By Matt Krumrie – TWM Freelance Writer
Derek Olson admits, he’s excited and nervous.
Olson is the president of the newly formed Winona State Wrestling Club, and while he’s looking forward to putting together a competitive and successful club on the mat, the behind-the-scenes work for the student and longtime La Crosse Logan High School wrestling volunteer assistant kept him more than busy as the school year winded down in May.
But it’s a busy Olson likes, because there is a buzz in the air. A buzz that has wrestlers in southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin excited.
“The day of the first meeting most of those in attendance wanted to get on the mat that day and wrestle if they could,” Olson said in May, between finals. “But the logistics of trying to get a practice facility for two to three weeks at the end of the school year posed a problem and there were a ton of projects as well as finals to prepare for, so unfortunately we (weren’t) able to do much other than get our paperwork finished so that next year when school starts we can hit the ground running with a full-fledged club with a strong membership.”
There are currently about 30 students who have expressed interest in joining and competing for the Winona State Wrestling Club. Winona State is also one of a number of clubs that has indicated potential membership with the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, NCWA Executive Director Jim Giunta confirm
The team finished third at the national tournament in 1970, with coach Fran McCann named National Coach of the Year. In the 1960’s coach Bob Gunner led the team to dual meet wins over Purdue, Missouri and Lock Haven.
In addition to Winona State representatives from the University of New Mexico, Floria Tech, Eastern Washington, Sam Houston State, the University of Hartford, LaGrange College, Hartford Community College, Illinois State and the University of Texas have all contacted Giunta about fielding an NCWA team for next year.
“There’s always a lot of enthusiasm and interest in forming a team throughout the country,” Giunta said. “But we just don’t know how many of these teams will actually be able to put it together to have a team for next season. We certainly hope to add more, but time will tell who can and who can’t. We would welcome those additions, though.”
Winona State’s club formation benefited from the power of the Internet. While on Facebook, the popular social networking site originally developed for college students that is now open to anyone with an email address, Olson stumbled across a group titled “Winona should have a Wrestling Team” and threw his name out there as someone would research that possibility. Through some research, phone calls, emails and making contacts, the entire process started. And once all the paperwork and processes are complete, Winona State expects to have a competitive club wrestling team starting with the 2007-08 season.
“This region is rich in wrestling and I thought that there may be room for a group of individuals to get together and compete and support wrestling,” says Olson.
Others agree. Spencer Yohe is a longtime supporter of Minnesota wrestling at all levels, and a Winona State alum who was sad to see the program dropped in 1982. Yohe retired from teaching last spring and also served as a volunteer assistant at Minnesota’s Caledonia High School last season.
He is encouraged by the prospects of the new club.
“Derek Olson is a coaching veteran, and the type of leader and person who will run a quality club and program,” says Yohe.
Rick Yanke, who coached with Olson at Logan High in the 1990’s, believes the club has the right leadership, and now needs dedication on and off the mat from those who join. Wrestling will be the easy part, but a club, especially when it first starts out, must raise money, dedicate itself to practice, fundraisers, traveling on their own, and making it happen on and off the mat.
Yanke has experience as Athletics Director at Wisconsin-Baraboo, a two-year college, and knows forming and running clubs can be a bit of a struggle.
“In my experience wrestlers work extremely hard on the mat but (maybe not as hard) in other areas,” said Yanke. “Do not be complacent in regards to the WSU club meetings, and get involved in anyway you can.”
Winona State is located in southeastern Minnesota about two and half hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul, four hours from Milwaukee and four and a half from Chicago. It is also located across the Minnesota/Wisconsin border from LaCrosse, and has an enrollment of just over 8,000 students.
While many programs were axed because of the result of Title IX, Winona State’s program was dropped in 1982 for different reasons. Because of a strained relationship between the coach and the administration at the time many, the coach left the program, and wrestlers followed, leaving the team with only five wrestlers heading into the 1982 season. The low numbers were the final straw and the school decided to cut a program wrestling fans in southeastern Minnesota have been disappointed to see go. That’s why Yohe is also among a group of alumni and wrestling supporters who are working hard with the administration to re-establish an official collegiate wrestling program at Winona State, which now competes at the NCAA Division II level. Before a spring meeting with Winona State officials Yohe was cautiously optimistic about that possibility.
“We've got the best window of opportunity since 1982 to get the varsity program reinstated,” said Yohe. “If we don't give it our best shot now, it won't happen in our lifetime, unless somebody wins the lottery. We'll need all the help we can get.”
Winona had a great tradition as an NAIA program from 1954 to 1982 and produced 44 All-American, several top-10 finishes and NIC titles. The team finished third at the national tournament in 1970, with coach Fran McCann named National Coach of the Year. In the 1960’s coach Bob Gunner led the team to dual meet wins over Purdue, Missouri and Lock Haven.
Some of the best wrestlers in Winona State history include Jim Tanniehill and Jerry Wedemier. Tanniehill was a six-time All-American (four-time NAIA, two-time NCAA Division I), and three-time Olympic alternate who won national Greco-Roman titles in four different weight classes. Wedemier was a three-time NAIA national champion at heavyweight and considered one of the best wrestlers of his time. Wedemier was never tested, according to legendary coach Harold Nichols of Iowa State. He went to the final cut with The Minnesota Vikings in 1962.
“The alums are excited to see the Wrestling Club formed,” says Yohe.
Olson said the excitement from local wrestling supporters “has been awesome.”
“I have received emails from lots of community members wanting to know what they could do to help,” says Olson, who is in the process of putting together fundraising ideas and plans to help buy singlets, cover travel/lodging expenses, and other aspects of the many necessary elements of starting and running a new club team. “I also had the opportunity to meet some of the alumni that was geared toward bringing it back as a varsity sport. I felt like a small fish that day sitting at the same table as greats such as Bob Gunner, Spencer Yohe, Larry Marchionda, and Bernard Pieper just to name a few. We talked about some ways to pay for the club and if Title IX will keep us from being a varsity sport.”
But first things first – like getting the club off the ground and making it happen.
“I don’t know if (reinstating the program) will happen, but I am going to approach the club like there isn’t even talk about it because I don’t want to get the other club members hopes up just to have them smashed and then not want to be a part of the club because of it,” says Olson.
He continued: “The goal of our club is to give Southeastern Minnesota and Winona State a place that individuals can go and continue competing and supporting this great sport of wrestling,” says Olson. “Depending on the hard work and dedication of these individuals we may be able to compete in some of the open tournaments and maybe even show Winona State University administration that there is a good sized group of students who support wrestling.”
Contact Derek Olson About Joining/Supporting the Winona State Wrestling Club at:
1352 Wood Street
LaCrosse, WI 54603
President WSU Wrestling Club