When Jon Zeidler goes to Buffalo Wild Wings with his Lakeville South wrestling teammates, he usually devours a massive helping of medium-glazed wings.
“I’ll get 25 or 30,” Zeidler said.
But not everyone on the team eats like Zeidler, who wrestles in the heavyweight class. Orion Hinchley, nearly 70 pounds lighter than Zeidler, oftentimes eats five wings or fewer.
“It depends on how hard [I’m] cutting weight for the next week,” Hinchley said. “We mostly just go there to hang out. They’re fun guys to be around.”
The Class 3A Cougars recently were ranked — reaching No. 10 in January — for the first time since the school opened in 2005. Most within the program attribute the improvement to added depth and a newfound sense of team cohesion.
“The attitude in the room seems a lot different this year,” senior Dalton Peterson said. “This year we have people wrestling not just for themselves, but for the team.”
The Cougars usually go out to eat together after tournaments and dual meets, but the team activities also stretch from tempo runs to watching mixed martial arts at senior Hinchley’s house.
Hinchley remembers growing up in Lakeville and watching wrestlers such as Dirk Wilkins (2006), Zane Peterson (2011) and Tommy Peterson (2013) make deep individual runs in the state tournament.
As a team, the Cougars never have made it that far. But this year they hope things will be different.
“We have had individual state champs come through, but the teams have not performed as well,” coach Wade Chapman said. “It’s just that tight-knit closeness of the team that’s really made the difference.”
Chapman and his team filed into Xcel Energy Center to watch Zeidler, Dalton Peterson and Mike Funchie compete at the state tournament last February. All three were knocked out in the early rounds, but Zeidler and Peterson returned for their final season of high school competition. Now they’re models for other Cougars hoping to make the tournament.
“It’s a lot easier for the other kids to kind of see that and want to be a part of that and see what they’re doing,” Chapman said. “They want to be down at that state tournament mat, just like everybody else.”
When the school opened, there was a shortage of wrestlers between legacy school Lakeville North and Lakeville South. Now, with 10 senior wrestlers, the Cougars have depth to make an unprecedented run.
“I think the numbers are a big part of it. To be able to challenge as a team in duals, you’ve got to be able to match up and have your 14-person weight class,” assistant coach Corey Kennedy said. “That’s what makes what we’re doing this year special.”
The Cougars punctuated their uncharacteristically successful season Jan. 8, topping the crosstown rival Panthers 52-20.
“Usually the duals against North are pretty close, but this year we kind of blew them out,” Peterson said.
The catalyst behind Lakeville South’s emergence dates back to the wrestlers’ middle school days, when the majority of them began competing alongside one another.
A team camp also has something to do with it.
Eleven Cougars traveled to Waverly, Iowa, for the Wartburg College camp to hone their skills last summer. But the team’s bond also grew immensely during that stretch.
“They hung out for three days, lived in the dorms and wrestled,” Chapman said, laughing.
During one of their nights in Iowa, the Cougars walked to a Walgreens down the road from their dorm and bought some Nerf guns. From there, Lakeville South’s wrestling team engaged in boisterous “Nerf wars,” firing the foam bullets at each other from one room to another.
Now that fun has moved to the mat.
“The whole program, they get together and go do things … I think it helps them all stay focused whether it’s school or wrestling,” Chapman said. “When you’re enjoying the company of the people you’re with, it makes it easier to work.”
Jack Satzinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.