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Five wrestlers look to stamp perfect seasons

The club is an exclusive one. Of the 392 athletes expected to compete in the individual part of the North Dakota high school state wrestling tournament -- which starts today at the Fargodome -- only five still have a chance to reach the mystical ...

The club is an exclusive one.

Of the 392 athletes expected to compete in the individual part of the North Dakota high school state wrestling tournament -- which starts today at the Fargodome -- only five still have a chance to reach the mystical level: a perfect state championship season.

"You try not to think about it too much and let it get to you," said Ashley-Wishek senior Matt Schlepp, who is seeded No. 1 in Class B at 130 pounds and has a 30-0 record. "State is state. Nothing that happened before that matters. It's all practice before then."

Travis Lang and Ryan Stockert of Bismarck, Levi Haugen of Minot Ryan and Keith McCleary of Napoleon join Schlepp as the only unbeaten wrestlers in the state entering the final tournament.

Haugen -- ranked No. 1 in Class B at 140 pounds with a 40-0 record -- is the lone junior in the group. He seeks a fourth consecutive state championship.

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"He's a big asset to our team," Minot Ryan coach Derek Bischof said. "We're lucky to have him. The kids respect him. Everyone respects a winner."

Lang (38-0) is seeded No. 1 in Class A at 125 pounds, while teammate Stockert (29-0) is rated No. 1 at 130. McCleary (32-0) is the top-rated Class B heavyweight.

"It's not always the best to go into the state undefeated," said Napoleon coach and Keith's father Barry McCleary, in his 25th season. "It depends on who they are. I think the ultimate goal is to be that undefeated champion, but it's not the end-all."

However, dealing with lofty expectations is not foreign to this group of unbeatens.

- Schlepp finished third at 125 last season and entered the state tournament undefeated as a sophomore before placing sixth at 112.

- Haugen went undefeated at 112 during his freshman state championship season, the second in his current string of state titles.

- McCleary, a three-time state placer, lost in the 215-pound title match last season.

- Stockert was a runner-up at 130 last season and won a state championship at 125 as a sophomore.

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- Lang hasn't lost since his freshman season, winning 129 consecutive matches. He has a 217-7 career record.

"He looks at it as a challenge," Bismarck co-coach Scott Knowlen said of Lang. "It's just been something that has materialized throughout the years. This is his third season undefeated and he seems to be dealing with it quite well."

Knowlen himself knows the pressures of being undefeated. He went 67-0 in his final two years at Bismarck High, winning a Class A state title at 98 pounds in 1979 and another crown at 105 in 1980.

"I just recall being confident because of how I had prepared," Knowlen said. "I don't think that our kids are feeling the pressure too much. I think they are confident in how they prepare."

Keith McCleary added a state championship is the goal of every wrestler at this point, undefeated or not.

"I approach it the same way as any other record I would have," McCleary said. "There is a little more pressure now. I've always wanted to win a state championship in my senior year."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513

Related Topics: WRESTLING
Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.
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