Blue Devils state their case
Tyler Grant walked into the Evansville High wrestling room in 2011 like so many had before him.
He hadn't wrestled before, but Grant—then a freshman—figured he could put in the work individually and improve throughout his career. This year, as a junior, he was one of three Blue Devils wrestlers to advance to the WIAA state individual wrestling tournament.
That's just a small portion of the story, however.
Grant received an awakening, and the journey for him and the Evansville/Albany program has been one that was always about the group as a whole.
“I actually didn't catch on to the whole team aspect right away,” Grant said. “At first, you walk in and you've kind of got your own idea about things, but (the older teammates) help you figure out what's really right and what's really wrong.
“I didn't even notice it; it just happened. You're working and working, and all of the sudden the selfishness is gone and everyone can focus on the big picture.”
The big picture will be on full display at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse on Saturday. Evansville/Albany will compete in the WIAA state team wrestling meet for the first time in program history.
Like a family
If the Blue Devils aren't in the wrestling room, it might be easy to find them at a local restaurant.
Grant said they'll often go out, 20 teammates at a time.
“We kind of treat it like a family in there,” said sophomore Jordan Meyer, who finished in second place in Division 2 at 132 pounds at the state individual meet on Saturday. “Everyone watches each other's back. We've made a bond that you can't really take away.”
The family includes members of all ages.
Head coach Rob Kostroun said he could have in upwards of half a dozen assistant coaches in the wrestling room at a given practice.
And Kostroun's typical starting lineup includes two seniors, seven juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.
“I've wrestled my entire life and got good at wrestling,” said junior Dustin Bjugstad, who qualified for state at 220 pounds. “But to be a part of a team that's gone this far, it's amazing.
“It's got a surprisingly large team aspect to it, and (casual fans don't) understand that.”
The Evansville/Albany group also includes a pair of female wrestlers, including one that starts for the varsity team.
Hayden Milz didn't think twice about his sister, Taylor, joining him on the wrestling team.
In part, it's because he knew it wouldn't be a big deal to his teammates, either.
In fact, it was the encouragement of some of those teammates that got her involved in wrestling in eighth grade.
“I knew some of the people on the team, and the youth coach tried to get me into it, so I tried a practice,” Taylor Milz said. “(Hayden) was persuading me for a while, but there were other people on the team that were trying to get me to go out, so I did.”
Now a sophomore, she's the starter at 113 pounds.
And with Hayden wrestling at 145, the Blue Devils boast sibling starters.
“I didn't know what to expect from her coming in, but she's a great wrestler and has improved a lot this year,” Hayden Milz said. “She's a great asset to the team.
“We're all close. It doesn't matter, female or male wrestler, we treat everybody the same.”
The Blue Devils have stuck to a somewhat fruity analogy this season.
“Coach Kostroun says a banana starts out green,” Hayden Milz said. “And the banana eventually turns brown, and then that's done and we're on to the next week. We just keep going to the next week.”
The team was ripe for success along the way, going undefeated in Rock Valley North Conference dual meets and winning a Division 2 regional at Clinton on Feb. 15.
Three days later, Evansville/Albany trekked to Wisconsin Dells for team sectionals. There, the Blue Devils used their strong team depth to score close victories over Lodi and West Salem/Bangor.
“At sectionals, our team was one of the most excited, supporting our teammates,” Taylor Milz said. “It's really nice; they give you a lot of support. It makes you proud to win for your team.”
“I'm still grasping it,” Bjugstad said of the fact that the team will make history Saturday with its first team state appearance. “We just kind of let it go and focus on the wrestling part of it. Down the road I'll think back and be like, 'I was part of that, and that was cool.'”
The Blue Devils will take on No. 1-ranked Ellsworth in a state semifinal at 10 a.m.
The winner will face the winner of Wittenberg-Birnamwood and Pewaukee for the state title at 3 p.m.
Ellsworth is a five-time state champion that has been to the state team meet for nine consecutive years, but the Blue Devils are focusing on what they can control.
“With all the achievements we've had, I think our team's really bonded together,” Meyer said. “We've been pushing to get people at every weight, so we're just pushing more and more.”
“When the season started, we just focused on competing and getting our best 14 out there,” Hayden Milz said. “We didn't really think about, 'Hey, let's make it to the state tournament.' We just kept working hard, and it happened.”