By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Before every match this season, coach Todd Hesson has reminded his Niles wrestlers of the opportunities before them.
Calling every face-off a chance to make history has been more than just encouragement. This season is looking good to go down as the best in the Vikings’ long history.
Niles has won a school-record 29 matches, with just one loss. Last weekend, for the first time, the Vikings repeated as Berrien County Invitational champions. They wrestle in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference tournament Saturday, and next week will attempt to win their District for the second straight season – which also would be a first.
“All of these kids have stuck together,” said Hesson, who was promoted to varsity coach in 2007-08. “When these seniors started, they took a beating. But we haven’t changed the competition. They've just weathered the storm.”
“We had 20 (wins) exactly, 20-16 (when they were freshmen). It was not a pretty record. But we saw a big jump (from them) as sophomores.”
And the rest, literally, is history.
The list of teams Niles has beaten this winter compares well with the best slates in the state – Division 1 No. 10 Battle Creek Lakeview, Division 2 No. 2 Lowell, No. 4 Allegan and formerly-ranked Mason, and Division 3 No. 3 Whitehall and No. 9 Saginaw Swan Valley. The lone loss came to Shelby, the No. 5 team in Division 3, 31-29.
Four seniors anchor the Niles lineup, including three MHSAA Finals qualifiers from last season. Total, four Vikings made the individual Finals a year ago – seniors Ryan Casey, Fritzel Findeisen and Casey Burandt and sophomore Brendon Meek.
Casey is 39-0 this season at 189 pounds and has tied the school career record with 76 pins. He’s ranked fourth in Division 2 at his weight class, with Burandt fourth at 145 pounds despite missing significant time with a broken hand and Findeisen sixth at 152. Senior Derek Scott is ranked seventh at 285 pounds and senior Nick Zimmerman is sixth at 119.
“They’re a tough group of kids. They work hard,” Hesson said. “Quite honestly, and I say it all the time, but I’m blessed with a good group of kids. They do what you ask.”
All four classes contribute to the Vikings' line-up, and the team bond grew strong over the summer during a week-long camp hosted by former University of Wisconsin All-American Jeff Jordan. Niles wrestlers entered Jordan’s Ohio facility and left only for morning runs and meals, even sleeping on the mats at night – although Hesson “cheated” a few times by sleeping in the team van.
Some of his wrestlers may not have been too excited about the camp at the time, but understand its worth after what they've accomplished this season. Hesson said they’ll return this summer.
And by then, the Vikings could surely be able to boast that this was their best season ever.
Banners hang in Niles wrestling room highlighting the team’s District and Regional championships. The Regional banner lists only two seasons – 1935 and 1960. Niles has never advanced to MHSAA Team Finals weekend since the team championship format was added in 1988.
An obstacle often has been powerful Stevensville Lakeshore, a Division 2 Quarterfinalist the last five seasons. But Niles, after beating Lakeshore by 7.5 points to win the 2012 Berrien County Invitational, repeated last weekend by finishing 62 points ahead of the field.
Even as Hesson admits his program still has a ways to go to join Lakeshore as a regular southwestern Michigan power, he likes to think the Vikings are headed that way. The next month could tell more of how far they've come.
“ We've had some pretty good teams going all the way back to my first year. But Lakeshore had better teams; they were stacked,” Hesson said. “Not to take away anything from them, but they made us better … another notch or two or three.”
PHOTO: Niles' Fritzel Findeisen (in white) wrestles during last season's MHSAA Division 2 Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)