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Joe Feemorlu (left) competes in Mooseheart wrestling practice with teammate Erick Vogeler. Feemorlu, a junior, and Vogeler, a senior, are two of Mooseheart's key returning wrestlers.
Mooseheart wrestling coach Mark Johnson (right) demonstrates a technique during practice with Ramblers junior Jaren Schindler.
MOOSEHEART, IL Nov. 21 – Looking at the IHSA wrestling postseason like a staircase – there are three levels – regionals, sectionals and the state meet.
In the last decade, Mooseheart's become pretty adept at getting an increasing number of athletes qualified from regional competition to the sectional round. But it's at that next level where the Ramblers have always stumbled, including last year when four wrestlers competed at the Class 1A Oregon Sectional. Junior Smith came closest, but fell in a key wrestleback round match. Longtime Mooseheart wrestling coach Mark Johnson is still searching for his first state qualifying wrestler.
"Every year, we want to have wrestlers making it to sectionals," Johnson said. "Even if it's only one wrestler making it to sectionals, that pulls everybody else along with them. I think that's our goal right now. And when we get someone to state, then that's going to be our goal, the bar will move a little higher. Then we'll want to get someone downstate every year."
Smith graduated along with two of the team's other sectional qualifiers – U-Jay Smith and Sammy Strickland. But junior Joe Feemorlu returns after a strong season in the 170-pound weight class. Feemorlu's 2013 sectional participation ended in heartbreak after a triple-overtime defeat.
"We were that close," Johnson said. "(Feemorlu's) got a lot to prove and he had a successful year last year and we'll see what happens this year. He's motivated and he's on the right track. He's taking experience and success from last year, and we'll see what happens."
Feemorlu is one of the wrestlers who started as a middle schooler when Johnson inaugurated that program, though last year was his first varsity high school wrestling experience.
"He's still pretty fresh," Johnson said. "But he has another year after this and I think he was excited to get going this year."
Graduation hit the Ramblers hard in two ways. First, Junior Smith, U-Jay Smith and Strickland took with them a considerable amount of experience. Secondly, there are fewer athletes competing this year. In early practices, Mooseheart had less than 10 wrestlers, though Johnson said those numbers would eventually rise as the season got underway.
"After last year, I knew we were going to be down a little bit because we graduated five or six seniors," Johnson said. "I knew we were going to be starting from scratch this year in terms of our knowledge with the wrestling team."
The Ramblers have other solid returnees in seniors Chris Schwartz and Erick Vogeler and junior Jaren Schindler.
"We've got some guys who have some experience and that's always nice to have," Johnson said. "If the numbers increase, that's great. If they don't, then we're going to work to have success with the guys who have come out. I've had seasons when we only had six. We're going to work hard to improve and sometimes smaller groups are easier to coach."
Overall, Mooseheart's wrestlers are always at a disadvantage in terms of their knowledge of the sport. Most established programs have wrestlers who have competed since they were in grade school. Most wrestling Ramblers pick up the sport when they come to campus for their high school years.
"I tell these guys when they start here that they are going to get out there the first year and they may struggle a little bit – because they all do," Johnson said. "Junior (Smith) had those moments where he struggled and some of our wrestlers who ended up making it to sectionals struggled in their first year. It is a teaching opportunity here, and that is something that I enjoy, being able to teach these guys the basic moves and techniques that can help them win matches."
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