A multitude of voices echoed through the gym. Fans screamed for the dueling wrestlers, teammates shouted encouraging words, coaches communicated instruction, and Tijl Van der Wege knew his plan.
When the final whistle blew, the 15-year-old Como Park sophomore (with previous education at St. Anthony Park Elementary and Murray Middle schools) had qualified for the state wrestling tournament. He competed in two more state tournaments at the Xcel Energy Center, placing fourth in his senior year, before becoming a Como graduate in 2002.
Fast-forward to the 2016 high school wrestling season, and Van der Wege is back at Como serving as the program’s new head coach. While studying and playing baseball at the University of Minnesota, and around employment, his connection to Como continued as he volunteered and assisted the program as much as possible.
The tradition of Como Park wrestling includes 10 St. Paul City titles and more than 70 wrestlers who have participated in state tournaments as individual qualifiers. Many of them revisited the Como gym on Jan. 14 for alumni night when “Como Pride” was out in full force.
Handshakes and hugs were abundant. Storytelling and reminiscing produced smiles and laughs. Helping Van der Wege orchestrate the activity was Roy Magnuson, who coached wrestling at Langford Park, Murray and Como for nearly 40 years.
Magnuson stepped down from his wrestling responsibilities in 2015. Greg Petrie, another longtime Como teacher and coach ran the Cougars’ program with Magnuson for more than 20 years. Together, they created a culture of hard work accompanied by humor. Van der Wege credits his coaches for the success and tight friendships he and his teammates experienced.
In turn, Magnuson credits Van der Wege and all of the wrestling alumni for their drive and leadership that helped create the right mindset for the unique individual battles that the sport requires.
“You can’t get better without each other,” explained Magnuson. “The best teams won and lost with each other. One kid won, everybody was happy. One kid lost, people were down.”
A high school wrestling meet is a series of individual matches with potential points being earned by the team’s representative from each of 14 weight classes, progressing from 106 pounds up to the heavyweights. With this format each team member is the center of attention for a few moments of the meet, representing his team and school alone against one opponent.
As results are accumulated, emotions can be mixed. While some may feel satisfaction for a well-executed victory, some may feel the mental pain of being pinned. Successful programs help kids realize they’re not ever really alone out there on the mat. The solidarity of Como wrestling is a fundamental component Magnuson and Petrie clearly passed on to Van der Wege.
That solidarity is passed on to the current wrestlers through other alumni as well. Van der Wege has assembled help in the form of assistant coaches J Frasl (2008) and Lah Htoo (2014). Together, they have a plan, and they’re working on implementing it for this next generation of Cougar wrestlers.
The current version of the Cougars is young. Some are raw athletes with limited wrestling experience. Because of this, Van der Wege is teaching them how to use their basic techniques and plan their strategy.
“Have a plan” is a soundbite Van der Wege still lives by today. He remembers Magnuson saying it, to the point where it replayed in his head. It helped Van der Wege win matches as a wrestler and now helps him coach the freshmen, sophomores and juniors that form the core of his team.
Junior Tha Dah is an extremely quick athlete wrestling at 152 pounds. A soccer player the rest of the year when he’s not wrestling, assistant coach J Frasl marveled at the fitness level Tha Dah has brought to the first day of practice every season. It sets a high bar for the team and their conditioning expectations.
Juniors John Barton and Kayode Ajao are also veterans who know how the program works. They demonstrate commitment to less experienced teammates, and they have grown into the role of reliable point producers.
A talented sophomore class is headed by returning letter-winner Drew Barnard at 145 pounds and heavyweight Corey Guenther. During the winter break, Como participated in the Andover Holiday Tournament, which featured 12 teams, including some suburban and exurban powers.
Guenther took second place in the heavyweight class, and had a 12-3 record as the Bugle went to press. He was an all-district football player in the fall, and his wrestling future looks quite promising too.
Going forward, there is a plan for Como wrestling. It’s not to achieve a certain record. It’s not directly tied into the team winning city titles. It’s not necessarily to qualify individuals for state.
The team will learn to appreciate accomplishments when they happen, but the focus is on getting better. “I am most concerned about our level of improvement,” Van der Wege said. “I feel a true measure of a high school coach is how much improvement you are able to get out of your kids.”
Spoken like an experienced educator, and true to the traditions of Como wrestling, Coach Van der Wege has a plan.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.