The last time the Portage wrestling team captured a regional title, no one on this year’s team had been born yet.
Following their best finish at the Badger Conference Tournament since 2007, the Warriors look primed to contend for their first regional championship in 22 years when they take on the Division 2 Jefferson regional on Saturday.
Portage, which last won a regional title in 1998, finished eighth at last Saturday’s 14-team league tournament, scoring 157 points. That was the most points Portage has scored at the conference meet since the Warriors scored 172 in a sixth-place finish 13 years ago.
“I think we’re always looking to take steps forward and we’re always pretty aware of things,” Portage coach Shane Haak said. “We have goals this year and we want to continue to climb levels, but as a program we’re aware of where we’re at.
“Overall we wrestled well but at the same time we have that expectation for us. It wasn’t a surprise to us as we’ve competed with some of the top teams in the conference already this season.”
Portage racked up nine top-eight finishes at Saturday’s conference meet, including an individual championship by senior Jessie Tijerina and two runners-up finishes from sophomores Chase Beckett and Lowell Arnold. As impressive as those results were, Haak said the Warriors take more pride in their performance as a team in dual meets.
That showed throughout the year as Portage went 12-9 overall, including 3-5 in the Badger North. The Warriors’ final two league duals, losses to Reedsburg and Sauk Prairie, came down to the final match. Haak credits the team’s improvement in dual meets to being solid throughout all 14 weight classes.
“We do have individual goals, but we’re a big believer that if we can put a solid team together, that’s how we can make each other better in the room,” he said.
“I think our coaches do a great job working with everyone in the room, and our older guys do a good job helping our younger guys in the room. I think it’s a very selfless program that we have with our coaches and our student athletes.”
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The Warriors, who are receiving honorable mention in Division 2 in the latest WiWrestling.com rankings, also benefited from a difficult schedule. Portage went 3-2 to finish 11th overall at the 32-team Adams-Friendship Devils Duals early in the season, and also went 3-2 at the difficult Wauwatosa West Tom Janssen Invite. On top of that, the Warriors had three top-six tournament finishes.
Portage opened the season by winning the 18-team Black River Falls Invite before finishing third out of 16 teams at the Harvard (Ill.) Invite. One of Portage’s top performances came at the vaunted Bi-State Classic in La Crosse, where it finished 12th overall and fifth among 25 Division 2 teams, with Tijerina becoming the fourth individual Bi-State champion in school history.
Haak said the Warriors’ difficult slate is by no coincidence, and one of the focuses is to see different wrestling styles.
“We want to put ourselves in the position to wrestle good, quality competition each week because we believe it prepares us for conference, regionals, sectionals and state,” he said. “When you get to this time, the conference tournament, we had a great showing and we saw some high intensity, but we’ve been in that position before.”
One major change facing the Warriors this postseason is a drop back down to Division 2 after spending the last four seasons in Division 1. The road to qualifying for the state tournament as an individual or team is a little easier as a Division 2 team, but Haak said not much else changes in his eyes.
“The outcome will take care of itself, so our focus is on how much we can get better this week and wrestling to our ability. If we do that team-wise and individually, the outcome takes care of itself,” Haak said.
That outcome Portage is hoping for is a regional title, but in order for that to happen, the Warriors must find a way to beat perennial power Lodi at Saturday’s regional in Jefferson. The Blue Devils, who are also receiving honorable mention in the Division 2 rankings, have won 25 consecutive regional titles and will pose another stiff challenge.
Lodi stood in Portage’s way the last time the Warriors made a serious push to win a regional championship. That was in 2014, when competing in the Division 2 Marshall regional, Portage finished second to the Blue Devils by 35.5 points.
In order for Portage to seriously challenge Lodi on Saturday, Haak thinks his team must enter the meet with the same mindset its had all season.
“I think it just comes back to being consistent and wrestling our style, which is focusing on the match at hand, trying to wear guys out and grind out matches,” he said.
“Just focusing on the next point, not the outcome, the team outcome or anything like that. It’s just focusing on that match and the next point at hand. It’s the same mindset we’ve had all year.”
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.