Posted 2/23/16 (Tue)
By Jody Michael
Tioga High School had four students qualify for last weekend’s state wrestling tournament, an achievement that coach Arlan Anderson is touting as a big stride for a program in just its second year.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” Anderson said. “Last year, we finished with two wrestlers at the region meet. This year, we had seven.”
Before the sport returned to Tioga in 2014-15, the school had been sending its wrestlers to a co-op with Stanley and, before that, Kenmare. The long drives for practice caused participation rates to suffer.
But a few dedicated students kept the wrestling spirit alive in Tioga, including current senior Jaryn Rasmussen, who qualified for state in 2014, the final year with Stanley, and returned in both 2015 and 2016.
Rasmussen, who wrestles at 220 pounds, said Tioga’s roster isn’t as big as in Stanley, where he could practice against more people near his size.
“But it’s OK,” he said. “I got Carsen.”
He’s referring to junior Carsen Canfield, a recent transplant but longtime wrestler who has excelled all season, leading up to a first-place finish at 170 pounds in the region meet.
Canfield said he’s grateful not only for the opportunity to continue his wrestling career in Tioga, but also for his coaches here.
“I don’t think any of us would have gotten this far without our coaches,” he said.
Wrestling has earned a distinction as a particularly tight-knit sport with traditions that pass on through bloodlines, and Anderson said that sort of culture is beginning to be cultivated in the Tioga program.
“Our team has really gotten to be a family atmosphere,” Anderson said.
It all starts at the top, where assisting Anderson is his sister, Kristine Tabbert. Unlike Anderson, who farms, Tabbert teaches at the school and is able to keep an eye on the students during classes.
“I think we set a good example for them,” Tabbert said. “We haven’t fought all year -- not yet!”
Neither one of them takes lightly the amount of physical and mental energy the sport requires from the students.
“Wrestling is a long, demanding season,” Anderson said. “At the end of the year, it’s tough, and it’s tough to get an athlete out for a sport so demanding.”
So they believe in rewarding the wrestlers for their commitment and hard work. In this case, it means letting them choose Buffalo Wild Wings for the team dinner after meets, even though neither Anderson nor Tabbert finds the menu appealing.
“We don’t eat chicken,” Tabbert said, “but we sacrifice for them.”
“I’ll eat a wing if it makes them happy,” Anderson said.
The town also went out of its way to acknowledge its state qualifiers as they departed for Fargo on Wednesday morning last week.
Once the wrestlers had exited the school through a back door to board their bus, the rest of the high school lined outside the front entrance to give them a rousing cheer as the bus pulled out of the parking lot behind a police escort.
The excitement continued on Main Street as merchants displayed or waved signs as the bus made its way downtown.
Building a program
The other two state qualifiers are underclassmen, freshman Cameron Taylor and seventh-grader Ethan Wonser.
Both of them have also grown up around wrestling, which helps to explain their lack of nerves the day before they would be competing for a state title inside the Fargodome.
“It’s just like any other tournament,” said Taylor, whom Anderson expects to be a state finalist before he graduates. Wonser, meanwhile, admitted to not always being so composed.
“I was nervous at first,” Wonser said.
In fact, Anderson expressed considerable praise for Wonser’s progress in his first year as a high-school wrestler.
“His confidence has gone a long way,” he said. “He had no confidence at the start of the year.”
Many more younger wrestlers could soon have the same success, as Anderson hopes the program continues to grow. The number of kids joining the town’s youth wrestling program, he said, is a sign of promise.
“Last year we had 45 youth athletes,” Anderson said. “The high school kids coach it; I come up and assist, make sure everything’s being taught. I think it means a lot for the kids to have their mentors coaching them.”
Another opportunity for growth is in Ray. The high school team actually wrestles under the Williams County Firestorm name as a co-op between Tioga and Ray but is currently composed solely of Tioga students. Anderson said that will soon change.
“There’s at least two kids in the youth program that are going to wrestle for us in the next few years,” he said. “We’re also getting more kids in Tioga with the success we’ve had.”
Part of that is a result of Tabbert recruiting students in the hallways.
“Two or three this year wouldn’t have come to wrestle without her,” Anderson said.
“I’ve got two more coming out next year,” Tabbert said. “I just saw some kids who looked like they needed something to do. So I asked: ‘Want to join the wrestling team?’”