At the very beginning of the season, way back in November, Minot High wrestling coach Nolan Spooner tempered his team's expectations a bit. With 22 underclassmen on a team of 31 grapplers, and only one senior in the lineup for most of the year, that made sense. It was "all about experience," he said.
Three months and many matches later, Spooner is raising the bar for the Class A individual tournament, which runs today through Saturday. It's still all about experience for the mostly baby-faced team with a bright future, but it's about building the program, too.
"I think these kids have grown their confidence throughout the year," Spooner said. "Their technique has grown leaps and bounds and I hope they put everything together this weekend and are successful."
For the Magicians, who boast five seeded wrestlers, what exactly qualifies as success at state?
"We want to avoid going 0-2. We want to make sure that every kid that comes down here gets a win under their belt," Spooner said.
A single win at state can serve as stepping stones to the future for Minot. A taste of success can boost enthusiasm for the offseason, Spooner said. The wrestling camps and weight-lifting sessions don't seem so daunting with the aid of an encouraging win this weekend.
"You want to do well heading into the offseason," Spooner said. "That's the big thing."
Two senior Magicians - No. 7-seeded 285-pounder Isaiah Crowe (31-10) and sixth-seeded 220-pounder James DancingBull (4-1) - have no offseason to head into.
Crowe's bracket, more than the rest, is wide open. He figures to finish anywhere from first to eighth.
"Definitely first place is what I've been hoping for all year," Crowe said. "It's what I've been putting in all that work for for four years. It would make it worth it."
To take home the top prize, he'll likely need to plow through an onslaught of familiar foes.
His first-round matchup, against Grand Forks Red River sophomore Carter Buelow, appears simple. In two meetings this season, Crowe has pinned Buelow twice. Here's where it gets interesting. The second round projects a match against No. 2 seed Brandon Metz of West Fargo, and boy, does Crowe ever know Metz.
Last year, Crowe dropped a decision to Metz, leaving him off the podium.
"I think I was down by one and he kept backing up and the double-leg (takedown) was there and I just didn't take it," Crowe said. "I really regret not pulling the trigger."
The duo's lone showdown this season ended in a sudden victory for Metz after the first three periods yielded a 1-1 tie.
A second-round win would likely summon a rubber match with third-seeded Bismarck sophomore Tristan Hall. Crowe upset then-top-ranked Hall in a dual in January before dropping a 4-1 decision to the Demon last weekend at the West Region tournament, where Crowe placed fifth and Hall topped the podium.
The Magicians' heavyweight hasn't faced the No. 1 seed, Fargo Davies senior Hunter Swensen. To procure a meeting with Swensen, or anyone, in the championship, Crowe said he needs to wrestle aggressively.
"I'm hoping not to have any regrets this weekend and make it to the top of the podium," he said.
DancingBull, meanwhile, missed most of the season due to injuries and ineligibility. Spooner said "he's healthy, he's ready to go."
The Magicians have three seeded underclassmen as well, including two at 106 pounds.
Eighth-grader Brody Armstrong secured the No. 4 seed with a third-place finish at the region tournament. Last year, he went 1-2 at state, missing the podium. He feels plenty more prepared this time around.
"I learned that it's a long tournament," Armstrong said. "It's a three-day tournament. We haven't had anything like that all year. You just gotta stay strong throughout the tournament and keep your energy up and stay motivated throughout all three days."
He's eyeing a top-three finish this year.
Spooner said Armstrong and sophomore Matthew Leier, the seventh seed, have benefited from grappling with each other in practice.
"They're both kind of competitive with who's gonna place higher," Spooner said. "That kind of competition inside the wrestling room, outside the wrestling room - as friends - it gives them something that fuels that fire."
Eighth-grader Creighton Rudolph slid into the No. 8 seed at 138 pounds when an ill wrestler from Wahpeton withdrew. Spooner said his 20-21 record is extremely deceiving. He's wrestled the top grapplers as 138 and 145 pounds this year.
"You look at his record and you go, 'Woah, that kid's got a lot of losses,' but you take into consideration who he's lost to and you go, 'Man, an eighth-grader wrestling 138? He's doing pretty good.' "
The Magicians, who qualified 15 wrestlers for the individual event, did not qualify for the dual team tournament. Both events begin at 10 a.m. today, Friday and Saturday.
Ryan Holmgren cover Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.