Jake Kasner knows the hard work is still ahead for him and his Algonac wrestling teammates.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate what the Muskrats already have accomplished.
“It’s great,” the Algonac senior 152-pounder said. “We had a couple tournaments cut short, and we had some teammates out – really the only dual we had our whole team was against Richmond. Everyone has been stepping up when we need them, and we continue to win duals whenever possible. I’m very proud of our team in that way.”
Algonac is 21-0 and ranked No. 4 in Division 3 and won Wednesday’s Team District with a championship victory over Clawson. The team collected hardware throughout the year and finished a program-best second in the Macomb County Invitational.
While that incredible season did not include a Blue Water Area Conference championship, the Muskrats were 5-0 in the league, including a win against perennial state power Richmond, something no BWAC team had achieved since 2004.
“We’ve been trying to harp on consistency,” Algonac coach Brian Ranger said. “In past years, we had some tough teams where one week they looked amazing, and the next week not so much. We’ve been working to have that same, consistent effort every week and being the best version of ourselves. We don’t have kids worry so much about the other teams. We’re good enough now where if we wrestle to the best of our abilities, we can wrestle with anyone. We’re making sure we bring the same championship-level effort every time.”
Ranger took over at Algonac before the 2011-12 season, inheriting a program with no youth feeder system and 11 high school wrestlers.
Over his first 10 seasons, Ranger turned the program around, winning five District championships and – along with the help of his friend and assistant coach Ken Thomas – built the youth program to more than 70 wrestlers.
Algonac spent plenty of time over those 10 years among the top teams in the BWAC and ranked among the top 10 in Division 3.
The team also ended each of those previous 10 seasons with a District or Regional loss against Richmond.
“For whatever reason, we never wrestled as well as we should have at the end of the season against Richmond, and it pained me,” Ranger said. “I was always kind of searching every offseason for why we weren’t performing better against some of these better teams. This year, we focused on being the best us. If we’re the best us, we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Algonac’s best could be enough to end the streak this year, but it’s tough to fault the Muskrats for previous defeats. Richmond – the alma mater of both Ranger and Thomas – has won eight Division 3 Finals titles since 2000 and has been a Division 3 finalist eight of the past 10 seasons.
The Blue Devils won the BWAC title this year, taking first at the league tournament and edging Algonac in dual points thanks to the Muskrats having to cancel an early-season league date against Imlay City and Croswell-Lexington.
Richmond may be waiting for the Muskrats in the Regional Final, but first must wrestle No. 10-ranked Yale, the tournament host next Wednesday. On the other side of the bracket, Algonac will face Imlay City, which Ranger considers a top-10 caliber team.
While Algonac may have put a target on its back with the earlier win against Richmond, the bigger takeaway could be the confidence gained by the Muskrats heading into the postseason.
“It was a little bit more of a mental victory, if anything,” Ranger said. “For so long, we haven’t performed when it came to a match like that. We’re still proving to ourselves that we are good enough for those moments.”
The Muskrats are a young team, with 10 underclassmen in the starting lineup, including seven freshmen. The final five matches against Richmond were wrestled by Algonac underclassmen, as they pulled out a 31-29 victory. Six freshmen – Chris Campbell (second, 103), Sky Langewicz (fourth, 103), Lucky Gartin (third, 112), Steve Shannon (third, 119), Alex Bright (third, 125) and Reid Hiltunen (second, 160) – placed at the BWAC tournament.
“I saw it coming,” said Kasner, who won a BWAC title at 152. “We’ve had all the younger kids coming up through the youth program. There was a big gap the last few years in the lower weights, and we knew we were going to get a lot of that filled, so if you ask me, this isn’t really a surprise. (The younger wrestlers) come to practice every day, and we expect the same thing from them as we expect from everyone else. They give it their all every day, including the Richmond match.”
Those younger contributors not only came up through the Algonac youth program, they thrived while taking part.
“My young kids, this is kind of all they know,” Ranger said. “They’re not super surprised; they’re kind of used to it. I think it’s surprising to some people around our community and other communities. I think (this season) took that belief to another level, but they kind of already had that inside of them, that we’re this good and we need to be like this every year.”
As the talent base was building, Ranger also was working on himself as a coach. The former Elmhurst University wrestler has been tweaking his approach over the past decade – not so much in what he physically teaches, but the mental aspect.
“I’ve always known how to show wrestling moves, but it was kind of some of that mental preparation – how to get them ready mentally and physically, how to peak at the right time,” Ranger said. “Most of my philosophy I use here has been stolen from about 27 different people, plus (former Richmond coach George Hamblin), and my college coach was a Division I national champion. I still haven’t learned it all. I’m also trying to stay positive in the corner as much as I can. I’m an emotional guy, and if something goes wrong, I used to wear that in my body language too often.”
That emotion is sure to come out, though, if the Muskrats can accomplish what is now in front of them – advancing to the Team Wrestling Finals for the first time in program history.
“We all love (the coaches), everyone on our team,” Kasner said. “They work so hard for our team. Coach Thomas drives 45 minutes just to get to practice every day. To (beat their alma mater) for them after all the years and all the stuff they did for us, we were happy for them, too.
“We’ve prepared all season and took it one day at a time. We’re going to be ready. We’ve been ready. I think we have a good shot to be the first team to make it to team state from Algonac. But there’s no for sures.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Algonac coach Brian Ranger gives Alex Bright a pep talk this season. (Middle) The Muskrats’ Lucky Gartin works for a pin. (Photos courtesy of the Algonac wrestling program.)