When Cole Acker and Lawrence Thomas both made it through regionals, Wauwatosa wrestling coach Kent Morin knew the two needed to perform better at sectionals in order to make it to the state tournament.
Acker won a sectional title at 132 pounds, while Thomas and Dayton Lewis earned trips to Madison with second-place finishes at the West Allis Central sectional on Feb. 18, giving Wauwatosa at least three state participants for the third straight year and for the fourth time in the past five years.
"It was the kind of day you dream about as a coach," Wauwatosa coach Kent Morin said. "The coaching staff believed that those three guys could get through, but it was going to take a perfect day of wrestling. That is what we got."
After spending a good portion of the season in the state rankings, Acker took second place at the Woodland Conference tournament and at the Brookfield Central regional and wasn't overly pleased with how had been performing entering sectionals.
"I've been having a weak end to my season," Acker said. "The season hasn't finished out the way I wanted to. I just decided today that I wasn't going to let that get me down. I just had to trust in myself and trust everything my coaches told me."
Acker opened sectionals with a 3-2 decision over Tyris Sinlapakone of Mukwonago in the quarterfinals before claiming a 6-4 win over Nathaniel Schroeter of Greenfield in the semifinals. That set up a finals rematch against Brookfield East's David Holzem, who beat Acker, 5-4, with a late reversal in the championship at regionals.
This time, Acker got the best of Holzem with a 3-2 decision. The match was 0-0 at the end of the second period before Acker earned an escape and a takedown to go up 3-0 before a stalling call and a late escape put Holzem on the board. Unlike the week prior, Acker prevented Holzem from scoring late to steal the match
"Cole worked hard all year long and definitely had some adversity along the way," Morin said. "But he fought through it, kept trying to make adjustments, and just got better every week. It is so nice to see when hard work gets rewarded."
Lewis (32-12) received a bye to the semifinals at 106 when a wrestler had to drop out due not making weight. He then was faced with wrestling Chip Hansen of Whitnall/Greendale looking to avenge a 7-2 loss at the Woodland Conference tournament.
The freshman fell behind, 4-2, in the first period. Hansen then received a penalty point and recorded a reversal to increase his lead to 7-2. But Lewis then scored a reversal and a 2-point nearfall to enter the third down, 7-6. Lewis succeeded on a double leg takedown to go up 8-7 and rode out the remaining time.
"The first time I lost by a point, and I was pretty angry about that," Lewis said. "The second time, I just got destroyed. That wasn't my day. I worked hard to make sure I'd beat him to get to the finals. I stepped up my technique a lot. That's all I worked on throughout the week. Hard work paid off."
Lewis lost to Muskego's Parker Bevilacqua in the finals, 12-0, but did not have to wrestle back for second place because Hansen won the third-place match.
"For a freshman to accomplish this is amazing," Morin said. "Dayton is just a tough kid that hates to lose, and as a result, is able to grind out close matches. He really peaked at the absolute right time of the year."
Thomas, who is honorable mention in the state rankings at 195 pounds, won 8-3 over Gavin McNally of Muskego in the quarterfinals and overcame being kicked in the head to beat 12th-ranked Jeff Leflore of West Allis Central, 5-3, in the semifinals. With the match against Leflore tied, 3-3, Thomas recorded an escape in the second period and another in the third to win.
Shortly after falling, 9-0, to Jack Trautman of Waterford in the finals, Thomas glanced up and watched Leflore win in overtime over 10th-ranked Kettle Moraine's Josh Nowak, sending Thomas to state for the second consecutive season.
"Lawrence had the toughest weight class in the tournament, in my opinion," Morin said. "There were five guys in his weight class that are talented enough to be at the state tournament. One of them was McNally, who LT had to beat the first round."
After being pinned twice at state a year ago, including by 195-pound state champion Jacob Rashka of Pewaukee, Thomas (37-7) has high hopes this time around.
"I'm trying to get on the podium this year," Thomas said. "I just feel great right now. I learned I need to ignore the crowd (at state). Last year, I was dazed by everything happening. I just need to focus on my opponent and wrestle my match."
Andrew Radtke (113 pounds) and Lathan Hay (126) each took third place at sectionals but did not receive second-place wrestlebacks because the wrestler they lost to in the semifinals lost in the championship match. Austin Ertl (285) took fourth place before having to drop out due to a hand injury, while Adrian Coppage (120), Griffin Granberry (138) and Van McNulty (182) fell in opening-round matches.
The WIAA Division 1 state meet will begin at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Kohl Center in Madison. Lewis will open with fourth-ranked Zeke Smith (42-3) of Sauk Prairie, Acker will take on honorable mention wrestler Sam Boerner (33-8) of Cedarburg, and Thomas drew sixth-ranked Joe Leonhardt (40-5) of West Bend West.
"To win six close matches in one afternoon was amazing," Morin said. "As a coaching staff, we couldn’t ask for anything more out of these guys. They truly earned their trips to the state tournament with hard work and unbelievable conditioning."