PIERCE — There, on the east wall of the wrestling practice room at Pierce High School, hangs a solitary white cutout of the state of Nebraska.
While the names of 13 past state medalists line the north wall and a year-by-year recap of past state qualifiers dominates the south, that lone name serves as an inspiration to Bluejay wrestlers of just how far they can go this season.
It is the sign honoring Ryder Fuchs, who claimed the school's first — and, to this date, only — state wrestling title when he beat Bridgeport's Marce Vasquez 4-2 to claim the 195-pound Class C title in 2018.
Pierce is better known for its perennial powerhouse football team, which finished as state runner-up this year in Class C1 and has four state championship trophies in its possession. However, area sports fans might want to keep a close eye on the Bluejays on the wrestling mats, as they return five state qualifiers and have a lot of hopes for adding names to the championship wall in their practice room.
The 30-plus kids in the Pierce wrestling room not only have a past state champion on the wall, but they also have a former state champion leading them in the practice room. Sixth-year coach Tyler Legate, who won the Class D, 189-pound title for Neligh-Oakdale back in 2007 before going on to play football for the University of Nebraska, is directing a Bluejays program that is hoping to put together its best season in school history during the 2019-20 campaign.
For Legate, building the Pierce program into a competitive one began at the youth level.
"Since I've been here, those numbers have steadily grown," he said as his high school kids began gathering for a morning practice. "When we first got here, we'd have a load of kids in the K-2 (kindergarten through second grade) group, but then there weren't as many in grades 3-6 because a lot of kids were quitting."
Keeping those kids in grades 3-6 so that the interest was still there was the key to keeping many of them interested by the time they reached junior and senior high school.
"I tried encouraging those kids to keep coming to practice," he said. "Some kids go all over the state and some stayed local, and at the end of the day I want those kids to still be interested when they get to seventh grade. If you don't, then you're in trouble."
Fortunately, Legate has been able to keep the door open for those younger kids, and that has paid off with six wrestlers who found their way to the medal stand, including Fuchs, who capped his 45-2 junior season with the school's first-ever gold medal in wrestling.
"It was awesome, not only for me but for the program and Ryder himself," Legate said in remembering that special day. "He had a lot of good coaching through the years from other people, and him winning that was a great experience. And now that the younger kids have seen what it takes, they want to be there as well."
It hasn't been easy for Legate or the Bluejays. Last year, two wrestlers lost in the semifinals last year, including Fuchs, who settled for a third-place finish. Two other wrestlers lost by one or two points in the consolation semifinals as well, missing out on a chance to make the medal stand.
"Our program is 1-5 in the heartbreak round at state since I've been here, and they've all lost by two points or less," Legate said. "The goal of the program is to be wrestling on Saturdays at state and it's never a guarantee, but Ryder showed it can be done."
Seeing those names — ranging from Pierce's first medalist, Ryan Stusse, to the four who won medals last year — serves as an inspiration to build a winning culture in the Pierce wrestling room.
"We try not to just focus on winning, but on trying to prepare them for life later on as well," Legate said. "If you get totally involved in winning and losing, you're only going to be happy half the time. But if you're doing the right things and working to get better on and off the mat, that's something to feel good about."
Legate, an assistant coach on the football team, hopes Pierce's success in football bleeds into wrestling, even though the Bluejays came up short in the Class C1 title game to end the season.
"Anything that does well in the fall sets the tone for the rest of the year, and we hope that rubs off on wrestling," he said. "We don't want the hangover of losing in the state championship, and these kids understand that wrestling is a new sport and now that Pierce has gotten better, we're not the underdog we used to be."
With five returning state qualifiers, opponents will dismiss Pierce's quality of competition at their own peril this year.
Sophomore Brock Bolling (fifth, C-106) and senior Brett Tinker (sixth, C-160) lead the way for the Bluejays this year, and both are looking to not only move up the individual steps on the medal stand, but put the Bluejays high up the team standings as well this year.
"(Earning a medal) felt like one of the best things ever," Bolling said. "It's been a dream all my life, and I felt like all that hard work paid off."
Bolling said he writes down his goals every night to keep them fresh in his mind and feels the team also has a chance to do very well this season.
"I think we have a really great team, and I think we can go far if we do what we want to get done this year," he said.
For Tinker, seeing Fuchs win a title has inspired him to try to reach the top as well.
"It was one of those things where we'd never had a state champ, so to see him do that was cool and we could see that if he could do it, so why can't we do it? That's kind of the mindset we're taking into this, to do our best and follow in his footsteps," he said.
Senior Carter Jensen, who moved from Winside to Pierce before his junior season, came up one point short in the heartbreak round and hopes to erase a memory from last season that left a bad taste in his mouth.
"It definitely wasn't a good feeling, and it's pushing me harder this year to get on the podium," he said. "I feel this year's team is going to be strong. We have a lot of people out that will help us, and I feel we can win our conference and make a run at the top five at state."
Seniors Ashton Schweitzer (152) and Dylan Kuehler (195) also are hoping to improve on 0-2 efforts at state.
"It was pretty special, looking around and seeing all those people there was amazing and feeling like I'd made it from being a kid in the stands watching it to being down on the mats," Schweitzer said. "I went to quite a few camps and wrestled open mats and did some freestyle and Greco as well, so I'm hoping to finish strong and place in top five this year."
For Kuehler, "it was a dream from when I started in kindergarten.”
"When I got in and looked at the crowd, it was a great experience and I hope I can make the medal stand this year,” he said. “We went to Florida for Disney Duals and a camp in Ohio so hopefully that training will pay off."
Senior Jeremiah Kruntorad is also hoping to make it to state after three years of being one match away in districts before losing in the heartbreak round.
"I'm not going to lie, I was really devastated after that match," he said. "I really wanted to make it last year, and I think that will push me to keep going as hard as I can in practice and hopefully I can make it and maybe even place this year. I want to follow in my friends' footsteps who were state qualifiers last year."
The added challenge of competing in Class B is something that excites both the wrestlers and their coach.
"The move to Class B is a challenge we're excited about," Legate said. "This is the best thing for our program because we're really going to have to rise up. Not that Class C is bad, but everybody knows Class B is a different animal with the metro schools and the bigger communities who choose from a bigger pool of kids than we have.
"But that's what's good about wrestling," he added. "It doesn't matter what size of school you come from and kids can still be successful because it is an individual sport."
And who knows? Maybe all of that will put another championship on the wall in the Pierce wrestling room to give future Bluejay grapplers even more incentive to be part of a growing program that decorates the walls in future years.