Wrestlers are heading north to Itasca
ON TO THE NEXT LEVEL
For Zeke Sigmund and Jake Rau, creating some distance from their hometowns played a role in their college decisions.
But when they need a taste of home, they know they’ll have each other’s backs for the next two years.
Within the last month, both graduating seniors from Medford Area Senior High decided to start their post-high school journeys at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn., which is about 80 miles northwest of Duluth. The three-time WIAA state qualifying wrestlers also will continue to compete in the sport they have given so much to and has given back in return.
While they ended up in the same place, Rau and Sigmund said their decision- making processes weren’t done jointly. Rau committed in April and said only then did he start pestering Sigmund here and there about joining him. Sigmund committed to the Vikings in early May.
“A big part of it was that it was a little farther away from home,” Sigmund said in a May 7 interview. “It is cheaper and I can get my general ed classes done. It will help me get comfortable with the college setting. It’s something new and distant.
“It’s always been my dream (to wrestle collegiately) since I was little. I’m jazzed about it. I can’t wait.”
Rau said at one time, the University of South Dakota was looking like his destination, but the recruiting approach by Itasca head coach Joe Umlauf and the idea of testing the waters, so to speak, at the two-year school won him over.
“I went through the process and thought about different colleges,” Rau said, also on May 7. “Wrestling in college is a major commitment. It means another four to five years of my life dedicated to wrestling. I don’t know if my body is going to hold up to that. I just felt going to a community college could give me a little better education with smaller classes, where it’s more direct. I just thought this was better for me.”
Itasca Community College is a member of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference and of the National Junior College Athletic Association. The team sent six wrestlers to the 2020 NJCAA national tournament, held March 6-7 just before the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the country.
Umlauf just completed his first year as the program’s head coach. He is a Wausau West alum, who qualified for four WIAA state tournaments and reached the finals twice while going 183-11 for the Warriors from 2010-13. He wrestled collegiately at NCAA Division I North Dakota State.
Medford head coach Brandon Marcis also is a Wausau West alum and knows Umlauf well.
“We all kinda grew up together in that era of wrestlers over there,” Marcis said. “We knew each other pretty well, our families, between Monks and Umlaufs and me. I think that will be good, I think it will be a good fit for (Sigmund and Rau). It will be the deciding factor if they want to really get after it and pursue college wrestling. It’s a rural town up in Minnesota, so it will have a little feel of home.”
Rau leaves Medford’s program as a two-time WIAA Division 2 state champion at 220 pounds and projects as a heavyweight wrestler for the Vikings. He went 38-2 as a senior, won 139 matches in four years and earned three Great Northern Conference titles, his first sectional championship this year and one regional title.
He won the 220-pound championship at the prestigious Bi-State Classic in La Crosse in late December. That’s when he said colleges started to take notice.
“During the wrestling season, after I won Bi-State it starting picking up,” Rau said. “It wasn’t that I got a lot of offers, but colleges started making more contact with me. South Dakota was the main one. For a while I thought that was where I was going to end up. North Dakota contacted me after the state tournament. They wanted me to come out to some practices. I was checking into that and I was going to do it, but then the pandemic hit and I didn’t get to.”
Rau said after talking things over with family, coaches, teammates or anyone else he would ask for advice, the community college route simply emerged as the best one.
“All of them said you have to do what’s best for you,” Rau said. “That didn’t really help when I was trying to make a decision. But in the end, I just felt like this is what I want to do.
“The Itasca coach was talking to me just about every other day,” he added. “He would text me, just asking how things were going, what workouts am I doing. I just felt like he tried to get to know me as a person. With a lot of the bigger schools, it felt like they weren’t as interested in the other side. They cared more about just getting a good wrestler.”
While earning three consecutive state trips, Sigmund compiled 133 wins in his high school career, including three conference titles, four sectional appearances, including one championship and three regional titles. He was the 2018-19 Great Northern Conference Wrestler of the Year. In the off-season, he most recently was a two-time champion at the Dominate in the Dells tournament in March of 2018 and 2019.
He projects as a 149- or 157-pound wrestler. He wrestled at 145 pounds this past season. He is currently recovering from shoulder surgery as he fought through a torn labrum toward the end of the season.
He said his decision came down to Itasca and UW-Eau Claire. In fact, he still views UW-EC as a potential landing spot after his two years at Itasca.
“I think my mental game will improve a lot,” Sigmund said. “Wrestling at that different level will be big for me mentally. Most college wrestlers already have the physical part. I’m sure physically I’ll got a lot better too. It will be more intense.”
“I think I’ll get to be better on my feet, get more offensive,” Rau said. “Coach Umlauf it seems is big on teaching heavy hands, being good with your hips and being offensive, always attacking. That will be kind of a flip-flop for me, but it will make me better because I feel like I already have the defensive side. As I learn more of the offensive side and some of those complex things, I’ll just be able to put it all together.”
“I’m really excited for them,” Marcis said. “I think Itasca is getting a lot of talent in those two guys. Obviously Jake had his great career, two-time state champ. I think Zeke is going in with something to prove just because his high school career wasn’t a fairy-tale ending with his injury and whatnot. I think they both have high goals.”
Rau intends to pursue an eventual degree in kinesiology, defined as the scientifi c study of body movement, which can lead to any number of potential professions. Sigmund aims to get his associates degree in health science at Itasca and he should have options from there ranging anywhere from physical therapy to teaching physical education depending on what interest emerges for him.
“It will be kind of cool to have somebody I know be there and experience the same things,” Sigmund said. “We’ll be able to do it together.”
While excited to move on to their next chapters of life, both said the foundation they gained growing up in Medford is something they’ll always be thankful for.
“I’m proud of winning state and all that, but I’m also proud of the team,” Rau said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better senior season and how far we went. I’ll miss the closeness of our group and the team bonding, the team meals at people’s houses and all that stuff. It was everybody. Even the JV wrestlers we may not have taken to tournaments, they were still going through the practices helping everyone get better. You need more than one practice partner to get better.”
“It was frustrating and hard at times, but I’m really glad I stuck it out,” Sigmund said, adding that he’s grateful for all the opportunities he’s had to compete in the various events he’s been able to attend around the state and beyond. “I know there were a couple of years where I didn’t feel I was getting to where I wanted. It was mentally tough, but it was definitely worth it. There are so many memories. ... It was a time I’ll never forget, I know that. It was great to go through it with the teammates that I had.”
“It’s really cool,” Marcis said. “They’re my first guys to keep going on and wrestle in college. They’ll definitely be missed in the room with their talent and leadership and work ethic. I think they’ll carry that to Itasca. I think they’ll make Medford proud.”