By Brady Ambrose
When Jacob Swindell advanced to the 2013 Minnesota State High School League state wrestling tournament, it marked the continuation of a long list of Caledonia wrestlers who have reached the highest pinnacle in Minnesota high school wrestling. In fact, since 1966, there have been only seven seasons when the Warriors have not sent at least one grappler to the state meet.
As the 2013-14 season rapidly approaches, another milestone will be celebrated when the Warriors begin their 50th season on the mat.
The program has produced five individual state champions and a 1970 team that won the Minnesota state championship under head coach Ed Ferkingstad and Leo Simon. Also, the 1984 team coached by Simon finished as state runner-up.
In the beginning
The beginnings of Caledonia wrestling can be traced back to the fall of 1963 when the Warriors fielded just four sports for boys, including basketball, track, baseball and football. Three teachers, Ferkingstad, Bob Stark and Felix Percouco, coached all four sports between them. Ferkingstad, along with Larry Thompson, introduced wrestling as a sport in the fall.
That first season was a tough one, and the Warriors finished the season 0-11-1.
The next season, Caledonia finished 3-7-1, and in 1965-66 the team put together their first double-digit win with a 10-3-1 mark.
The 1967-68 team marked Caledonia’s first undefeated season with a 13-0-1 mark, and the 1968 squad finished undefeated at
10-0-1. For the next four seasons Caledonia would not lose a match and put together a 70-0-2 record from 1967-1973, including the state championship in 1970.
In 1974 Bob Link finished the season 27-0 and won the 180-pound state championship. Link’s title would be the last for the Warriors until Trent Hatlevig’s championship in 1997.
Up until 1976, wrestling in Minnesota was strictly a one-class tournament with schools and wrestlers of all sizes and enrollments competing against each other. In 1967 Bob Lange had the honor of becoming Caledonia’s first entrant in the state meet, placing fourth at 95 pounds. In 1969 Rob Meiners placed fifth at 145 pounds, and in 1970 the Warriors, under Ferkingstad, sent six wrestlers – Darrel Bunge, Jim Denstad,
Bob Lange, Mark Lange, Gregg Meiners and Ron Meiners – to the state meet with all but Gregg Meiners placing at least fifth in their respective weight classes. When it was all said and done, the Warriors had captured their first individual state championship and team title, while Mark Lange was crowned champion at 138 pounds.
Lange would again win a state title in 1972 at 154 and also placed second in 1971 at 145 pounds. Lange finished with a 149-11-1 record and was also inducted into the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Ferkingstad retired after compiling a 58-24-4 career coaching record and was inducted into the David Bartelma Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999. Ferkingstad and his wife, Barbara, still reside in Caledonia.
After retiring, Ferkingstad continued to be involved with wrestling as an official from 1973-1987. He was regarded as being fundamentally sound in his judgement and technique. He worked a number of district and regional tournaments. He stressed physical conditioning, discipline and hard work, and his former wrestlers will long remember him for being a father figure to them. He was fair and conducted himself as a professional on and off the mat.
Simon took over as head coach, and from 1970-1985 his Caledonia teams won 83 straight dual-meet matches. Simon still lives in Caledonia and fondly remembers back to the first day of practice before the start of the 1969-1970 season.
“The kids really didn’t know me. They had probably heard some rumors, but I was a young teacher, a young coach, only a few years older than most of the wrestlers. I told them that our goal this year was to win the state wrestling championship – they would hate my guts by the end of the year, but we would be state champions. It will be well worth the effort. Bob Lange looked up at me with two eyes that looked like two fried eggs in a frying pan, as if to say, ‘Man, are you for real!’ Then we proceeded to have perhaps the hardest practice that they had ever had in their life, and it went on from there.”
The hard practice paid off.
The Warriors won the Southeastern Holiday Tournament, the Owatonna Invitational, the District 1 championship and the Region 1 championship on their way to the 1970 state title.
Simon said Ron Meiners came up to him and said that Simon was right – the team did indeed hate his guts, but, as Meiners said, “We’re state champions, and it was worth every drop of sweat that it took to do it. Thanks, Coach!”
Simon said that those words meant more to him than the state trophy.
Under Simon, the Warriors would win 83 consecutive dual meet victories, 17 consecutive district titles, a few regional titles and placed fifth at state in 1976. Simon said the team put everything into high gear.
“A lot of promoting, recruiting and camps. It takes a lot of good kids in a program to make a strong program. You need good younger kids in the lighter weights, good balance in the middle weights and the killers in the upper weights. It is hard to get all of the weights filled with good kids. Plus, you need someone in the practice room to push the kid that is in that weight so that he doesn’t become complacent. There were times we could fill three complete teams and we were going different directions on the same night with different teams.”
The Warriors made it to state again in 1977 and won the district championship for the next six years in a row, leading up to the 1984 season.
In 1984 Caledonia made another run at a state title, this time in Class A.
“I could see a nice team coming in 1984, so we started to groom this team to take a shot at the state title,” Simon said. “We didn’t really have the depth that I wanted, but it wasn’t too bad and this was probably going to be the best team that we were going to have for a while. Plainview was the defending sectional champion and had beaten us badly during the season, and maybe we had lost to another team, I’m not sure, but Plainview would be the team to beat, and we wrestled them the first round of the sectionals. We had some upsets in the lower weights and hammered them pretty good in the upper weights. In the finals, we had Goodhue, and I didn’t think they would be a problem for us, and we handled them fairly well. So, it was off to the state we go.”
At the state meet, Caledonia rolled into the finals, where they lost to Staples. And after his son, Trever, graduated in 1985, Simon retired.
Simon ended his coaching career at Caledonia with a 175-43-2 record, an amazing 79.5 percent winning percentage.
Roger Knutson then took over the program in the late fall of 1985. In the next 15 years, Knutson teams compiled a 116-88-5 record and produced Caledonia’s first back-to-back state champion in Trent Hatlevig, who won the state championship in 1997 and then again in 1998, and placed second in 1999. In his career at Caledonia, Hatlevig compiled a 151-30-0 record and was named a High School All-American and moved on to wrestle at the University of Minnesota.
In 2000 Jay Tolleson took over the reigns as head coach and held the position through the 2007 season, compiling a 135-48-3 record. In 2001-02 the Warriors and Tolleson sent four wrestlers – Kasey Meiners, Mitchell Lange, Kevan Meiners and Kevin Schuldt – to the state meet, where Lange placed second at 125 pounds and Kevan Meiners placed fifth at 189, with Kasey Meiners bringing home a fourth place effort. The next season, Kevan Meiners finished undefeated at 39-0 and won the state championship at 215 pounds. He finished his career with a 111-17-0 record.
Kasey Meiners wrestled at state four years and to this day holds the Caledonia record for most wins in a career with a 186-45-0 record as a Warrior. Lange is second in wins with a 170-36-0 record. Roger Knutson then came back for a second stint as head coach from 2008 to 2010. In 2009 Cullen Becker placed sixth at state, and the following season Austin Goergen won the state championship as a sophomore under Tolleson and repeated the feat the following year as a junior with his dad, current Caledonia head coach Dan Goergen in the corner with him.
As a senior in 2012, Goergen placed second, losing to defending 220-pound state champ Michael Kroells, of Scott West, in the heavyweight championship match. Kroells beat Goergen 8-3 in the finals.
Also in 2012, Casey Stemper placed fifth at 170 pounds with Willie Krage at 112, Austin Fitzgerald at 132 and Connor McCormick at 182. Goergen, currently wrestling at heavyweight for the St. Cloud State Huskies, finished his prep career with a 146-12 mark for Caledonia.
Dan Goergen is currently in his fourth season at the helm and has coached a state champ in his son as well as Troy Frank, who placed sixth at 215 pounds in 2010, and Casey Stemper, who finished fifth in 2012.
To celebrate 50 years of Caledonia wrestling, a celebration will be held during the Warriors match Dec. 20 against Decorah, and an open house will be held at MaCal Country Club Dec. 21. During the meet Dec. 20, former wrestlers will be introduced, and the open house on Saturday will feature a social hour from 5-7 p.m. followed by a special video presentation at 7 p.m.