It’s no coincidence that the Woodbury wrestling program and senior Justin Herold-Plakut’s success has come hand-in-hand the past several seasons.
The Royals reached new heights last season by securing a section championship for the first time in school history and Herold-Plakut had his highest placing at the state tournament with a third-place finish at 152 pounds.
Herold-Plakut has played a pivotal role in the lineup for Woodbury and helped transform the program into a force. Herold-Plakut became the all-time leader in career victories Dec. 7 at the Lakeville North Panther Invite on his way to earning the 170-pound tournament title.
Herold-Plakut, ranked No. 2 at 170 pounds, beat Lakeville South’s Mark Kennedy in the quarterfinals for his 176th career victory to break the previous school record.
Herold-Plakut has gone to the state tournament for the past four years, beginning as an eighth-grader at 103 pounds. Last season, Herold-Plakut finished third at 152 pounds and finished 46-4 overall.
That experience has invigorated Herold-Plakut to accomplish his goal of becoming a state champion this season. If successful, Herold-Plakut would become just the second wrestler in school history to win a state title and the first since 1979.
“It made me realize this is my last shot,” Herold-Plakut said. “I’ve been working toward this goal since third grade to be a state champion.”
Herold-Plakut began wrestling in third grade and has become a leader of the program since he earned a varsity spot in seventh grade. It’s fitting that he broke the career victories mark because he has come to embody the tenets of the program.
“He’s the perfect example of starting out maybe with the cards stacked against him,” Royals head coach Justin Smith said. “He was undersized as a 103-pounder. He used to have to drink Gatorade just to make 103. … He’s bought into that weightroom philosophy and he’s a great example for all those guys to say, ‘You know what? You’re going to start out here, but you’re definitely going to build it up to the point where you’re going to be one of the biggest and strongest in your weight class.’ He’s shown them now what they can do. Kids look up to him.”
Herold-Plakut has learned the importance of setting an example for younger wrestlers as a two-year captain of the team. It’s a role he takes seriously through words and action. Herold-Plakut has gone out of his way in the past to stay after practice and run extra with others as well as lending a helping hand in practice.
“I think being a captain helped out my wrestling in general because as a captain I’m a role model to these kids and if they see me slack off in practice then they’re going to slack off in practice,” Herold-Plakut said.
There hasn’t been much slacking off for Herold-Plakut, who only participates in wrestling. He’s been part of the PINnacle Wrestling School in the past and dedicated himself to working in the weightroom. He’s worked on his leadership skills. Off the mat, Herold-Plakut earned All-State academic honors and wants to major in mechanical engineering in college.
Though Herold-Plakut is all business on the mat, he’s shown a mischievous side in the past. Herold-Plakut and his brother pulled a prank on Smith when Herold-Plakut was in eighth grade when the two hid several pieces of Smith’s computer in different areas of the school.
Herold-Plakut has matured since that time and also in his ability to handle criticism from coaches.
“When we were little Justin used to be like a little turd,” junior co-captain Ben Donnelly said. “He would always disagree with coach Smith, just to disagree. He was real stubborn, thought his way was right. He’s changed that. He’s learned to take the advice and not always be so close-minded about things.”
Herold-Plakut has developed a close relationship with Donnelly as practice partners in the wrestling room. The two have experienced plenty of success along the way. Donnelly is ranked sixth at 145 pounds this season after finishing fourth last season at 132 pounds at state. Donnelly is also right on Herold-Plakut’s heels for the career victory mark.
“We push each other every day,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes we’ll get underneath each other’s skin and kind of get a little rough every once and a while, but it’s only making us better.”
Herold-Plakut and Donnelly have not only helped make each other better, but the entire team by the example they have set. The expectations have risen for the team this season after Woodbury earned its first trip to the state tournament as a team last season, Smith said. The Royals had five wrestlers compete in the state tournament as individuals last season with Herold-Plakut, Donnelly, Austin Braun, Ty Johnson and Howard Jones. Four of those wrestlers are ranked this season.
When Herold-Plakut joined the varsity squad in seventh grade, he exhibited technique skills above his age, Smith said. Herold-Plakut has also shown more aggression on the mat this season as he career comes to a close.
“The big thing is I think his attitude has changed a lot,” Donnelly said. “I think he knows it’s his senior year and it’s his last year to get it done. That’s what he’s going for and he knows he has to get it done. He knows he can do it. He’s just been a lot more aggressive physically.”
The rewards have come for Herold-Plakut in numerical milestones, but it’s the intangible assets he’s gained that he appreciates most.
“I don’t think I’d be half the person I am today if I hadn’t found the sport,” Herold-Plakut said. “If I wasn’t involved in this sport I don’t think I would have been anything. I wouldn’t have started lifting weights. I would have been in shape. I wouldn’t have any character, I wouldn’t have had any challenge. I think that has been huge in forming who I am for the better.”