After back-to-back seasons of misfortune, including dealing with the COVID pandemic and a rash of untimely injuries, this winter has been fairly issue-free for the Highland Park High School wrestling team. Coach Wayne Otto hopes that will continue in the postseason.

The Scots were 12-3 overall and undefeated in the Saint Paul City Conference through the end of the regular season on February 9. Otto has no misgivings about how good his squad is, but he doesn’t hesitate to add a dose off reality.

“We’re not on the level of Simley or South Saint Paul,” he said, referring to two Section 4AA rivals who’ve established themselves as perennial powers. “We’re still pretty young, but as long as we have the numbers that we do, we’re going to be OK. In Saint Paul, you have to work at (getting recruits) every year.”

The Scots have 46 wrestlers out for varsity this season, the most in Otto’s three-year tenure as head coach. That’s the kind of depth the Scots have been able to rely on all season.

Highland wrestling
Highland Park sophomore Isaac Roberts (138 pounds) and senior Gabe Wright (160) go head-to-head during a recent practice. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Captains lead the way

Otto is quick to credit Highland’s captains—sophomore Isaac Roberts and seniors Gabe Wright and Fabi Torres—for the team’s high participation levels. He noted that this threesome all have outgoing personalities and a firm belief in what a combination of fun and hard work can produce.

“They’re nice kids and they believe in our program here,” Otto said. “We have 14 kids for 14 weight classes. If we have a full lineup every year, we can compete for the conference title.”

The Scots won the 14-team Twin Cities Invitational on February 4 with 227 points. They followed that up by going two for three in a quad meet on February 9. And they’ve cleaned up on conference competition.

Individual section meet approaches

Otto said he has a handful of wrestlers with a shot at qualifying for state at the Section 4AA individual competition on February 25 in North Branch.

However, the Scots are not without their flaws. Otto is the first to stress that they’re strongest in the lower and middle weights, which has served them well.

Roberts, who wrestles at 138 pounds, has a 34-6 record and knows how to grapple scientifically. He’s a good top-to-bottom performer “and very smart,” Otto said. “He’s a good one in all areas.”

Wright, at 160 pounds, is a very physical wrestler who has 11 pins behind his 18-2 record. Torres was 28-10 at 126 pounds and Otto loves his emotional, high-tempo style. “He’s good on top, and he scores a lot of points,” he said.

“We’re still pretty young, but as long as we have the numbers that we do, we’re going to be OK,” coach Otto said. “In Saint Paul, you have to work at (getting recruits) every year.”

Junior class is solid

Highland also has a solid group of juniors. Angel Moreno is only in his second year of wrestling, but is a coachable youngster at 120 pounds. He has a 27-10 record and a team-leading 22 falls. He also excels at pinning opponents.

Fellow junior Leo Vazquez-Rosas is another athletic youngster who is also in just his second year of wrestling. He does a good job at 152 pounds with a 20-14 log.

Classmate Sam Schmitt was 16-9 as a first-year varsity wrestler. His only previous wrestling experience was in middle school.

Highland wrestling
Highland senior Fabi Torres (126 pounds) and junior Angel Moreno (120) work on their moves. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Enjoying his time as coach

Otto said his tenure as Highland’s coach has been an enjoyable ride. A retired teacher, he ascended to the position at the start of the season two years ago when the previous coach quit.

He declined at first when he was approached by a parent about taking over the coaching job. But he changed his mind after a second appeal from the parent and sensing good chemistry with Highland athletic director Patrick Auran.

Otto has a long drive from Red Wing to Highland, but he said he has no regrets about coming out of retirement. “The kids make it worthwhile,” he said. “I do this because I feel that I can do something to help our kids.”

— Bill Wagner


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