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Woobury wrestling: Royals making their move

The Woodbury wrestling team poses with its section championship trophy after beating Stillwater. The Royals face Prior Lake at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Getting to the state wrestling tournament doesn't happen overnight, though this season Woodbury has made it seem that way.

The Royals have gone from a 7-12 team a year ago and developed into a 19-6 team this season that secured the No. 1 seed at the Section 4AAA team tournament en route to locking up a spot in the Class 3A tournament for the first time in school history with a 32-27 win over Stillwater.

This season might serve as the tipping point for the program. A successful season can bring more accomplishments and more participants who want similar triumphs. When Woodbury head coach Justin Smith took over five years ago he set out to increase the number of wrestlers inside the wrestling room. With more numbers comes more success Smith believes.

"We've told the kids, the parents, anybody who was willing to listen to us, if we can get anywhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 kids in the room on a regular basis, then we're going to be a regular participant in the state tournament," Smith said.

Slowly, for the past five years Smith's sought to increase those numbers, openly accepting any first-year wrestlers. That coupled with Smith and his coaching staff's ability to develop wrestlers in one season has translated into success this season.

"We're not showing them anything fancy for those newer kids, just learn the basics," Smith said. "If they learn the basics, then they're going to be successful most of the time. Even if you don't have any wrestling knowledge and you have some athletic ability we're going to be able to put you in a position where you're going to have some success."

Junior John McNiff has epitomized that philosophy. McNiff went 18-5 this season in his first year of wrestling. Last season, Chandler Ignaszewski placed third at the section individual tournament in his first year.

Five individuals comprise the core of the team, with four of them serving as captains this season. Junior Justin Herold-Plakut (39-3), ranked second at 152 pounds, sophomore Ben Donnelly (36-6) is ranked sixth at 132 pounds, junior Howard Jones (33-7) and sophomore Ty Johnson (34-8), ranked 10th at 120 pounds, share captain duties and will all appear in the individual state tournament. Jones is making his first appearance while the others have now gone multiple years. Eighth-grader Austin Braun (31-11) will join them at the individual state tournament after putting together an impressive season.

Inside the wrestling room and on the mat, Royals coaches have put an added emphasis on being aggressive and attacking opponents first.

"We're a way better team from top to bottom if we're attacking the entire time," Smith said. "This is what we tell them all the time, 'If we're waiting for things to happen, they're going to happen, but we're not going to like it.' If we're attacking the whole time then good things are going to happen."

That aggressive style has given the team an identity, one that permeates throughout the lineup.

"You kind of a develop a style from your coach and our style is just attacking and that's what they preach the whole time," Donnelly said. "I feel like after a couple of years just attacking non-stop, then it eventually it all works. It works in all one big harmony. It's all working out."

It has worked out this season and Woodbury has paid more attention to creating a harmonious team, one where there's a mentality to pick each other up in duals.

"I think we all realize that we're not just wrestling for ourselves in team competition, that we're wrestling for the guy above you or below you ... wherever," Donnelly said. "You have your teammates back. At practice kids just push each other and that's one of the big things, pushing your teammate every single day. That just gets people better."

While the Royals haven't forfeited weights in the past, Woodbury has consistently moved wrestlers into higher weight classes. Donnelly wrestled as high as 152 pounds this season, but will wrestle at 132 for the individual tournament. Herold-Plakut wrestled at 160 at the section team tournament, but will go down to 152 at the state individual competition.

The Royals have five seniors on the squad this season, three are starters, so don't expect much of a drop off for next season.

"I feel like none of us are satisfied until we place at state now," Jones said. "We're trying to raise the bar a little more so our expectations are starting to become a little greater for next year."

Third-ranked Prior Lake poses big challenge for Woodbury

On Thursday, Prior Lake will welcome Woodbury to the state tournament. The third-seeded Lakers (25-4) are ranked third in Class AAA for the state tournament and are one of the best third-ranked teams in recent memory. With the likes of second-ranked and second seeded Apple Valley (26-3), the winner of the past seven consecutive Class AAA titles, and No. 1-ranked and top-seeded St. Michael-Albertville, there's a clear divide between the best in the state and the next best.

St. Michael-Albertville (30-1) is ranked third in the nation by the Amateur Wrestling News poll and Apple Valley ranks 21st in the country.

Prior Lake beat Woodbury 66-6 back on Jan. 26 at the Bloomington Kennedy tournament. Smith held some wrestlers out of that dual because of match-count issues, but still trying to topple the third-ranked team in Class AAA comes with a high degree of difficulty.

Other teams at the state tournament include fourth seeded and fifth-ranked Owatonna (22-6), which meets Centennial (26-7) in the first round. Willmar (16-10) faces St. Michael-Albertville and Apple Valley gets Moorhead (13-4) in the first round. The winner of the Woodbury-Prior Lake match will face the winner of Apple Valley-Moorhead.

Smith and Prior Lake head coach Joe Block have known each other for several years. Block's brother and Smith were roommates in college. Block has built the Lakers into a powerhouse program since taking over 12 years ago.

The Royals will face Prior Lake at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The entire team competition will be held Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.