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Chris Murphy, Published February 26 2013

Injured senior's sacrifice helps Spuds to state team berth

MOORHEAD - In the week leading up to the Class 3A, Section 8 team wrestling tournament Feb. 16, Moorhead senior wrestler AJ Wheeler – ranked third in the state at 182 pounds by the website The Guillotine at the time – felt a pop and a snap in his right knee in practice.

“I tried standing up on it, and that just wasn’t happening,” Wheeler said. “We were a little scared.”

Wheeler had torn his MCL and his meniscus. With basic training for the Army National Guard coming in the summer and an intention to play football at Concordia College next fall, the senior could have walked away. Instead, he did what he had done since he was 4 years old: He wrestled.

Wheeler won two matches – including a major decision in the championship over state qualifier Joe Reis of Little Falls – and got Moorhead to the Class 3A team state tournament for the first time since 1981. Wheeler did not put weight on his leg until the Saturday morning of the section championship. By Saturday night, Wheeler was carrying the team on his shoulders.

“We didn’t think he was going to wrestle,” second-year coach Skip Toops said. “Before Alexandria (in the semifinals), he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to wrestle. I don’t care about my leg.’ AJ on one leg is still a pretty darn good wrestler. He went out there and won a big match versus Alexandria for us, and without him against Little Falls, we may not be in the state tournament.”

In a 37-28 win over Little Falls for the section title, Moorhead needed every point they could get no matter how excruciating.

“People saw the brace, so they dove at my leg and cranked it,” Wheeler said. “It was terrible pain, but I knew I had to wrestle. We knew we had a realistic shot to make state, so I had to do it for the team.”

The Monday after the team tournament, Wheeler got an MRI and found out his individual wrestling career was over. He required surgery and would miss the individual section tournament and his chance to qualify individually for the third straight season. Wheeler found out he worsened the tear by wrestling in the team tournament. It was a price his teammates certainly didn’t take for granted.

“What he did was huge for us,” said 195-pounder Chase Morlock, who is a returning state champion. “That is what you need out of your teammates. I don’t think we would have been able to pull it out without him. I have a big heart for him.”

Toops walked through the Moorhead hallways Tuesday, shouting names of wrestlers that passed him by. He walked to Moorhead’s training room – a place Wheeler has called home for the last two weeks – to pop in and check up on Wheeler. Wheeler lays down with his right knee wrapped and surrounding by ice as he says he’s 50-50 as to whether or not he’ll be able to wrestle at state, which starts Thursday. That is just eight days after surgery.

On Toops’ orange wrestling T-shirt read, “32 years in the making.” Wheeler didn’t want to graduate knowing it would become 33.

“I’d take going down to state as a team over individually any day,” Wheeler said.

Toops went back up to the Moorhead wrestling room for practice where a sign reads, “Your team needs you.” Wheeler can’t make it up the stairs to read the sign, but he doesn’t need to. He knows.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548