Homestead wrestling coach Ernie Millard couldn't help himself.
Moments after senior 182-pounder Nick Pierret won his WIAA sectional title Saturday and earned a state berth along with fellow senior 160-pounder Zach Lennon, he bounced around the Milwaukee Vincent field house and announced to anyone who could hear: "Man, I want that third state qualifier so bad I can practically taste it," he said.
And junior 195-pounder Gage Zupke gave Millard that taste of success he was so hungrily seeking just a few moments later, as Zupke dominated Arrowhead's Joe Bergren, 12-4, in the wrestleback and also claimed a spot on the Kohl Center mats in Madison on Thursday.
The emotional Millard was beside himself with joy as the Highlanders advanced the most they have to the WIAA State Individual Tournament since they sent three in 1995.
"Five place-winners, three to state, four conference champs and one second, what a season," he said. "The difference this year, is that we're healthy instead of being hurt."
Indeed, the injury bug was so bad for the Highlanders last season that they only sent one person to the sectional meet (they had nine on Saturday).
"But there was no sense of negativity or panic," he said. "Everyone stayed the course."
Millard then went out of his way to praise his corps of volunteer coaches including Bobby Fisher, Sam Deligio and Armando Suarez Del Real, who along with Tom Price and middle school coach Andy Waller helped lay the foundation for this success.
"These guys deserve so much credit," Millard said. "They are the difference. They have helped maintain the fantastic attitude and that has made all the difference."
Lennon (40-4), Pierret (14-1) and Zupke (29-14) will all be in action Thursday at the Kohl Center, when Division 1 first-round and quarterfinal bouts are held at 3 p.m. Semifinals are at 7 p.m. Friday and the championship bouts are at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Pierret is the best story, as he tore a ligament in his left knee last year and could not even try to earn a repeat of the state berth he earned as a sophomore in 2012. He then suffered a concussion at the end of the football season and missed close to two-thirds of the wrestling campaign before being cleared.
When he defeated Cedarburg's Justin Seeke, 7-3, in the sectional final Saturday, there was an understandable sense of redemption.
"This is fantastic. It is just so good to be back," he said. "I did as much work as I could at Askrens's (training camp while off) and worked to keep whatever shape I could. Conference (where he earned a league title) was a good starting point. I came in confident today, because if you have a losing mind set, you have no chance.
"No I'm going to spend a lot of time in the training room this week. Try to go out with a bang."
Lennon, who has been an understated leader in Pierret's absence much of this season, pinned two opponents and then beat Cedarburg's Tucker Hammer, 2-0, for his title. It was the first victory in four tries for Lennon over Hammer.
Lennon, too, was hurt last season and wanted this opportunity badly.
"I've been at this since third grade," he said. "I just kept working and believing. The coaches believed in me and I had a lot of adrenaline working for me today."
Zupke was the one who made Millard's day all but perfect.
After he lost to a Cedarburg wrestler in the semifinals, he needed to find a way into the wrestleback. He did, as he won his consolation match on a medical forfeit over a Menomonee Falls wrestler that gave him a shot at Bergren.
He didn't waste his opportunity.
"I had lost to him (Bergren) earlier this year, so I knew I had to go out there and work," Zupke said. "...This is so cool, a brand new feeling (going to state). It's going to be fun."
The Highlanders had one more serious chance at a state berth. Mark Usatinsky (18-20) worked his way into a wrestback at 170, but Menomonee Falls' Jake Fuiten pinned him to stymie his state hopes.
Joe Fischer at 106 also finished fourth for the Highlanders.
Millard left Saturday with a great feeling.
"This has been one of the most satisfying seasons I can remember," he said. "I've been working with friends and have had a great number of quality kids."
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