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By Jeff Shain, Special to WIN Magazine
Dakota Wrestling Nation’s path to a second consecutive title at the AAU’s Disney Duals turned out to be anything but smooth. And that began with the drive to Florida.
About nine hours into the journey from Illinois, Dakota’s traveling party found themselves stranded around midnight on the outskirts of Nashville.
“We own a bus, but the doggone thing broke down,” coach Pete Alber said, detailing a half-day lost as they scrambled to arrange alternative transportation.
Five days later, July 2, Alber’s squad trailed by as many as 11 points early in its Community 1 Division final against PA Rampage before clawing back. After some back-and-forth through the middle weights, Dakota still trailed by a point with two matches left on the mat.
That’s when fortune finally smiled down on Dakota Nation. An ineligible wrestler forced Rampage to forfeit the 220-pound match, putting Dakota back in the lead. Heavyweight Anthony Cassioppi then left no doubt when he pinned Evan Childs to finish off a 37-26 triumph.
“It feels good, coming from a small town to be able to bring back a national championship trophy,” said 113-pounder Eric Henze, who scored Dakota’s only victory through the final’s first four matches.
Dakota, with a population hovering right around 500, sits near the Illinois-Wisconsin border about 30 miles west of Rockford. About 280 students attended Dakota High last year — but six of them won state wrestling titles, giving the school its third consecutive team crown.
Five of those wrestlers came to the Disney Duals, missing only Carver James who already had left for summer classes at the University of Illinois. Even so, Dakota needed a similar comeback in the semifinals clash against Pennsylvania’s Rhino Wrestling Club/Gray just to return to the final.
Dakota trailed Rhino, 16-3, through five matches before turning the tide in the middle and upper weights. The Illinois club led by just one heading to the last match, where Cassioppi scored another fall for a 32-25 final.
“This year we had a lot of closer matches,” said 138-pounder J.J. Wolfe, who sparked both comeback efforts by pinning his opponents. “It kind of made it better when we won those matches.”
In the championship match, Rampage’s Chris Wright got his club off to a quick start by pinning Caleb Alber with 15 seconds left in the first period. Henze countered with a 2-0 triumph at 113 pounds over Jake Cherry, using a first-period takedown to win the battle of unbeatens.
“It was tough riding him,” Henze said. “I was just trying to get wrist control the whole time.”
Rampage’s Tyshawn White (120) and Andrew Wert (126) completed unbeaten weeks to extend the Pennsylvania club’s lead to 14-3, with Wert taking a 9-1 win over Dakota’s Printice Walls.
Jacob Blocker (132) started Dakota’s comeback by taking a 9-4 win over Austin Bentz, before Wolfe and Greg Krulas scored first-period falls to push DWN in front 18-14. Wolfe scored two quick takedowns on Cameron Sellen before turning Sellen onto his back at 1:28.
“I got him onto his back a couple of times before the fall, so I knew I could turn him,” said Wolfe, a two-time Illinois state champion who will wrestle at Eastern Michigan in the fall. “I just wanted to get the fall for the team.”
Krulas, another of Dakota’s state champs, was slightly quicker in pinning Rampage’s Cody Sellen in 1:22.
Rampage’s Skitch Light (152) and Dakota’s Nate Olsen (160) traded decisions to make the score 21-17 before Dalton Group (170) put Rampage back ahead with a pin of Dakota’s Andrew Wenger in 1:54.
Dakota’s Tyler DeMoss (182) answered with a 13-5 decision to turn a two-point deficit into a 25-23 lead, but Terrell Gabriel (195) pushed Rampage back in front with a 10-4 decision over Chris Jensen.
Then came the forfeit.
Lacking a replacement at 220 pounds, Rampage reached into Florida to pick up Harry Walker for the week. But that turned out to be in violation of AAU bylaws, which require that such additions come from the same-registered region.
“We wound up misinterpreting the rules,” said Rampage coach Jeff Sweigard. “They have standards and you’ve got to follow the rules. We just misinterpreted them.”
Rampage found itself forfeiting the weight class all week, though Walker was allowed to wrestle exhibitions after the team result was decided. Ironically, the Floridian went 10-0 for the tournament.
“That would have been a lot of bonus points,” Sweigard said. “But it is what it is. You can’t come down here with a forfeit or two and expect to win the darn thing.”
The forfeit gave Dakota a 31-26 lead, which meant Rampage still could snatch the trophy with a fall in the heavyweight bout. Instead it was Dakota’s Cassioppi putting up the pin, completing a 10-0 week in which he not only won each by fall but didn’t have a match reach the third period.
Cassioppi and DeMoss were imports for Dakota, brought in from Hononegah High in nearby Rockport, Ill.
“We didn’t have as solid a team as we had last year, but we’re still pretty solid,” Alber said. “I think everybody likes to have a good dual at the end.”
It was the second consecutive final for the Rampage, which lost the title match in the Developmental Division last year. The club draws its core from Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pa.
“Obviously we’re disappointed we lost, but other than that we had a great time,” said Sweigard. “It bonds them a little bit. You bring your young kids down, the experienced kids show them the ropes a little bit.”
Alber, meantime, still faced the prospect of getting his team home. The rented vans had to be driven back to Nashville, where most wrestlers would take the final leg by air after one parent footed the bill for plane tickets.
The bus needs to be repaired, too, and driven back to Dakota. “Just one thing after another,” Alber quipped. “But getting a win makes it worth it, I guess.” n