To say the Vermillion wrestling program will miss this year's crop of graduating seniors is an understatement to top them all.
Seven of the 10 Tanagers who qualified for last weekend's state "A" tournament in Rapid City were seniors, and six of those seven earned place medals as the VHS team advanced eight men into the quarterfinals, five into the semifinals and three into championship matches.
When the last whistle had blown and the mats had been rolled up, Vermillion had bested all of the larger ESD Conference schools and were left looking up only at the state's two Black Hills powerhouse clubs – Sturgis and Rapid City Stevens. Moving up from a 10th-place finish a year ago, the Tanagers finished as third in the state with 130.5 points, trailing Sturgis' record-setting 222 points and Stevens' 165 but standing above, in order, Huron, Pierre, Watertown, Aberdeen Central and Mitchell among the eight schools which earned team plaques.
One of the smallest men on the Tanager team, but small only in physical stature, brought home the coveted gold medal emblematic of a state champion. T.J. North, who placed third last year and won himself a state title while a sophomore at Elk Point-Jefferson in 2008, dominated the 112-pound weight class and made his drive to the title look like just another day at the office. He completed his two years at VHS with a stunning record of 74-1.
Two other seniors earned the right to compete in the Saturday night spotlight at center mat. Chris Mart at 171 pounds and Gerrit Heine at 215 reached their championship matches before having to settle for the silver.
Nick Mart completed an incredible senior season with a 39-1 record and claimed third place at 189 pounds. Earl Kiertzner and Tanner Mart, also both seniors, placed fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 140 and 160-pound divisions.
Two centerpieces of the Tanager program for the next few seasons also placed. Seventh-grader Brett Bye took sixth at 103, and sophomore Will Mart captured seventh at heavyweight.
Vermillion held a lead of 115.5 to 110 over Huron in the battle for third palce in the team standings heading into Saturday night's final session, but wins by Kiertzner, Nick Mart and Will Mart in the early place matches gave the Tanagers breathing room and solidifed the team's rightful position above everybody except Sturgis and Stevens.
"I've had a very special group of kids," Coach Joe Delvaux told a Rapid City reporter after the last session. "It's kind of bittersweet to think this is the last time we will do this."
The Tanagers at state, one weight at a time:
103: Brett Bye
The luck of the draw put Bye against the eventual champion, Morgan Engbrecht of Sturgis, who finished his year at 46-0. Bye lost that one in a 27-second pin, but he rallied strong in two Friday wrestleback matches, pinning Huron's Chet Glanzer in 2:37 and decisioning Keaton Ohlsen of Stevens, 7-4, to clinch a place. Then Bye won another one, 10-05 over Brady Burghardt, Watertown, early Saturday.
In the fourth-round wrestlebacks Bye lost by pin in 58 seconds to Dylan Larson of Washington, who went on to place third. That put Bye into the fifth-place contest with Aberdeen Central's John Frisco, where Bye lost on a 1:31 pin. Bye's year ended at 31-13.
112: T.J. North
North did what he had to do Friday, winning his two matches comfortably and quickly. He dispatched Martin Mueller of Rapid City Central in 58 seconds, then followed with a 22-7 technical fall over Alex Burghardt, Watertown, in the quarterfinals. North's semifinal victim was Jordan Redmond, Milbank, one of whose four losses during the year had been at the hands of North. This time T.J. pinned him in 4:52.
Nate Schaefer, Brookings, brought a 29-6 record to the championship match, but North scored two first-period takedowns en route to a 4-1 lead. A reversal early in the second period made it 6-1, but at 3:31 North put his clamps down, had his hand raised as a state champion, and walked off the mat with a perfect senior season of 31-0.
135: Lance Burkhart
After Burkhart won 6-4 over Kellen Lowe, Rapid City Central, in the first round, he and Dell Rapids' Cade Buysse, who eventually placed fourth, staged a great quarterfinal go. It came down to the final seconds before Buysse won, 6-4, and send Burkhart into the second wrestleback round.
The junior then faced Jarrick Jensen of Stevens and lost another heart-breaker, 2-1, to end his year at 27-8.
140: Earl Kiertzner
The gutsy Kiertzner, who wrestled at 130 all season until tournament time, strode into the state semifinals on the strength of a 4-2 win over Pine Ridge's Bruce Jacobs and a 97- decision over Adam Scherr, Aberdeen Central. In the semis Kiertzner had to face a defending state champ, Watertown's Sawyer Hoffman, who had lost only once this season. Hoffman prevailed, 9-4.
In the fourth-round wrestlebacks Kiertzner again faced Jacobs, and this time Jacobs, who completed a 27-4 season, turned the tables with a 2-0 win. Earl finished his career with his head high, however, scoring a 2:03 pin over Rapid City Central's Tyler Harter in the fifth-place match though he trailed Harter by a point at the time. Two team points for the win and two more for the pin were instrumental in pushing the Tanagers farther ahead of Huron in the race for third place.
145: Bennet Johnson
Another senior who Delvaux said "was a big player on this team all season," saw his career end disappointingly. In the first round he gave the eventual second-place man, Cameron Mack of Watertown, a battle before falling 7-4. Then Johnson was pinned in the first wrestleback in 2:59 by Pierre's Josh Stoltenburg. Johnson's record topped out at 24-16.
160: Tanner Mart
Tanner's last state tournament started strong in one of the toughest of all the weight classes with a 13-4 demolition of Austin Gee of Dell Rapids. His quarterfinal opponent, however, was unbeaten Brent Havlik of Mitchell. The Kernel star, who went on to win the state title with a 34-0 record, squeaked past Tanner, 4-2.
Mart rebounded to whip Clay Kopplin of Sturgis, 7-1, to clinch placing and to pin Jarren Jensen, Stevens, in 59 seconds to move into the fourth wrestleback round. There Tanner lost by pin in 4:54 to Scott Stone, Watertown. He then defaulted the fifth-place match to Kyle Gorsuch, Rapid City Central, who is coming to USD as a football player next fall.
Tanner's senior season, which included some time lost due to injury, concluded with a 16-6 record.
171: Chris Mart
Chris stormed into the semifinals on a pair of pins – 5:46 over Blake Williams, Sturgis, and 4:31 over Shane Christopherson, Sisseton. His semifinal opponent was Jordan Reimer, Mitchell, an unbeaten state champ last year with a 34-4 record up to that moment this season. Chris, ranked fourth in this weight class in the last coaches' rankings, took out Reimer, 6-4, to advance to the finals.
Kris Klapprodt of Stevens, who would end the year at 49-3, scored five takedowns en route to a 13-4 win in the championship match. Mart's final record is a sparkling 32-3.
189: Nick Mart
Entering the state tourney ranked No. 1 in this division, one of the most solid weight classes of them all, and perfect at 35-0. He pinned Grady Haki of O'Gorman in 2:22, then decisioned Matt Halter, Huron, 12-7, in the quarterfinals.
The decisive match was in the semifinals where Nick faced Evan Murphy, Dell Rapids, who was 43-1 at the time. The match went into overtime where Nick tasted defeat for the only time all season, 3-2.
Mart came back strong with a 16-7 convincer over Austin Lynde of Lennox to reach the third-place match where he won 5-2 over Drew Iddings of Stevens. He scored the match's first takedown, gave up an escape, got an escape of his own, then took Iddings down again for a 5-1 lead on the way to his win, two more important team points and a 39-1 win in his last year as a Tanager.
215: Gerrit Heine
Heine pinned Sisseton's Aaron Tolle in 1:17 in the first round and kept rolling with a 3-1 decision over Cody Benne of Stevens, who would place fifth later. The semifinal was a battle where Heine prevailed 2-1 over Tanner Flack, Aberdeen Central.
Heine's opponent in the championship was a defending state champion, Damon Lappe of Douglas/New Underwood, who will be wrestling for Chadron State next winter. Lappe built up a fast 10-0 lead, then pinned Heine in 1:53 to finish his last two years with an 89-2 record, and Heine's senior season ended with a 30-4 mark.
285: Will Mart
The Tanager sophomore faced another slew of men weighing many more pounds than he, but he was equal to the task. Mart pinned Kyle Benne of Stevens, who had been ranked higher than Will in the final individual ratings, in 5:18 in the first round, then lost to the eventual state runner-up, Mitchell's Kyle Larson, in the quarterfinals in a 3:39 pin.
Mart, who had clinched the regional team title for VHS with a pin of Yankton's Brice Sayler in the regional tourney's third-place match, faced Sayler again in the second-round wrestlebacks and pinned him again, this time in 3:53. Mart then lost to Chad Karber of Brookings, the eventual fourth-place wrestler in this class, 7-2, to drop into the seventh-place match. There Will ended with an exclamation point, pinning Todd County's Steve Donoyer in 3:42 to complete a courageous 30-10 season and, at the same time, giving four more team points to Vermillion's total.