Featuring 11 more grapplers than last season, the Devils Lake wrestling program is seeing tremendous improvement both on the scoreboard and in participation.
By Harry Lipsiea
Jace Estenson pauses for a second and glances over his right shoulder. The Devils Lake high school senior can't help but smile at what he sees. As he watches 20-plus teammates competing in a drill inside the Devils Lake Sports Center, the 170-pound wrestler thinks for a moment how far the Firebird program has come just in a few years.
"Unreal," he told the Journal. "It's just awesome."
The senior notes that during a majority of his career, low numbers made it difficult for the Firebirds to be competitive as a team during events. When it came to duals during his first five seasons, the team was on the wrong side of the scoreboard more often than not, he said.
"My seventh grade year, we won one dual," Estenson said. "When it was over, I was just thinking we won a dual, like it was a regular thing. But, everyone was freaking out. It was a big deal for the program."
The numbers game
"It's a lot different now than when I got started," George DeMarce, a junior on the Firebird wrestling team, stated. "We've definitely come a long ways since my first year."
In his first season in the wrestling program, Devils Lake experienced an all-time low in participation numbers. The 2013-2014 team had around 12 individuals on the roster, but at times was limited to around 7 or 8 wrestlers on a given night.
Despite the numbers, Devils Lake grapplers continued to march ahead. Todd Lambrecht, head wrestling coach, credited the individuals for staying with it.
"Those guys kept working hard," the coach pointed out. "We had wrestlers who were younger like Jace Estenson and George DeMarce who stuck it out and have made it the long haul. You have to give those guys credit for continuing to grind it out."
Lambrecht, a former state champion wrestler for Devils Lake, became the head coach during the 2012-2013 wrestling season. At that time, the roster featured around 18 wrestlers at the beginning of the season.
To put it simply, numbers have been a major issue during his time as head coach, he pointed out.
"It is way more than just a number, The more guys you have, the better you can compete in that wrestling room each day," he added. "When you have to go against the same guy over-and-over for three straight months, it's easy to go into a lull. It's one of the challenges you face when you have a program with limited numbers."
During the next year, when participation dipped to a low, the Devils Lake School Board made a decision to put the wrestling program on a two-year probation period along with girls hockey. At that time, cuts were made to the school's boys and girls golf, cheerleading and girls soccer programs due to numbers.
The probationary period allowed for wrestling and girls hockey two seasons to improve the amount of participants before a decision on the fates of the squads were made in 2016.
Devils Lake Athletic Director Jason Wiberg noted that he had conversations with the staff about the importance of increased participation numbers.
"We weren't looking for a one-year fix. It was important about not only getting numbers up, but sustaining them as well," Wiberg told the Journal. "
For Lambrecht, the news didn't change a whole lot.
"I was focused on helping build a program the way I knew how to," the coach said. "It wasn't something I talked about much. We always tell the guys to worry about the things that we can control and that was working to get better every single day on the mats."
Numbers became more consistent in the next two years for the Firebirds. In February of 2016, the school board unanimously agreed to remove the wrestling program from probationary status. Last season, Devils Lake had a roster consisting of 16 steady participants. It was a step in the right direction, the coach added.
While the squad saw an increase in numbers from 2014 to 2016, the real rise in the program came early this winter. The Firebirds have seen a significant boost this season. More than midway through the 2016-2017 campaign, Devils Lake has 27 wrestlers on the roster.
"Over the past few years, the numbers have gradually gotten better," Estenson said. "But this year, it's just completely taken off. Sometimes I can't believe we have as many people out for wrestling as we do. It's been incredible."
With more manpower, the Firebirds have been extremely competitive in their duals this season. Unlike the past several seasons, the team has been able to fill a majority of its weight classes. It has made it for exciting matchups and added success on the scoreboard. Devils Lake, 5-6 overall, currently sits at sixth in the always competitive EDC with a mark of 3-4. In addition to being in the mix and boasting a near-full team on the varsity level, the squad has been able to get a promising group of underclassmen experience in junior varsity matches.
"It's awesome to watch those younger guys grow so much," Lambrecht said. "You go from that first day of practice when they are unsure of themselves to the point when that hard work begins to pay off. It's cool, I just love being part of that."
Wiberg applauds the efforts of the wrestling coaching staff to increase numbers so dramatically in a short time. The parents of the athletes have also contributed by working to keep the sport going, the athletic director noted.
"The coaches, parents and wrestlers themselves have done a great job to get participation up," he stated. "It's been very encouraging."
Lambrecht, an elementary teacher in Devils Lake, credits the wrestlers for doing their part to attract newcomers into the program. Coaches of other sports have also helped encourage their student athletes to try their hand at wrestling.
"A big part of it is students talking to other students in the hallways. Also, other coaches have told their athletes to give it a shot. The word has gotten out," he said. "I work at the elementary level, so I don't see a lot of the kids. That extra help has been huge in growing the program."
Devils Lake has co-op agreements with Minnewaukan and Lakota in wrestling. Both have impacted the program's numbers. This season, an all-time high, eight Minnewuakan athletes are competing on the Firebird team. Brothers from Lakota, James Fisk and Brant Fisk have been solid performers in the lower weights for Devils Lake.
"It's been great to get all those guys out. It's been a lot of fun," Lambrecht added. "Being on a wrestling team brings people together. We are a family. For three months straight, we see each other almost every day. It's a really good way for students from other towns to be part of a team."
DeMarce, a junior at Minnewaukan high school, worked hard to help get out more participants from his school out for wrestling.
"I tried to help recruit so we could have more wrestlers in the lower weight classes. It's been nice to have other wrestlers representing Minnewaukan on the team. It's nice to have other people who I know from school out on the mats with me," DeMarce said.
Not only has it been a more successful season when it comes to win and numbers for Devils Lake, it's been an enjoyable one as well, Lambrecht added. The fifth-year head coach notes that the student athletes have been a joy to work with.
"This is a great group," he said. "I just love being around them. Everyday, these kids come in and give it everything they have. They want to learn and get better. It's just phenomenal to be around. Their positive attitudes make me excited to come to practice everyday."
When asked what has helped turn the program around, Estenson believes it is coaching. The stability Lambrecht brings has been extremely important for the Firebirds.
"I think it's so important that we are continued to be taught the same things in a similar style," the senior said. "We know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect for us."
The coach commended assistants Patrick Neumann and Brendon Flynn, a former state champion for Devils Lake, for their efforts.
"They do a great job," Lambrecht pointed out.
One thing that has been exciting to watch grow has been support for the program. The team has had three home events so far this year.
On Thursday, Devils Lake squares off against Grand Forks Central, 3-3, at home in EDC action. The dual begins at 7 p.m. inside the Devils Lake Sports Center.
"I would absolutely love to see our fans pack the house Thursday," Lambrecht said. "It's a huge dual for our program and where we are at in the standings. Our wrestlers really thrive with screaming fans in the stands. It gets the adrenaline pumping and brings out the best in an athlete."
The post-season is fast approaching. Devils Lake is expected to have 13 wrestlers competing in the EDC Regional at Grand Forks Central Feb. 11. State will be held at the Fargodome Feb. 16-18. It's something the wrestlers are looking forward to.
"We want to have as many guys as possible qualify for state," DeMarce said.
Estenson is looking to finish his career with a bang as a member of the Firebird wrestling program.
"It's a little bittersweet, because I know I will be done at the end of this season. But, it's been a great year," the senior said. "I can't really put into words. I'm so proud to be part of this team and this program."