Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There’s a quiet buzz around a wrestling program just outside the Twin Cities metro that’s looking to end one dynasty and start their own.
Ask anyone in the St. Michael-Albertville wrestling program, and they’ll tell you they’re tired of taking second place to Apple Valley. The Eagles have been the most dominant Minnesota wrestling program in recent memory, but the Knights are looking to change that this year.
St. Michael-Albertville won six Class AA state team championships before moving up to AAA, and since that time, they’ve faced Apple Valley three times in the state championship match and lost all three. STMA’s most dominant team in recent memory, said fifth year head coach Dan Lefebvre, was its 2006 AA state championship team that won its title match 50-3.
They’re hoping to take over Class AAA this year, and it would mean beating Apple Valley to get there. This might be their best chance to do it.
“They’re tired of being the runner-up,” Lefebvre said. “The guys know what’s at stake this year and know what they have to do to get there.”
Lefebvre said his 2006 state tournament team has six individuals that wrestled in state championship matches, and four won individual state titles this year. This year’s team has a chance to be even better, a lot better. The Knights are 26-1 in dual matches this year and are ranked No. 1 in Class AAA.
They got there by beating the best wrestling field in the nation at the Clash National Duals in Rochester over the holidays. That’s also where their only dual meet loss of the season came, but the squad racked up enough points in matches to win a tie-breaker and claim an elite championship.
St. Michael-Albertville has been to the Clash National Duals eight out of the 11 years it’s been held. Only the most elite teams in the nation get invited to participate. Winning it this year was their sign that this could be a special season, a championship season. This year’s tournament involved wrestling against four teams that were all ranked in the top-15 nationally. STMA beat three of the four and is currently ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“They were ecstatic (to win it), they knew what the criteria was and the kids marked it down as a goal this year. I put it down and they did it,” Lefebvre said. It’s a real battle down there. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but they’re an experienced group that wrestles year-round.”
To say that Knights have a loaded team this year would be understating things. Out of 14 weight classes, St. Michael-Albertville has 12 wrestlers ranked in the top 10 in Minnesota. Eight of the 12 ranked are in the top three in the state, including three that are No. 1 and two that are No. 2. The top ranked wrestlers include Mitchell McKee (106), Tommy Thorn (120) and Mitchell Eull (220). Mark Voss (132) and Cole Sladek (138) are each ranked No. 2 in their class.
“We have a pretty special team, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Lefebvre said. “They know what their goals are, and that’s to win a state championship. We have to go through Apple Valley to do it, and we never sell ourselves short.”
For further evidence, the Knights hosted Prior Lake, the No. 3-ranked team in Minnesota, on Saturday in a non-conference match. St. Michael-Albertville cruised to a 47-14 victory, winning all but three matches. The Knights got four pins and two major decisions in the match.
The Knights have their eye on a state championship match against Apple Valley, but they’ve got to win a loaded Section 7AAA to get there. That bracket will include No. 5-ranked Cambridge-Isanti, also a conference rival, No. 10-ranked Coon Rapids and No. 12-ranked Anoka. Lefebvre said it’s traditionally the most competitive section in Minnesota.
If you were to match up STMA and Apple Valley on paper right now, it’s a very close match. The Eagles are ranked in eight of the 14 weight classes, but seven of the eight wrestlers are ranked either No. 1 or No. 2, and the last eighth is ranked No. 3. The two teams each have ranked wrestlers at 113, 120, 126, 132, 145, 182 and 220 pounds. Two of those are currently No. 1 versus No. 2-ranked wrestlers, and another is a No. 2 versus No. 3-ranked wrestler. It’s a classic battle on paper that’s worth every penny for the price of admission.
Lefebvre credits his program’s overall success to what he labels an incredible support system. He said his entire coaching staff shares his philosophy, and parents in the program are extremely supportive.
“We have great parents and alumni,” Lefebvre said. “There are a lot of people who care about STMA wrestling, and that’s the key.”
And if the ninth grade STMA team is any indication, the future of the program is just as strong. That team finished second this year in their state tournament.
For right now, they wrestle every day with the goal in mind that they’ll get Apple Valley under the bright lights at Xcel Energy Center with a state championship on the line.