Como Park wrestlers capture City Conference Championship
By Eric Erickson
Sports news and analysis
When Coach Tijl van der Wege ran the first wrestling practice of the 2018-19 season back in November, he was happy to have 25 enthusiastic athletes ready to work.
On a cold, snowy night in early February, van der Wege was happy to be hoisting a championship trophy in the Como Park Gym with his hard-working team.
“Happy and hard-working” aptly describe the Cougars wrestling team. The mixture of joyful energy and earnest effort produced a conference crown and relationships that will forever be connected with memories from the mat.
With a convincing 56-20 victory over Humboldt High, Como clinched the conference title for the first time since 2004. The team’s record of 5-1 in the St. Paul City secured first place in the standings, along with Washington, who also finished 5-1.
By virtue of the Cougars 44-34 win over Washington High in January, Como was the champion who represented St. Paul in the Twin Cities Match vs. the Minneapolis champion. (The Twin Cities Match and Section 4AA Tournament were still ahead on the schedule as The Bugle went to press.)
This special season has been punctuated with several highlights, none larger or more significant than the Washington match. That result flipped the script of the St. Paul City Conference wrestling world. The Washington Eagles had won the last three conference titles and were on a 20-match winning streak.
“Beating Washington is always going to be a tall order,” Coach van der Wege said. “They have a great coach and lots of kids in their program. For our team, beating them anytime means we are in a position to be competing for a city championship.”
The fact that Washington’s coach is Rich Taylor, who graduated from Como in 2002 with van der Wege, and qualified for three state individual wrestling tournaments as a Cougar along with his buddy van der Wege, makes the friendly rivalry extra special.
“Winning against Washington was a real treat,” van der Wege said with a smile. For his team, winning against Washington was a reward for hard work – and a dream come true for the Cougar seniors.
“We were so motivated for that match,” said senior captain Mu Ku Shi. “Our guys at the lower weights fought hard through three periods to not get pinned, and that motivated the whole team. Our confidence grew and we started winning matches and we had momentum. And at the end, when our heavyweight (Justus DeLoach) pinned their guy, we went crazy. We were jumping all around because we knew it was something big.”
Ask Coach van der Wege about his seniors and you’ll feel the pride in his answers.
“This is my fourth year as head coach and I’ve been able to see a full transformation,” van der Wege said. “From the time Mu Ku Shi, Alonte Johnson, Chue Chang and Raymond Chester were freshmen I had a plan for their development. I’m very proud of them and the time they’ve put in to changing themselves athletically.
“Being competitive like we have been this year is always fun,” he added. “But watching the transformation of the seniors and having some validation regarding the plan you had for their success three-plus years ago has been really fun and rewarding.”
An element of bonding on a wrestling team comes from physical exertion. When each individual is encouraged and challenged to push their limits, team members realize they’re not enduring the short-term pain alone.
“Wrestling is a hard sport and a long season,” van der Wege said. “Part of the battle is getting the kids to buy in and be part of something that is difficult but rewarding.”
That’s where the spirit of senior captain Alonte Johnson comes shining through. The epitome of a happy, hard-worker; Johnson is a 126-pound vocal leader who smiles while yelling about how hard the sprints and stairs workout is—while doing it! When he finishes first, he’ll cheer on the underclassmen as they press through and complete the challenge.
With an individual record of 20-8 for the season, one of Johnson’s goals was to win his weight class at the City Conference Individual Tournament, which was held at Highland Park on February 2. Johnson advanced to the finals and fell just shy of first, losing a close match to a rival he had defeated earlier in the season.
Disappointment was evident on his face and in his body as he exited the mat. But Alonte quickly ditched the grief, flipped a switch, and led the chorus of cheers for teammate Mu Ku Shi whose match was next.
Pinning his opponent in the 132-pound division, Mu Ku Shi became a city champion. Alonte was there waiting for a congratulatory hug.
Next up for the Cougars was sophomore Stone Frasl in the 138-pound division. After pinning his opponent, Stone Frasl became a city champion. Alonte screamed, “Stone!” and embraced his teammate as he stepped off the mat.
The last individual championship match featuring a Cougar was in the 170-pound division. Sophomore Sully Lucy’s improvement and grit put him in a spot few expected back in November. But there he was, in a championship match. When he pinned his opponent in the second period, Sully Lucy became a city champion. There was a little smile when the referee raised Lucy’s hand signaling victory.
But the biggest smile from Sully Lucy came when he hustled off to see his teammates, where he was greeted with a huge Alonte Johnson bear-hug.
A happy, hard-working band of brothers—the Cougars wrestling team celebrates each other, supports each other, and pushes each other to produce maximum effort. That spirit has carried Como Park to an unforgettable championship season.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.