SPRINGFIELD - Going into this season, River Valley wrestling coach Todd Bertram knew his team would not win many dual meets.
With at least five-to-six vacant spots on his varsity roster, those 30-36 team points his team sacrifices due to forfeits each dual meet don't mean as much to Bertram compared to the individual progress of his wrestlers.
"It sucks as a team to not be able to fill all the weights - you want to good as a team, but as an individual I've kind of gotten used to it," said River Valley senior 182-pounder Tim Krueger. "Last year we were the same way with a big gap between me and the next guy, so I've learned how to deal with it and learned when to warm up at the right times."
Journal file photo
River Valley wreslting coaches Jeff Briard (middle) and Tod Bertram (right) prepare for Lance Briard’s state championship match at the Class A?State Tournament last year at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
River Valley is a co-op program between Springfield and Sleepy Eye for wrestling. This season, however, all of Bertram's wrestlers are Springfield students.
"We have had only a few participants for a good number of years now," said Sleepy Eye Athletic Director Cory Haala in an email to The Journal. "We were hopeful to get a couple kids this year but it didn't work out."
Success has not completely eluded River Valley in the midst of its participation dry spell. The Wildcats have had three state champions in the past four seasons - Tony Vaske (140 pounds) in 2010, Jacob Anderson (138) in 2012 and Lance Briard (heavyweight) in 2013 - as well as 10 placewinners at the Minnesota state tournament in the past 10 seasons. All three of those state champions, however, were Springfield students.
Even though Sleepy Eye has had wrestlers compete for River Valley in the past, Haala said the variety of winter activities offered sometimes leaves the cupboards bare. But that is not the only contributing factor.
"It's a combination of things," Bertram said. "We had some kids from Sleepy Eye that wrestled last year that we thought would be back out. A collection of things from some family issues to grades to a couple kids that changed sports and went over to basketball to give that a try."
Bertram said the "perfect storm" of factors that have hindered Sleepy Eye's participation in River Valley wrestling has been headlined by the problems with transportation. When there are only a couple kids who want to go out for wrestling, the feasibility of going to Springfield for practice every day does not seem worth it.
"We're hopeful that that may change, we really need to have more kids out - whether that's two or three or back to seven like we had last year," Bertram said.
DOWN THE MIDDLE
Distance, however, is not an issue for Wabasso and Red Rock Central, which combine for wrestling as the Wabasso/Red Rock Central Bobcats.
The Bobcats are currently ranked No.  in Class A with [four] wrestlers ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes. They have also had 22 state qualifiers in the past four seasons - 13 in Class A and nine in AA.
One of the biggest reasons for the team's success is how the two schools split everything.
"It helps that our program is split right down the middle," said W/RRC co-head coach Brett Bartholomus. "We share all of the practices between Lamberton and Wabasso, we share all of the home matches 50-50 and I think those things and the support of the parents makes for a welcoming environment."
Splitting everything 50-50 also means Wabasso/Red Rock Central has two head coaches. Bartholomus is rooted in Lamberton, while co-coach Gary Hindt is rooted in Wabasso.
"The biggest problem that we've had in Sleepy Eye is that we haven't had a person in the building there, a coach on staff for wrestling," Bertram said. "Without that contact, someone that the kids are familiar with and they see every day, to recruit those kids, it's tough.
"I think they do a good job working with the young kids in K-6, but then there's no one that they see every day [in grades] 7-12 to really encourage them to wrestle."
Numbers were not an issue when River Valley did have a coach working within the Sleepy Eye Public building, Bertram said. Without one, there was no surprise that participation lacked.
"I know it makes a difference," Bertram said. "It's just not an easy fix."
NO THIRD WHEEL
Sleepy Eye St. Mary's, which is part of the River Valley co-op for girl's tennis, is not part of the co-op for wrestling.
"I think we maybe at one time did [have interest in wrestling], but being part of that co-op would have put them into a higher class, so we were never actually offered to be part of the wrestling co-op," said St. Mary's Athletic Director Bruce Woitas.
St. Mary's is the smallest school in the Tomahawk Conference with an enrollment of 113 students. Wabasso is the next-smallest Tomahawk school with 125.
St. Mary's does take part in the New Ulm High School boy's hockey co-op that includes students from New Ulm Cathedral, Minnesota Valley Lutheran, Sleepy Eye and Springfield. St. Mary's is also part of the NUHS girl's hockey co-op, which includes all the aforementioned schools except for MVL and Springfield.
The decline in participation numbers is not exclusive to the River Valley program.
Many schools across the state have in fact been experiencing a decline in participation numbers in the sport.
"Quote," said former St. James Area coach Gene Hildebrandt.
EYES ON STATE
Having only eight or nine varsity wrestlers does not mean Bertram's team will go without any success this season.
The Wildcats currently have two ranked wrestlers: sophomore Sam Baier is No.  at 138 pounds and Krueger is No.  at 182.
"I feel like I'm on the track [to get to state], but I've still got a long ways to go," Krueger said. "I've got to keep working my takedowns, just keep working at it."
Wrestling is a sport that is split into two factions: individual-based tournaments and dual meets.
Dual meets pit two teams against one another with the starter from each weight class wrestling one another. Team points are awarded by wins with anything other than a regular decision earning the team "bonus points" - a major decision and technical fall without back points are four team points, a technical fall with back points is five and a pin or forfeit are six.
Individual tournaments, however, decide champions and place winners for all 14 weight classes. In Minnesota, the team title is awarded to the state dual champion, while the state tournament solely awards a state title for each weight class.
Briard, the 2013 Class A heavyweight champion, was River Valley's only qualifier in last season's state tournament.
"It's obvious that we need to have more kids out," Bertram said. "You're not going to see flattering dual scores, but it's important for our community to know that that doesn't mean we don't have good wrestlers."