HIBBING — In wrestling, it’s all about the matchups.
Coaches try to move their wrestlers into different weight classes to get the best possible outcomes.
In 1983-84 and 1984-85, Hibbing High School coach Wayne Johnson didn’t have to worry about that.
The Bluejackets were loaded at every position, so there was no wiggle room for opposing coaches.
That usually turned out to be a checkmate for the Bluejackets.
It was so good, in fact, that Hibbing walked through the Section 7AA Tournament in both 1984 and 1985 for its first two state-meet appearance in the history of the program.
“It can be a deciding factor sometimes,” Johnson said. “If you have the opportunity to match one of your guns against one of their guns, if you think a guy is tougher, you want to do that.
“If you don’t have somebody who can beat certain wrestlers, you throw them to the wolves. It all comes down to the coin toss. You owe it to the kids to figure out what will work best. We looked smart a time or two, then there were times we didn’t. The kids with the character and heart, those are the ones that made us look smart.”
In 1984, Hibbing’s lineup featured Dave Caliguire at 98 pounds; John Russo at 105; Paul Yaklich 112; John Pierce 119; Jim Arabonis 126; Pat Warner 132; Andy Zietler 138; Mike Warner 145; Mike Schule 155; Rob Dixon 167; Mike Garrelts 185; and Rod VanBaalen at heavyweight.
“We were so balanced,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have a weak spot on the team, anywhere. You couldn’t move around. They would try to dodge somebody, but they would run into somebody else that was going to beat you up anyway.
“It was a brutal lineup to try and compete against. It was so solid, and so good.”
Pat Warner agreed.
“Everybody was tough,” Pat Warner said. “It was a stacked lineup, and we went with it. Wayne let us do our thing, and that’s what we did. It wall meshed together, and we got along. It was excellent.
“We had some tough, tough, tough wrestlers at that time. Everybody wrestled hard. Everyone was competitive. We loved what we were doing. We did what we had to do.”
It took awhile for that to happen.
Johnson was already in his ninth season as the coach, so he had put in his time to get a lineup that strong.
“I was young, so I thought it would have happened sooner,” Johnson said. “Looking back on it, I needed to develop the youth programs to produce good numbers to support a team.
“The guys on those two teams all came from that youth program that we worked so hard on.”
Calaguire was one of those wrestlers. He would go on to become Hibbing’s first individual state champion at 98 pounds.
“Both of the Johnsons, they started with the elementary school,” Calaguire said. “There were a lot of things that Wayne and Curt set forth in the program, and when it came time to wrestle at the high-school level, we had successful years after that, both individuals and team.
“Wayne did a lot of things because he was a driven individual. He set up new expectations for us to follow. We were the first group of young kids they started working with. It was that time where a lot of people picked up on what they set forth. It made for a good combination.”
Jack Thompson got a first-hand look at it.
Thompson didn’t wrestle on that 84 team because Calaguire dropped down to 98 pounds, which took him out of the lineup. He would play a big role on the 85 team.
“Hibbing wrestlers had never done anything like that in the past,” Thompson said. “It was synergy. It was a bunch of guys born during those years that could compete against the big schools. That’s what happened.
“When I was in the third, fourth of fifth grade, we’d travel during the spring, and we did well. It wasn’t just one or two guys, but 10 guys. It all came together that year.”
It came together so well that the Bluejackets only lost one dual meet that season.
“Our only loss was to Aitkin,” Mike Warner said. “We beat everybody else. About halfway through the season, we thought we had a good shot at it. We didn’t think we’d win the state, but we weren’t sure we’d even get there.
“That was unbelievable. We knew we had a good team, then it ended up the way it did.”
The Bluejackets excelled because their practices were just as tough as the meets.
Just ask Pierce, who always tangled with Arabonis.
“JIm’s mentality was 100-percent or don’t do it at all,” Pierce said. “That’s what it was with all of those guys. We had the mentality here to do the job. That’s what we were going to do.”
When section time rolled around, Hibbing blanked Virginia 67-0, then beat archrival Grand Rapids 48-9.
In the finals, the Bluejackets rolled over Princeton 44-11 for that first state-meet berth.
They were all blowouts, but that didn’t quell Johnson’s nerves.
“I remember being nervous all the way,” Johnson said. “That’s the way I was. I never took anything for granted. I was always hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. I know we were good, and I knew we were in a position to do something special.
“I didn’t want to mess it up. We dominated everybody to get to that point. We were the favorites going in, no question, and we proved we should be, but when you’re dealing with 15- and 16-year-old kids, you never know.”
At state, Hibbing’s first-round opponent was Park-Cottage Grove. The Bluejackets kept up their winning ways with a 39-11 victory.
That win set up a semifinal showdown with annual power Apple Valley.
Hibbing was ahead 15-11 after six matches, then down 23-19 with two matches left.
Garrelts was ahead 3-2 in his match, but he got caught and pinned, which turned out to be a nine-point swing.
“We were a little intimidated that it was Apple Valley,” Calaguire said. “We had never wrestled anybody of that caliber before. We were like a deer caught in the headlights. We did well, but everyone was a little nervous..
“We had people do better than they thought they were going to do.”
In the third-place match, Hibbing rebounded with a 29-23 win over Cold Spring-Rocori.
During the medal ceremony, Thompson, who only weighed 84 pounds at the time, remembered that well.
“They called each wrestler to the middle of the mat and the announcer goes, ‘Jack Thompson, also known as Big Jack,’” Thompson said. “I never heard him say anything off script like that before.”
Calaguire was well aware of the program’s history, so he knew getting to state was the exception rather than the rule.
“Nobody ever went to state for Hibbing,” Calaguire said. “It seemed like the state was a forbidden place. No one ever made it there, then to make it as a sophomore and a junior, that was something everybody dreamed of doing.
“It was a fantasy world, one of those moments you hope for and picture in your mind. Guys at the state were like superheroes, and now, I was in that situation. It doesn’t seem like you fit in there.”
Arabonis had advanced to the state the year before, but Pat Nasi was the only other Hibbing wrestler to advance to state.
“It wasn’t a consistent part of it,” Calaguire said. “It was a shock, but with Wayne and Curt, that’s something they expected, especially with the training they put us through. It was quite a bit more than some of the previous coaches.
“Wayne was determined. He wanted people to do the best they could. All of that stuff was helpful. Little by little, they fed it to us. Getting there, in my mind, was unheard of. I didn’t think it would happen. I was fortunate to get there.”
Not only did Calaguire get there, he made it worth his while by winning that 98-pound title to become the first Hibbing wrestler to do that.
That’s when lightning struck twice.
“I was telling (Mike) Warner that Cal was the first champion in 45 years, then in roughly 45 minutes, we got a second one,” Johnson said.
“Mike was definitely the better wrestler between him and I,” Calaguire said. “I was smaller, lighter and all over the place. When I look back on it, I was a victim of circumstance. I happened to be there at the right time.
“There were other people in the room that stepped up and could have been in that position. I was awkward, too, to get that far. It was a little bit nerve racking. I stuck to what I did and came out on top.”
Mike Warner kind of had an inkling he was going to win.
“It didn’t sink in until Jim (Arabonis) told me I was going to win this thing,” Mike Warner said. “I was wrestling the same kid I met in the section finals the week before.”
That wrestler was Steve Whiteford of St. Francis. Warner beat him 5-2 in that match. He would win 7-1 in their second meeting.
Warner then received one of the biggest honors a wrestler could get — he was on the cover of the State Wrestling handbook the next season.
“I was probably more nervous than I had been in any other match,” Mike Warner said. “It was a close match in regions. It’s scary when you have a close match because you know who you’re wrestling up against.
As for the cover shot.
“I don’t know how they pick them,” Warner said. I don’t know any of that.”
The 1985 team lost Arabonis and Dixon, but gained Thompson at 85 pounds. He was joined by Calaguire at 105; Russo 112; John Pierce 119; Tom Schule 126; Pat Warner 132; Zeitler 138; Mike Warner 145; Ross Klobuchar 155; Mike Schule 167; Brit Borovac 185; and VanBaalen and Gordon Kreps at heavyweight.
“You wouldn’t think losing two would hurt you, but it did a little bit,” Johnson said. “We were still a strong team. Jack became a region champion, so we certainly weren’t missing anything down there.”
When everything was said and done, Johnson would get five region champions and one runner-up, so six of the 12 wrestlers advanced to state individually.
“We felt more confident that season,” Calaguire said. “It was going to be a better year for us. We lost some big guys, but it was a different feeling.”
The expectations were higher.
“We did have higher hopes,” said Mike Warner, who was co-captain with Calaguire that year. “We had a taste of it, and in our heads, we thought we could go to state again. We only lost a couple of guys. Nobody was arrogant. We just did it. It was one-meet-at-a-time, one-person-at-a-time.
“We kept our feet planted. We knew we were good, but we were focused. Everybody listened, and took it one-meet-at-a-time.”
At 98 pounds, the Bluejackets didn’t miss a beat.
Thompson would win a section title during his first full season on the varsity squad.
“He was a naturally-tough kid,” Calaguire said. “When he was a freshman, he didn’t even weigh 98 pounds, but he was undefeated going into the state meet. He was a huge contributor to the success of our 12th-grade year.
“He had no fear. Whatever happened, he dealt with it. That’s the way he still is. He had the ability to do the extra work. He did a lot of things you wouldn’t expect a ninth-grader to do. He got better and tougher.”
At sections, Hibbing whitewashed Virginia in the first round, then beat Chisago Lakes 49-5 in the semifinals. In the finals, the Bluejackets beat St. Francis by that same 49-5 score.
“They were one-sided matches,” Johnson said. “These guys were solid.”
At the state, Hibbing ran into Anoka in the quarterfinals. That didn’t turn out so well as the Tornadoes won 35-11.
“We were a little flat in that match, and I let them know about it,” Johnson said. “We were good, and we had high standards. They knew it. I probably ripped into them pretty good, but it didn’t surprise any of them.”
Thompson and Calaguire both won their matches, but they didn’t rack up many team points in the process.
“He expected more out of Jack and I,” Calaguire said. “Coming off the mat, we could see that look in his face. I won by seven or eight points, but I didn’t get the points for the team that I had hoped for.
“We both won, but we didn’t do our thing we had hoped to do in the lighter weights. We needed to get more points than we did. Sometimes, it doesn’t go the way you want it to go.”
Thompson remembered that speech Johnson gave after that loss to Anoka.
“I remember Wayne, not right after that match, but back at the hotel, gave us a heck of pep talk,” Thompson said. “He chewed us out, but he got us back together and said the words that made me feel that we could come back.
“He did a great coaches pep talk that brought us back.”
It worked because Hibbing rebounded to beat Cold Spring-Rocori 44-16 in the consolation semifinals, which set up a consolation championship match with Osseo.
Johnson, always the optimist, couldn’t find a way for his team to win the dual meet.
“I was working on that match a dozen different ways, and there was no way we were favored,” Johnson said.
The biggest obstacle was Mike Farrell at 167 pounds.
That’s where the chess match came into play.
If we got the right coin toss, we had a chance of bumping (Mike) Schule up from 167 to 185,” Johnson said. “That’s a good jump because he was an averaged-size 67-pounder, and their 185-pounder probably weighed 200-pounds before he cut down.”
After that 167-pound match, Osseo was up 27-20. Now it was up to Mike Schule and VanBaalen to take Hibbing home.
Schule did his part with a 4-1 decision to make it 27-23, which meant VanBaalen had to pin his opponent to get the dual-meet win.
“Rod had to come up with something, but it’s hard to pin in a situation where the whole match is riding on not getting pinned,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to do that. That guy didn’t have to win. He had to avoid getting pinned.”
VanBaalen found a way to get the fall to give Hibbing a 29-27 win.
“Either of those things could have gone wrong for us,” Johnson said. “Had Schule lost it was over. Rod could have been too aggressive, then he could have made a mistake and got himself into trouble.”
Pierce said, “Wayne did his homework to make sure everybody was matching up with the other the best they could. Wayne taught us this is what you have to do. We needed these points from you.
“With the camaraderie on that team, it was us trying to outdo the guy ahead of us and the guy behind you.”
It wasn’t the outcome the Bluejackets wanted, but Johnson couldn’t have been more proud of how that team rallied back from the loss to Anoka.
“Sure, we were disappointed and sad,” Calaguire said. “We were hoping to end up the semifinals or finals, but I don’t recall anybody being too down and out because we didn’t win.
“The reality is that things don’t turn out the way you want them to. You have to stay positive, take what comes today, then go from there.”
“That’s a sign of character,” Johnson said. “We placed third the year before, then we get eliminated in a first-round match. That’s when it’s easy to go into pout mode and feel sorry for yourselves.
“They showed class and character by coming out stronger and better than ever by wrestling well.”
In the old wrestling room at the Lincoln Elementary School, Johnson put up a glass-cased cabinet with the pictures of region champions and state placers proudly on display, with one exception.
“I have them all labeled, but I did put one odd picture in there, it was Rod,” Johnson said. “I labeled that one hero. He was special. He picked up some huge wins for us over the two years he was on the varsity team.”
When Calaguire’s career came to an end, he won 70 matches in a row, including a second-straight individual title. He was undefeated during his last two seasons, wrestling anybody who was anybody. He pinned 50-some wrestlers out of those 70 victories.
The one thing that stuck out those two seasons was the fact that it was a tight knit group of individuals that came together as a team.
“The older guys took care of the underclassmen,” Pierce said. “They treated us like a big brother. If you made a mistake, on or off the mat, you felt it during the season or the offseason.
“That was something Wayne and Curt instilled in us. You take care of each other. You made sure you were a part of that. You took care of each other. The greatest thing was making sure everybody knew they were a team member.”
Unfortunately, two members of that 1984 team have passed away — Arabonis and Schule.
That hit hard, according to Johnson.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” Johnson said. “It’s like a parent losing a child. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their kids. They had a lot of life ahead of them. They left us too soon. They were both good wrestlers, and more importantly, good people.”
For two seasons, Hibbing reaped the benefits of having solid wrestlers all throughout its lineup.
“We didn’t have any superstars, but we did well in both of those years,” Pat Warner said. “Everybody gelled. It was a fun couple of years.”
Thompson, who went on to win individual titles, said, “It was one of my highlights of high school to be down there as a team and place so high for an obscure team in northern Minnesota.
“To place third and fifth, those were the highlights of my career.”