Male Area Athlete of the Week: Aitkin junior sees success in return to mat

Aitkin junior gets Jackhammer title to earn him Athlete of the week

Craig Ashton.

After a few seasons not being 100%, Craig Ashton is ready to burst onto the scene in 2021-22.

The Aitkin junior turned some heads last week as he captured the Jackhammer Invite heavyweight title Dec. 17-18 at Pequot Lakes High School.

“I knew nobody knew Craig,” Aitkin head coach Larry Liljenquist said. “Last year, we were dealing with an injury and he really hasn’t seen the mat in about a year and a half. So he was kind of an unknown and since then his mental toughness has gotten a lot better as far as being a competitor. So I knew we were in a good position and he just went out and wrestled.”

During the first day of competition, Ashton breezed to the semifinals.

He pinned all three of his Day One opponents in the first period. He pinned Deer River’s Lee Perrington in 23 seconds in the opening round. He followed it up with a 1:47 pin of Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale/Parkers Prairie’s Hunter Storm in round two.


In the quarterfinals, Ashton dispatched Collin Bruggeman of Thief River Falls in 37 seconds to reach the semifinals.

“During the first day I was really going upper body,” Ashton said. “It was really rewarding.”

Ashton faced off against Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus Road Crew wrestler Riley Peters in the semis the next day.

The two battled for nearly the full six minutes, but Ashton got a pin at 5:57 to advance to the Jackhammer Invite finals.

“He was a bigger guy, so I couldn’t get much with my upper half,” Ashton said. “So I decided to just wait it out and see what he would do and play defense most of the match and it worked out for me.”

Jacob Adrian of Albany would be his opponent in the finals and he featured an opening-round bye, two pins and a 6-2 decision to reach the finals.

The finals would go the distance with Ashton getting a 9-4 decision to claim the heavyweight title.

“It felt really good coming off a shoulder injury last year and missing the whole year,” Ashton said. “Then in my ninth-grade year, I missed half the year and I was on varsity by seventh and eighth grade but I was undersized so I would usually go 1-2 or 0-2. So to come here and actually win it felt nice and helped get my confidence back, too.”


Liljenquist was happy the last two matches went longer than the first period.

“That’s what we need to challenge him,” Liljenquist said. “I really liked that he went six minutes in the finals and we had to wrestle a full match. I wanted to see where his mind was when he got tired and once a guy gets tired in the third period it can level the playing field.”

In 2019 as an eighth-grader, Ashton wrestled at 195 for a Gobblers team that went to the state tournament.

Ashton won both of his state matches at 195 for the Gobblers including a pin.

Liljenquist said Ashton’s preparation has improved since his eighth-grade year.

“He is more focused and ready to wrestle,” he said. “He’s an athletic guy to begin with. It's just being prepared to go out there for six minutes.”

The Jackhammer title can be a springboard for Ashton for the rest of the season.

“I think it will be a turning point just due to the fact that people know who he is,” Liljenquist said. “He’s going to get more recognition and people are going to look at him a little bit differently.”


Ashton said: “I have more confidence and more trust in my moves. One of my favorite things to do is get double under hooks and just throw kids. That’s not always a go-to with some of the bigger guys, so otherwise, I like to shoot legs. I’ve always been an underdog.”

Liljenquist said he’s been good in the wrestling room and has grown as a leader too.

“There’s not one day that he’s taken off,” he said. “He’s willing to learn and we have had some alumni come in to roll with him and give him different workout options. He’s done a great job with helping kids off the mat with homework and is doing a great job there.”

Other notable performances:
Basketball: Carsen Turk, Crosby-Ironton, scored 21 points against Virginia.
Isaiah Schultz, Staples-Motley, scored 27 points against Holdingford and 20 points against Pillager.
Brady Bristow, Pine River-Backus, scored 28 points against Northome/Kelliher and 20 points Upsala.
Ethan Poser, Little Falls, scored 21 points against Holdingford.
Jordan Oehrlein, Crosby-Ironton, scored 20 points against Pierz.
Zach Jones, Pierz, scored 21 points against Crosby-Ironton.
Grayson Beard, Pillager, scored 32 points against Staples-Motley.
Teshe Loer, Wadena-Deer Creek, scored 21 points against Bertha-Hewitt.
Wrestling: Connor Tulenchik, Pine River-Backus, won the Jackhammer title at 170 pounds.
Trevor Radunz, Pierz, won the Chisago Lakes title at 145.
Jacob LeBlanc, Pierz, won the Chisago Lakes title at 138.
Carter Young, Pierz, won the Chisago Lakes title at 106.
Hockey: Matt Filippi, Little Falls, scored a hat trick with an assist against Sauk Rapids.

Craig Ashton

Year: Junior

School: Aitkin

Sport: Wrestling


Position: 285 pounds

Highlights: He won the Jackhammer title at 285.

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