There's no denying who will be front and center this season for the Pewaukee wrestling team. PHS, a perennial contender to make it to the state team tournament, returns two state champions in seniors Jacob Raschka and Blaze Beltran.
Raschka, a University of Missouri recruit, is ranked as the top senior and pound-for-pound wrestler in the state by Wisconsin Wrestling Online and finished his junior campaign with a 54-0 record and a state championship at 195 pounds. Raschka cruised through nearly every match that season after winning a national championship the prior summer.
"Incredibly, Raschka seems to be even better this year," Pewaukee coach Ed Kurth said. "His offensive attack is even more unstoppable, and he is definitely the most relentless practice wrestler I have ever seen. He is definitely worthy of wiwrestling.com's ranking as the No. 1 wrestler in Wisconsin. Both pound for pound and head to head, I am confident that Jacob Raschka is the best wrestler in Wisconsin. His shot is like magic, his defense is seemingly impenetrable, he can't be held down and he comes up with some big pins."
Beltran finished 2015-16 with a 53-2 and won the Division 1 title at 285. His only losses came at the prestigious Cheesehead tournament in Kaukauna in triple overtime. Beltran, along with senior Brandon Berg, is coming off a highly successful football season in which the Pirates reached the Level 4 playoffs for the first time in school history.
Last season, Berg went 44-6 at 182 and won Woodland Conference and regional titles but just missed out on a state tournament berth. Junior Eric Halverson qualified for state in 2015-16 and was 41-9. Halverson's big win came in the sectional finals over former state champion Tyus White of West Allis Central.
Junior Jacob Duncan and sophomore Nick Starich both won conference titles for the Pirates last season.
Other returning wrestlers with varsity experience include seniors DJ Muller, Conner Goodman; juniors Jacob Sklenar, Antonio Gonzales, Nate Keskinen, Mike Fedder; sophomores Jacob Baker, Rece Czerniejewski, Josh Keskinen.
Even with a large amount of experience returning, PHS may struggle to fill out its lineup. Kurth noted wrestlers are piling up in the last four weight classes and some varsity-caliber student-athletes will not have varsity spots.
"Our goals this season lie on three dates: Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11," Kurth said. "These dates mark the Pirate Duals, where we will face perhaps our most challenging conference dual opposition, the conference tournament, and the regional tournament. We will need to make a lot of progress through the next two months to be prepared to reach our goals. This is our third year in Division 1 and this time we will be competing in a different regional and sectional."
Pewaukee's regional includes Arrowhead, Menomonee Falls, Oconomowoc, Sussex Hamilton, Homestead, Milwaukee Vincent and Milwaukee Madison.
"I have to say that when we moved into Division 1 two years ago as a school of about 800 students, I knew we would face disadvantages in the numbers game, perhaps the most important aspect in developing a successful wrestling team," Kurth said. "These much larger high schools and school districts would have more boys to recruit from their high school hallways as well as from their multiple elementary and middle schools for their youth programs. I think we were prepared for that challenge. What I didn't understand was the disadvantage we would face in open seats for transfer students. Top Wisconsin wrestlers are switching school districts and the bigger the school, the more open seats there seem to be."
Kurth, who enters his 17th season as Pewaukee's coach, said wrestlers from other districts have applied to the Pewaukee School District over the last few years, but have been denied since no spots were available.
"Those wrestlers then applied at bigger area schools where they were accepted," Kurth said. "Ultimately, I do think wrestlers should compete for the school district in which they live. This kind of commute-to-compete free agency tips the scales and gives some high school wrestling teams a sudden advantage over programs that have conversely worked hard at all the prior levels to achieve future varsity goals. I still view wrestling as a team and community sport but fear that this growing custom, which mirrors the practices of private and voucher schools, is only going to expand and, thus, damage the best part of our sport."
Pewaukee won its 13th conference crown last season and 12th regional title in the last 16 years. The Pirates have qualified for the state team tournament five times in the last nine years and reached the finals twice.
Assistant coaches include Tony Senner, Jon Volpentesta, Joe Porter and Mike Zillmer. All five of Pewaukee's coaches, which includes Kurth, wrestled for Pewaukee.