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Amery’s legendary coach guides Warriors to first state wrestling title
Mike Kelly has done it all. After years of individual championships, three decades of wrestling in places as far away as Russia — and coaching college kids, he’s added another rung to his long list of accomplishments
On Sunday he stood outside at Soo Line Park in Amery and presented his Amery High School wrestling state champions to an enthusiastic group of supporters.
Kelly had just guided his Amery Warriors to their first wrestling state championship in the school’s history, and this was their welcome home.
His voice was loud and crisp as he proclaimed the virtues of a high school wrestling team when he said this team, “Was doing the right stuff all the time. They do good in the community and you don’t always have to tell them what to do. They just do a ton of good stuff.”
It was hard not to be proud and positive about a group of wrestlers who defeated Kiel (5-2), 55-22, then came back and won the state title with a 40-31 victory over Prairie du Chien (10-4). Then later got to the finals with a 45-27 win over Winneconne in the first round.
“This is a special kind of guys,” said the coach. “I couldn’t be prouder of these guys with their work ethic. They love to work and they love to wrestle.” He added, “When it comes to intensity, they’ve got it down.”
Some of that flowed from senior Walker Ingham, who ended his senior year with a 22-2 record and individually placed third at 160 pounds.
“It’s been a great four years. These guys wanted to win this for you,” Ingham said as he pointed to the fans gathered to honor the team. “It was all for you guys,” Ingham said.
“If I’d written down what it takes to get it done, these guys would have followed it exactly,” chirped in Coach Kelly.
“They can’t take this away from you. You will always be a state champion,” the Warriors were told.
In addition to the team title, it was also a remarkable performance individually by the Warriors.
At 195 pounds Kale Hopke won a state title with a perfect 23-0 season record. Koy Hopke, a freshman, also ended 23-0 and won the 220-pound state championship.
In addition, Robert Beese at 285 pounds took home second place and was 20-2; Wyatt Ingham at 120 pounds was 23-2 and took third and Walker Ingham at 22-2, finished third.
Amery also got fourth-place at 138 pounds from Jordan Penard and sixth from Mason Tylee.
While seniors like Walker Ingham talked about their four years, it’s been the same for Kelly as Amery’s coach.
“I came at the same time and have been with these guys all the way,” he said.
Kelly, a coach with more than 25 years of experience at the youth, high school, and college levels, has a long and illustrious career. And he’s still wrestling, hoping to become a four-decade wrestler, a rare commodity these days.
For Kelly, “Wrestling has changed my life in a lot of ways. It changed everything,” he said.
As recent as 2019, Mike Kelly was a bronze medalist in the Grappling World tournament, earning his eighth world record.
“I still wrestle college guys,” Kelly said. Since there are only three wrestlers who have earned medals in three decades, for which Kelly is one, he has the opportunity to turn that into four decades.
“I love this sport. I love grapplin’,” the Amery coach said.
Leading Amery to its first state title was another in a long list of Kelly’s accomplishments. He’s been an assistant head wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2014-15 and served as an assistant coach at UW-Parkside (2014) and Harper (Ill.)
A distinguished wrestler, Kelly was a junior college All-American at Harper and captain for the Eastern Illinois University wrestling team from 1998-2000.
Kelly has earned four bronze medals (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011), one silver (2012), and one gold (2013) competing at the Unifight World Championships in submission grappling. He has also taken part in Northwestern University’s Midlands Championships in 16 consecutive years, a tournament record.
A former Marine, Kelly has worked several wrestling camps over the last several years, including a stint as a camp coordinator at William Rainey College (Palatine, Ill.) from 1998-2012.
Kelly won a gold medal at the UWW Veterans Grappling World Championships held in Moscow, Russia.
IN THE FINALS, the top-seeded Warriors were ignited by pins from Wyatt Ingham at 126 in 3:24, Jordan Penard at 138 in 1:54, and Koy Hopke at 220 in 21 seconds.
Walker Ingram won by disqualification at 160, and Kale Hopke won by forfeit at 195. Brendan Burke won his match by major decision at 106 to contribute to Amery’s eight bouts won in the match.
This not only was Amery’s first state title but the first time they’ve ever appeared in the state tournament.
Gerber claims his third straight title
Cameron’s Tanner Gerber made school history. wrestling his way to a third state championship in as many years.
Gerber, who finished a COVID-limited season with a perfect 16-0 record, defeated sophomore Tarrin Riley of Mineral Point in Division 3, 126-pound state finals by a 7-1 decision. Riley brought a 13-0 record into the match.
The Cameron junior can attempt to become the state’s 20th four-time state champ next season.’
“It was a pretty dominating match for a state final,” said Tanner’s Coach/Father Dave Gerber. “Tanner’s relentless attacking style and how quickly he transitions from position to position really makes it difficult for his opponents to get any offense started,” added Dave Gerber.
Now the 67th Wisconsin wrestler to capture three state titles, Tanner Gerber also earned the VNN Athlete of the Week honor bestowed by WisSports.net.
Saints add more halos to their resume
Also claiming individual state champions were a pair of St. Croix Falls Saints, Kole Marko at 152 pounds and 285-pounder Tanner Gaffey. Both ended the season undefeated.
Marko, 21-0, was able to slip past a tough Aiden Bresinski of DeSota (19-1) to gain the finals, where he won, 7-3 over Brant Cracraft of Mischot.
Gaffey used a pin and 6-0 decision to get to the finals, where he beat Wade Stanger of Ladysmith to claim the heavyweight title.
Kole Marko won his third-straight title at 152 pounds this season going undefeated as a junior to become a three-time state champ.
He won previous titles at 145 pounds his sophomore year and 138 pounds his freshman year.
“Kole is not your typical high school athlete. His level of commitment to accomplishing goals has risen the bar in our wrestling room. His nutrition, academics, social life, wrestling, strength and conditioning are all on point and purposely calculated. He spends a lot of off-season work at the wrestling club Pinnacle, training with the top tier Minnesota high school wrestlers,” said his Coach Joe Raygor.
Gaffey captured his second state title as a senior at 285 pounds.
He was a state champ last year at 285 and went his last two years undefeated.
“Being a bigger kid, Tanner never really had to go to wrestling schools or clubs to get pushed because he was wrestling grown adults since he was in the sixth grade,” said Coach Raygor.
“Tanner is a really high intellectual type kid, scored very well on the ACT and could always think his way through big matches,” the coach added.
Gaffey had an arch-nemesis named Wade Stanger of Ladysmith that he wrestled in the state finals for two years in a row. He beat Stanger 10 times in the span of three years. In Stanger’s last two years he went undefeated and pinned his way through the state tournament every match — except for losing to Gaffey in each final.
“Gaffey will go down as an all-time great in the SCF wrestling program,” said the Saints coach.
The fact this year was extremely challenging, dealing with protocols and schedule changes,” said Coach Raygor.
Just the same, “We went into the year with a no-excuse mentality. Many schools in the state were loose with their mask policies and you could tell in live competitions. Our wrestlers would be able to beat wrestler’s equal ability or above later in the third period because conditioning and the masks played a major factor.”
While winning state titles, the St. Croix Falls wrestlers had another reason to succeed.
“The deaths of Kegan Koshiel and McKinley Erickson last year brought the entire wrestling family and community closer,” said Coach Raygor.
“It put things in perspective and gave us a giant reminder that wrestling cannot be the most important thing in our lives.”
As a result, the team developed another reason to succeed.
“Every day we went into practice or competitions with the idea of the best way of honoring them was to work hard and do the little things right. We’ll continue to honor them,” the coach said.
In addition to the state championships, St. Croix got some other great performances.
Mason Will placed third at the state tournament, losing to the state champion in the state semi-finals, 3-2 in a really tight match.
“Mason is proof that hard work pays off,” said the coach. He went on to take third. “We joked all season that Mason was on a revenge tour because he kept defeating guys that beat him in middle school and previously in high school. He’s extremely dedicated to his training and has continued to grow and improve every year.”
And Senior Bennett Bergmann placed fifth overall at 182 pounds.
“His career was really remarkable, qualifying to the state tournament three times. He had a really nice post-season run winning sectionals and placing at the state tournament. Bennett is a high-quality kid that has spent many hours training in the off-season to accomplish his goals,” added Coach Raygor.
ALSO AT the state ….
A state title also went to 106-pound freshman Dawson Johnson of Cumberland. He ended the year 21-1 with a 5-1 victory over Ian Radintz of Glenwood City in the state finals.
One of the state’s gutsiest performances came from Spooner/Webster senior 195-pounder Carter Melton.
He was pinned in 1:33 of his first match — but it wasn’t through. Melton went back to work and registered three straight pins in 3:43; 4:56 and in the third place match he pinned Abram Helsell of Lomira in 2:36.
Here’s a roundup of We Are Network area wrestlers who placed in the state tournament: