ST. PAUL -- Southwest Minnesota’s two high school wrestling champions were a study in contrasts after coming off the Xcel Energy Center floor Saturday night.
Jackson County Central sophomore Payton Handevidt changed into his comfortable clothes with a twinkle in his eye, looking as if he had enough energy reserves to do five laps around the perimeter of the building.
But Tracy-Milroy-Balaton/Westbrook-Walnut Grove senior Trevor Eisfeld was clearly spent. He had been ill Friday and Saturday. He had slept just two hours the night before. All day long, he struggled with shortness of breath. He’d been nauseous with headaches and body aches. Yet, he prevailed when it counted the most.
Handevidt, after placing a disappointing sixth at the state tournament last season at 120 pounds, won the 145-pound Class A championship to finish his season 48-4. Eisfeld, coming off a second-place finish at 182 pounds a year earlier, earned his title at the same weight to finish 51-0 on the 2019-20 season.
Handevidt stuck to the plan
In his championship match against Chatfield junior Seth Goetzinger, Handevidt gave up the first takedown. But that first-period anomaly didn’t bother him a bit. He escaped and got a takedown of his own to lead 3-2 heading into the second period, where he stretched his lead to 6-2. It ended 8-3.
“I think I was just a little bit nervous going into it. It kinda woke me up,” the plucky soph said about his early deficit.
For the rest of the match, he was in charge, taking shots repeatedly -- sometimes completing them -- and counter-punching confidently to maintain his edge. Strong, quick, smart and determined -- this is where Handevidt has shined throughout the winter, and his talents were plainly on display under the bright Xcel lights.
“Just keep my head in it, stick to my game plan, keep working hard. Do what I want to do and control the match,” was how he described his championship match attitude. “After I got the lead, I kept scoring, sticking to my plan.”
Handevidt won 5-3 and 8-2 decisions on Friday to get a Saturday semifinal match with Deer River senior Trey Fairbanks, who entered the showdown with a 36-0 record. The sophomore won that one by a 7-4 score.
After that, there was no stopping him in the finals.
“Feels amazing,” he said. “I’ve been here, so I kind of know what it’s like. Just the experience.”
“It just kind of built as the tournament wore on,” said his head coach Nate Hanson. “We got better with each match.”
The previous year at state, Handevidt felt sixth place wasn’t good enough. “That’s not what I wanted, and I just kind of realized what it would take,” he recalled. “Put more time in the weight room and got what I wanted.”
It also helped that he grew naturally into a 145-pounder, meaning he didn’t have to cut so much weight as he did the previous year to slip into the 120-pound category.
For Hanson, Handevidt is his first state individual champion since he assumed the JCC head coaching position for 2018-19. He chalked up Handevidt’s 2020 season to hard work, beginning in the off-season.
“He’s a smart wrestler. He’s been out there a lot. He’s comfortable. He’s got a good feel for positions. He’s pretty sound in all three positions,” Hanson said.
Eisfeld put it all on the mat
There was much at stake Saturday night, not only for Eisfeld, but also for Tracy. The town had never crowned a state individual wrestling champion before.
Moments before the T-M-B/W-WG senior stepped up to challenge Maple River senior Nathan Trio for the 182-pound championship, Eisfeld’s friend and practice partner Jace Paplow lost his bid for a title at 170 pounds, losing 1-0.
By Saturday evening, the 2020 state tournament had already been a grueling slog for Eisfeld and T-M-B/W-WG, which on Thursday finished off three team matches en route to fourth place in Class A. But with his coaches encouraging him at the corner of the mat in his championship bout, Eisfeld answered the bell.
He led Trio 2-1 at the conclusion of the first period, gave up an escape in the second for 2-2, then fought to an 8-6 lead heading into the third. Perhaps due to the effects of his illness, he wasn’t able to hold onto Trio for long after getting his takedowns, but he got the majority of the takedowns nonetheless.
The final score was 14-10, and after his arms were raised in victory Eisfeld managed to do a cartwheel and a flip.
“So happy,” he said rather quietly moments later, slumped in a chair with his head down in the tunnel.
“I went out there and I told myself I was gonna win it,” he continued.
In four state individual matches, Eisfeld won by fall in 1:36, by 11-2 major decision, by a 3-2 decision, and then 14-10.
In the brief intervals between the actual on-mat action Saturday night, Eisfeld’s chest heaved. He was clearly running on fumes.
“I just had one thing in mind, and that was to win it. Just have to push through it. I think I conserved everything I had just for that match … I did feel weak, but …” he testified, not finishing his sentence.
“I’d wait for him to rush in and then I’d take my shot. I used my technique,” he said. “First period, get as many points as I could, second period survive, and third period survive.”
He gave ample credit to Paplow, who he has practiced with since the fifth grade.
“Me and my partner, we’re just grinding it out every day. If you have a really good partner that you have a good relationship with, it makes you go four times better.”