson County Central (22-1).

“All you have to do is look at the Guillotine rankings and they have a number of great wrestlers, with state experience,” said Pierz head coach Simon Waltman. “We know they are really good on their feet and that’s where we are going to have to beat them. That’s what we’re expecting from them. Our kids are familiar with them from last year. Last year I don’t think we were ready for that.”

JCC rosters eight ranked wrestlers. Pierz has four. A key matchup, should it happen, will be at 170 where Pierz’s third-ranked Nathan Tomala could face JCC’s top-ranked Cooper Moore.

Last season, JCC beat Pierz 59-16, but Waltman believes this year’s team is stronger top to bottom.

“I think our team is a little more balanced,” he said. “We’re pretty solid the whole lineup through. That’s probably been the big difference. This year we’ll also be more experienced. Last year it was the first time down there in a long time.”

Other 1A matchups will pit Minneota vs. Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Kimball vs. Barnesville and Badger/Greenbush-Middle River vs. Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial.

One of Pierz’s four losses was to second-ranked Kimball. The Pioneers also lost to 2A’s third-ranked Foley, sixth-ranked Becker and ninth-ranked Milaca.

“What hurt us last year is we gave up too many pins,” Waltman said. “We’ve got guys that may not win matches, but they’re also not giving up those big bonus points. That’s what’s giving us some nice scores heading into the team tournament. We’re not giving up many bonus points.”

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com or at 855-5856.

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