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Woodbury wrestling: Royals send school-record seven to state tournament

Woodbury second-year wrestler John McNiff won the 195-pound weight class at the Section 4AAA individual tournament. The Royals will send a school-record seven wrestlers to the Class 3A state tournament. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)1 / 3
Woodbury junior Ben Donnelly tries to get control of his opponent at the Section 4AAA individual tournament. Donnelly qualified to the state tournament for a fifth time. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)2 / 3
Woodbury senior Howard Jones cradles his opponent at the Section 4AAA individual tournament. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)3 / 3

The Section 4AAA meet served as a culmination for several Woodbury wrestlers both old and new to the program.

The Royals advanced a school-record seven individuals to the Class 3A state tournament. That seven includes state entrant returners in seniors Justin Herold-Plakut, Howard Jones, juniors Ty Johnson and Ben Donnelly and freshman Austin Braun, but Woodbury will also bring first-time state participants in seniors Matt Delaney and John McNiff.

Delaney has quietly become one of the steadiest wrestlers for the Royals with a 34-7 record this season and won his first trip to state with a victory over Tartan’s Robby Olson in a true second match at 132 pounds. Delaney will face Wayzata’s fourth-ranked Nick O’Brien in the first round of the state tournament Friday at the Xcel Energy Center.

“With Matt, going into last season if we could bump his win total to 30 we’d get him to the state tournament,” Woodbury head coach Justin Smith said. “He has absolutely worked hard in the offseason.”

Delaney lost a true second match in the Section 4AAA individual tournament last season to White Bear Lake’s Elijah Muedeking 17-5 at 138 pounds.

McNiff became a section champion in just his second year of varsity wrestling with a 14-6 major decision victory over Roseville’s top-seeded Isaac Schmaedeke at 195 pounds. McNiff placed fourth last season with an 18-5 record after spending part of the season on the junior varsity team. McNiff has a 21-13 record this season and faces Park Center’s Julius Ogunti at state.

McNiff, a standout football player, wrestled just one season as a fifth-grader prior to joining the team last season and has experienced a meteoric rise since then.

“I just knew that this is sections and this is my senior year,” McNiff said. “This is the last time I’ll be able to wrestle competitively and I was going to give everything I had.”

McNiff joined the wrestling team last season under the advice from Woodbury football head coach Andy Hill and hasn’t regretted the decision.

“It made me mentally tougher, it gave me better balance for football and it was really rewarding helping the team go to state last year,” McNiff said. “It’s all the hard work. My desire to win seems to be above most.”

McNiff also comes into the state tournament with the confidence that he can compete after he pinned Minnetonka’s Nickolas Gabler earlier this season.

Royals senior Howard Jones has had a similar experience to that of McNiff’s and repeated as section champion after a 21-5 technical fall victory over Roseville’s Tyler Graham at 160 pounds. Jones started wrestling in the seventh grade and developed into one of Woodbury’s best wrestlers since that time. Jones has a 24-10 record this season and will face Centennial’s Tom Handley at state.

“The coaches worked on my taking shots,” Jones said. “That was my biggest problem I had. I did not like to shoot because I hated getting stuck on bottom. They basically explained to me that you have very explosive legs and you’re a very explosive kid, you need to start taking shots. Ninth, 10th and 11th-grade I actually got the most takedowns on the team. That’s helped me a lot with wanting to continue to take shots.”

Jones displayed some funk to his wrestling style in his championship match when he faced a taller opponent in Graham. It resulted in Jones pulling out some unusual moves from his well-equipped arsenal.

“He didn’t know some of the moves I threw out there,” Jones said. “The first one I did was a leg half and that’s probably one of the moves that no one thinks about when they get their leg caught in there.”

Smith and his coaching staff have worked to harness some of the wildness Jones has with his speed and strength throughout the years to develop more of his technique.

“We try to like to limit that as much as possible,” Smith said. “If he relies that on that solely he gets into trouble. That’s one thing we’re going to harp on him is to keep solid technique. If he’s offensive, there’s going to be not many people to stick with him.”

Sixth-ranked Ben Donnelly and No. 1-ranked Justin Herold-Plakut have become familiar faces at the state tournament with Donnelly reaching the tournament every year since seventh grade and Herold-Plakut has reached every year since his eighth-grade season. Donnelly placed fourth last season at 132 and Herold-Plakut took third at 152 after a second-round upset. Both have their sights set at state championships after coming close the previous years.

“Any other medal besides the first place one is going in the trash,” Herold-Plakut said following the Section 4AAA team tournament last week. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. State champion and that’s it. That’s the only thing I’m looking forward to.”

With the absence of previously ranked No. 1 Dayton Racer from Apple Valley, who withdrew from Apple Valley earlier this season and tried to transfer to Border West, it’s a wide-open field at 152 pounds. Herold-Plakut faces Cambridge-Isanti’s David Kent in the first round. Herold-Plakut defeated Tartan’s 10th-ranked Dion Wallisch 8-2 for the section title.

Donnelly beat Tartan’s Justin Burg 11-3 for the 145-pound championship while deftly maneuvering out of some wild head locks thrown by Burg, who lost the week prior in the team tournament by 14 to Donnelly. Donnelly will face Anoka’s Preston Flaherty to open the state tournament.

Fifth-ranked Johnson will make his third consecutive state tournament appearance after a 4-2 victory over Roseville’s December Htoo in the 126-pound championship. Johnson has yet to place at the state tournament and will face Rochester John Marshall’s Logan Saltou to begin the state meet.

Freshman Austin Braun needed a pin in his true second match against Cretin-Derham Hall’s Casey Bulmer to lock down a return trip to the state meet. Braun suffered a 3-1 overtime loss to White Bear Lake’s Matt Muedeking at 113 pounds on a controversial takedown for the sudden victory.

The loss clearly stung Braun who spent the time in between the loss and the true second match talking with teammates to mentally prepare for the true second match.

“Braun was kind of down on himself, there’s no doubt because he knew he let an opportunity slip through his hands,” Smith said.

Braun didn’t let another opportunity slip through his hands and pinned Bulmer at 3:38 to lock down a spot at state. Braun will face Centennial’s fourth-ranked Jake Bergeland in the first round at state.

-Nick Gerhardt