Five years ago, wrestling was more of an afterthought at Benilde-St. Margaret's, where hockey and basketball draw much of the attention during the winter sports season.
A second-tier sport that held its practices in a school hallway, wrestling wasn't taken seriously by anyone but the four athletes who made up the team.
But since coach Larry Allar took over the program five years ago, he has more than 20 wrestlers, including five ranked in the top seven of their respective weight classes. Also equipped with a new wrestling room, the program continues to gain the school's respect.
"This is in an environment that did not understand wrestling and was resistant to improving the conditions," Allar said of Benilde-St. Margaret's. "This was mostly due to the lack of participation by students and not understanding the sport here at BSM."
The school's attention was focused on the hockey and basketball teams. The boys' hockey team is the defending state champion, and the girls' hockey team might be the top squad in Class 2A this winter. The girls' and boys' basketball teams have combined for three state titles in the past seven years.
Allar's small group of wrestlers hasn't produced nearly as much hardware but is well on its way to joining their more successful schoolmates as North Suburban Conference champs.
"We have five guys capable of winning their weight class at the state tournament," Allar said proudly, talking about his wrestlers like sons, including one who actually is -- eighth-grader Jake Allar. "It's fun to coach several state-champion-quality wrestlers on one team. We are close and starting to peak at the right time."
Jake Allar is ranked seventh in the state at 106 pounds. Jarred Oftedahl is No. 1 at 113 pounds, Logan Kass is No. 6 at 126, Jake Deutschlander is No. 6 at 152 and Christian Dulaney is No. 3 at 182 pounds. These wrestlers --known as the "Fab Five" to Allar -- form the backbone of Benilde's future. Oftedahl is the only senior.
Coach Allar traces the turnaround to the early presence of three wrestlers who have since graduated -- Alex Peck, Nick Tourville and state tournament qualifier Justin Frey. Alumni and fundraising efforts also brought money to help improve facilities, he said.
"I don't take no for an answer.''
Carter Burn, who moved to Minnesota two years ago, has followed the team's transformation step by step with his own personal advances. Now a junior captain, Burn has seen his team's growth and isn't shy about giving credit to his coach.
"Coach Allar has developed me into an exceptional wrestler," Burn said. "He's gotten me in better shape and a lot better at technique than when I first came in last year. I owe it all to Coach Allar. I have really loved being able to wrestle in the childlike development of this program. It's an honor."
Burn struggled on the mats last year -- his first season with the Red Knights -- but has a winning record in the 152-pound class this season. Allar is doing all he can to make Burn's dream of a state tournament appearance possible.
"It is very satisfying to help someone with that strong will to win," Allar said. "I am very busy behind the scenes with them, going over film, helping them to adjust little things. I go over their diet and nutrition plans, but I mostly just talk with them putting fears to rest and building their confidence."