A final shot at glory
Three senior grapplers seek more state success
The first few days of March could be special for the Forest Lake wrestling program. The Rangers are enjoying a successful year on the mat and have hopes of qualifying for state as a team for the first time since winning the title in 1993.
The state meet will also mark the end of a memorable chapter in program history. This year’s team is stacked with seniors.
“They’re special to me,” says head coach Billy Pierce, who took over the program when the Class of 2012 was in eighth grade. “When I first came, I brought a lot of kids from the junior high up [to varsity], thinking the team had graduated a lot the year before. I was coming in with a new system, a different coaching style and thought, ‘Hey, if there’s a time to bring some kids up, this is the time.’”
The crew of seniors includes three multiple-time state qualifiers in Tyler Isaacson, Ben Morgan and Michael Pleski.
That trio has combined for over 413 career wins, 192 falls and seven state medals.
Growing up in a family with strong wrestling ties, Morgan has always been a notable name. He fully stepped into the spotlight in Pierce’s first season, winning the state title at 112 pounds.
An animated grappler, Morgan has never lost more than four matches in a season. He broke the school’s all-time win record last winter and should end up as one of the top five or 10 all-time wins leaders in state history. Along the way, he guides the team by voice and by action.
“He goes out with tons of confidence thinking he’s going to win,” Pleski says.
Morgan prides himself on being a well-rounded technician.
“If this guy takes a bad shot, I’m going to score off it,” he says. “If I take a shot and he defends a little bit, I’m going to find another way to take him down.”
For all his success, though, the state title has eluded Morgan for the past three years. He has placed third at state in each of those seasons. His early breakthrough has caused others to expect nothing less than perfection. Morgan admits that pressure took a toll on him last season. In this past off-season, he pushed the reset button and came in with a new attitude: work hard, fight to the horn and don’t think too far ahead.
“Winning state is a big deal, and something I want to do again, but at the same time I gotta keep moving forward and just take one match at a time,” he says.
He is off to a 14-2 start to the season, with one of his losses coming to an out-of-state opponent who is ahead of him in national rankings. He is the top-ranked grappler in the 132-pound weight class.
One would expect his favorite Ranger moment to be his 2008 championship, but Morgan gives that label to his win at this season’s Minnesota Christmas Tournament. For his third career title at the Rochester event, Morgan was named the meet’s most outstanding wrestler.
“It was the best match I’ve wrestled in my entire high school career,” he said of his win in the finals over Apple Valley’s Dakota Trom.
To top it off, Morgan accepted the Most Outstanding Wrestler award from former Gopher and NCAA national champion Jason Ness, a close family friend and longtime role model.
“He was kind of like the older brother role model to me, and having him present that award to me meant the world,” Morgan said. “That was a huge deal for both families. That was a real cool moment.”
Morgan will move on this fall to compete for the University of Nebraska. One of the aspects that attracted him to the Cornhusker program is the coaching staff’s background in freestyle wrestling. Outside of his prep career, Morgan is an accomplished freestyle wrestler and he hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps in that regard. Gordy Morgan, a Ranger assistant who also leads the club program at the University of Minnesota, was a Greco-Roman Olympian in 1996.
For the younger Morgan, it’s all about accomplishing his own goals.
“People always expect me to do great,” he says. “That’s something you can’t let bother you. You have to use it as motivation and just show everybody you’re a champion and just keep working hard and keep fighting and people will figure it out themselves.”
In just his fourth year in the program, Isaacson seeks his third state medal. He began wrestling as a 5-year-old, and dropped other sports to focus on it in fifth or sixth grade. The former St. Francis resident joined the team in ninth grade when his family moved to the area.
He started as a 103-pounder but has bulked up over the years and now usually competes at 138.
“I remember when he first came, he was a little guy and I could take him down whenever I wanted,” Morgan says. “But now he got bigger, he’s gotten a lot better. I can’t just take him down whenever I want. He stays in great position, and he’s very fast and athletic.”
Isaacson took third place at state as a sophomore and fourth a year ago. Currently, he is ranked third in the state and carries a record of 17-4.
“I have a few losses that I didn’t want to have, but I just have to battle through,” he says. “All that matters is state, I guess.”
Isaacson has been accepted to St. John’s and hopes to wrestle there.
One of eight siblings, Pleski is the first to come through the program. His father, Troy, wrestled for FLHS, and Michael got his start in the sport at age 3.
“He always pushed me, he always wanted me to be in wrestling,” says Pleski, whose brother, James, reached state last season as an eighth-grader.
It has paid off with a career that could eclipse 100 wins. He took fourth at state in 2010 and is determined to top that this winter.
“I really want to get on the wall in the wresting room by placing top three in the state,” Pleski says. “That’s always been a goal of mine. I’m really going to work hard this season and try to get up there.”
The 126-pounder is ranked third and has a record of 12-5. He only took part in three matches as a ninth-grader because he was in the same weight class as Isaacson. Pleski has topped 35 wins and reached state in both seasons as a full-time varsity member.
“He’s hard to tie up,” Morgan says. “I don’t know what it is, whether he’s got some sort of plumbers’ hands or whatever, but when he grabs your hands, he can break them.”
The Chisago Lakes native is undecided on his plans for next year, but hopes to wrestle. As of now, he is looking at St. John’s, St. Olaf and Minnesota State–Moorhead.
Boosting the Team
The senior trio has always been close enough in weight to practice together. That also means they can line up back-to-back-to-back in dual meets. Needless to say, that part of the match often doesn’t take long.
“To have them in your lineup, there’s not a lot of thinking there,” Pierce says. “You send them out there and nine out of 10 times they do their jobs and they do it well. It’s great to have them right next to each other like that.”
Pierce said the skill and work ethic of the three have made those around them better, as well. So much so, in fact, that this could be the best team of the seniors’ era.
“We all have the skill to do great, so we just need to believe in ourselves,” Isaacson says. “We should be able to pull it off and go to state this year.”
The team’s senior leaders excel off the mat, as well, which is an aspect Pierce finds especially rewarding.
“I get comments from teachers occasionally about how good of kids they are and how much of a delight it is to have them in class,” he says. “There’s nothing better a coach or parent wants to hear about their kids. We know they’re good wrestlers – their career accomplishments have shown that – but a lot of the time we don’t think about how they are as people.”