Losing consecutive WIAA state wrestling tournament finals was a crushing conclusion to Aaron Schulist's freshman and sophomore seasons. It was a disappointing end when it happened once, but when expectations were even greater a season later, the end was heartbreaking.
Schulist was upset, but then he got back on the mat. Wrestling isn't just a sport the Mukwonago junior takes up every winter; it's something he's done since fourth grade when he started in Mukwonago's youth wrestling program. Now, after an offseason wrestling across the country, Schulist seeks a WIAA state championship after being so close for two straight years.
"Eighth grade, I had a lot of success on the state and national level," Schulist said. "I just wanted to go out there and wrestle as best as I could. I ended up going to the state tournament. It wasn't really a surprise to me; I expected to be at the state tournament. But to make the finals the way that I did, it surprised me even. Being a freshman in the state finals, it was pretty nerve-racking because you're a freshman competing in front of thousands in the Kohl Center. I didn't really know what to expect there. It kind of got to me."
Schulist lost to Stoughton's Brandon Klein as a freshman, 5-2. A year later, Stevens Point's Dylan Koontz won by decision in the finals, 11-4.
"Last year after losing it was very upsetting because I expected to win the tournament," Schulist said. "I've wrestled Koontz plenty of times before. I actually beat him freshman year at a little tournament. Going into the match, I felt there was more pressure on him to win because he expected to finish his season perfect, which he ended up doing. After the finals, I was just really upset. Losing in front of people like that again, it really hurts, but it lights a fire in me. You never want to feel that disappointing feeling again. It just motivates me every day to keep pushing through anything and everything to just win it this year."
Many things motivate Schulist. Losing is one factor, but another is being underestimated.
"I love being underestimated, to be totally honest," Schulist said. "There's something about it that really drives me. Freshman year, I ended up wrestling the No. 1 undefeated kid in the quarterfinals (Germantown's Zack Szohr, who took fourth that year) and everyone expected him to beat the crap out of me, but it went the opposite way, and I ended up pinning him in the quarters."
Coming into the 2016-17 season, Wisconsin Wrestling Online ranked Schulist as the fifth-best junior in the state.
"All the rankings and all those things, I know he's driven by it," Mukwonago coach Jon Wierzbicki said. "It motivates him, but at the end of the day, he's passionate and he strives to just get better and better each day. I trust he'll be right there at the end of the season. His work ethic is second to none. His wrestling IQ just continues to grow. We're fortunate and blessed to have him in our program for the next couple years. He'll serve as a captain. As a leader, that's a challenge in itself as a junior to really lead a young team as well. I think without a doubt, he wants to help our program both individually and as a team."
Schulist's fantastic offseason should help Mukwonago in many ways. At the Northern Plains Regional last May, Schulist won both the freestyle and Greco-Roman titles at 120 pounds. In October, Schulist went 3-2 at the Super 32 Challenge, a national tournament in North Carolina. Schulist qualified for the Round of 16 before having to bow out after suffering a concussion and incurring six stitches near his eye after a head butt from his opponent.
Doing so well in high-profile tournaments will keep the spotlight on Schulist, but that shouldn't be an issue.
"I don't really worry about the pressure," Schulist said. "Over the past few seasons, I've gotten less and less nervous because I've been working on my mindset. I just don't feel much pressure. I'm going to go out there and do what I do and compete for six minutes."
Schulist, a two-time Classic 8 Conference champion, hopes to wrestle at the Division 1 level in college, but before he graduates in 2018, he has his eyes set on both individual and team goals. Last season, Mukwonago made the state team semifinals before losing to Kaukauna, the eventual state champion in D1.
"We have a lot of depth, especially at the lower weights," Schulist said of Mukwonago. "We have Aric Bohn, who's up at 220 and is a co-captain with me. At our lower weights, we've got some incoming freshmen who are really solid. We've got some really good middle weights who can fill the roles up there. Overall, there's so much depth to our team. If someone would happen to get hurt, we would have a pretty solid backup to fill in that role."
Wierzbicki believes Schulist will have two more special seasons of high school wrestling.
"The thing that separates him from his peers and maybe guys I've coached in the past is his absolute passion for the sport and his focus on it," Wierzbicki said. "He's not afraid to take on challenges and to continue to grow as a wrestler."