West Fargo Sheyenne’s head wrestling coach Lex Lunde preached patience in the program’s first years. The program was in the midst of being built and wasn’t reaching high levels of success.
“Five, six years ago, our goal going into the season with our AD at the time was just to ‘be patient and don’t drop the program — we’ll get there eventually,’” Lunde recalled.
It was a struggle at times, but that patience is finally paying off. The Mustangs qualified for the North Dakota Class A state wrestling tournament as a dual team for the first time in program history — a landmark accomplishment for a team that wasn’t able to fill out a full lineup until a couple seasons ago.
“We don’t know how it happened. We’re happy it did, and now that it’s happening and we’re in the mix for the best teams in the East, it feels really good.” Lunde said. “The kids have worked very hard.”
The Mustangs will enter the upcoming state dual tournament as the No. 4 seed from the East at 14-6 overall in duals and 6-3 in the Eastern Dakota Conference. State is at the Fargodome Feb. 18-20.
The individual portion of the tournament is slated for Feb. 18-19, with separate sessions for Class A and Class B both days. The team dual side, which is typically held in a two-day span, is Saturday, Feb. 20.
“We’re such a young team. We started six years ago and we had a lot of open weight classes,” junior Morgan Strandberg said. “Now that we have a full lineup, it’s crazy. We've put a lot of hard work in the wrestling room and we’ve done well this season.”
The Mustangs are having success the program had never seen before, and it started right away this season. Sheyenne opened its season with a 64-9 win over Wahpeton, a team the Mustangs had never beaten.
“I think the kids are believing in it now and are understanding that the hard work does pay off,” Lunde said. “You start to see success, and then that just kind of breeds itself. One kid does well, then three others want to do well.”
Sheyenne has posted a number of wins this season over teams it had previously lost to every year, including its crosstown rival West Fargo, a perennial power in the state. The Mustangs topped the Packers 44-28 with wins in eight weight classes Tuesday, Jan. 26, shortly before Sheyenne learned it qualified for the state dual tournament. Lunde said it was an emotional day.
“The win against West Fargo was huge. Not only just for our program to finally beat West Fargo, but to qualify for state,” Lunde said. “Super cool. I still remember our first year wrestling and West Fargo was the dynasty that it was. We were shut out 77-0, I think.”
Lunde said the atmosphere was electric. Everyone in attendance — from the crowd to the Sheyenne wrestlers on the sides — was ecstatic.
“It was awesome for the kids and awesome for us coaches,” Lunde said. “It was a long time coming, and for us three coaches to all wrestle at West Fargo and finally kind of take them down felt really good for us, too. Very fun, very proud of our kids. That was about the best they could wrestle.”
Sheyenne is coached by three siblings — Lex and his two brothers, who all wrestled for the Packers and eventually Concordia College. That family bond has carried over to the mat, senior Mekhi Dennis said.
“Our coaches wanted to create a program that’s not only about sportsmanship and whatnot, but about building a family and being able to rely on each other, Dennis said. “I feel like it’s because of that that we’re able to pick each other up even if we lose. In the wrestling room, we’re able to push each other to do better.”
Camaraderie and team success have been key, Lunde said.
Sheyenne returned three state placers. Junior Kellen Hoornaert, who is ranked No. 2 at 145, second-ranked sophomore Marcus Johnson (126), and freshman Carter Zink (113). Junior Xander Spray is also finding his rhythm for the Mustangs, Lunde said.
Dennis, who wrestles at 152, has been wrestling for six years, four of those with Sheyenne. The Mustangs wrapped up the regular season Saturday with a pair of duals.
There are no region tournaments this year, so every starter on Sheyenne’s team, plus three alternates, qualified for the individual state tournament.
Sheyenne had six wrestlers ranked in the top four of their divisions in the latest Class A East Region coaches poll. Strandberg was the No. 3-ranked wrestler in the EDC at 113 pounds in the latest Class A coaches poll.
Strandberg, who moved to West Fargo from Minot three years ago, has been wrestling since she was five. Born into a wrestling family, she watched her older brother compete in the sport. Strandberg wanted to do whatever he did growing up, so it only made sense that she join the sport.
She doesn’t pay attention to the rankings, but admits it’s “pretty crazy” she’s ranked so highly in her conference as a female wrestler.
“She’s very talented. She works hard,” Lunde said. “We treat her as just another one of the guys. It’s always a weird time for boys and girls in high school to be wrestling each other, but every one of her teammates looks at her as just another part of the team. It’s not a ‘girl’, it’s a wrestler. She looks at all the other guys on the team, too, as just a teammate and a wrestler.”