Oak Creek 126-pound wrestler Matt Berlin is a prime example of the level of motivation the third-ranked Knights have this winter.
He was ranked second in the state in his class last season heading into WIAA regionals, a state meet berth and possible shot at a coveted championship within his sight, but a case of ringworm knocked him out of the competition. A short time later, the heavily-favored Knights were upset by Southeast Conference rival Kenosha Bradford in the WIAA state team dual for a coveted berth in the state team tournament.
All that stuck in Berlin and the Knights' craw and more than partly explains the high degree of energy, determination and skill Oak Creek has thrown into this season. It was fully on display again Jan. 20, when the Knights claimed four individual titles en route to the championship in the Homestead Scramble.
It marked the third straight major meet championship in as many weeks for Oak Creek.
"This has all just pushed harder," said Berlin, who was one of the individual champions for the Knights at Homestead. "That's our main goal (getting to team state). We've been working hard, and the schedule has been so difficult, it had to show up in our (state) ranking."
And though the state ranking is a nice reward, coach Matt Sommerville said, it's just a number on a computer screen right now and doesn't affect the effort in the practice room.
"We don't talk about those things," he said. "The kids know about it, They know what it means, but they know we have bigger goals than just a good ranking. We know we have a target on our back right now. They know we have to wrestle well everytime, and they're very mentally tough that way."
Falls coach Jim McMahon agreed, noting his team had a good game plan for the Knights but just didn't have the firepower to overcome Oak Creek's depth. The Knights' firepower and depth led to a 488.5-point total; Falls was second with 390.5.
Individual titles went to Match Landgraf at 120 pounds (5-0 on the day, 29-2 overall), Berlin at 126 (5-0, 29-2), Veliko Kochiu at 132 (5-0, 16-1) and Jesse Kovnesky at 152 (5-0, 25-6).
Landgraf was impressive in winning his title, surviving an OT challenge in the semifinals from a Burlington opponent and then edging Cooper Hunt of Homestead, 5-4, in the final. It was about the fifth time over the last two years the pair have met, and all have been close, Sommerville said.
Berlin had two pins and two major decisions before outlasting Falls' Matt Anderson, 6-4, in the final.
"Anderson is just relentless," Sommerville said. "Everytime we see him, I just get so worried."
Kochiu continued to impress with two major decisions and two pins, including one in the final of Falls state qualifier Austin Lasanske (2:26).
"Veliko is such a dangerous kid," Sommerville said. "He knows so many moves."
Kovnesky recorded three pins in winning his crown and defeated Whitefish Bay freshman star Dajun Johnson, 9-3, in the final.
"Jesse looked great," Sommerville said, "because that kid from Bay has a world of talent."
Among those taking seconds were Joey Colla at 138 (4-1, 26-5) and Nolan Paar (4-1, 28-3) at 170. Paar recorded four pins before losing to Kettle Moraine's powerful Michael Burgireno, 17-8, in the final.
Other runner-up finishes went to John Wright at 195 (3-2, 13-5) and Enrique Acevedo at 220 (4-1, 24-6).
Other examples of the Knights' depth included Emilee Orosz fifth at 106 (3-2, 12-19), Randall Hunt fourth at 113 (3-2, 20-11), Brandon Lenczner fourth at 145 (3-2, 19-6) and Edwin Rodriguez fifth at 160 (4-1, 13-8).
Berlin said the practice room helps the team's depth, sharpens everyone up to a fine edge.
"There's lots of energy in there; everyone is pushing one another, helping everyone else get better," he said. "We're very close, but we really pound on each other, and that just helps us get ready for state."
A worthy goal for a team that is still very motivated, Sommerville said.
"We're getting ready for regionals and sectionals," Sommerville said. "We're not taking anyone lightly, and so far, everyone has been up to the task. We always like to challenge ourselves with the best teams in the state. In the past, we didn't feel that we were appreciated (by the rest of the state), but it's not that way this year.
"We're starting to feel respected."