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John's Journal Top 10 No. 5/ Girls Wrestling Is Booming At St. Michael-Albertville

50 Athletes Are Part Of The Program In Just In Its Second Year

Posted: Saturday, July 6, 2024 - 9:25 AM


Senior captains of the St. Michael-Albertville girls wrestling team are (L-R) Kaci Brannan, Sadie Strait, Rachel Heil, Gracie Kobus, Maggie Steele and Fae Bromley.


Today we begin counting down the final five in my Top 10 favorite John’s Journal stories from the 2023-24 school year. No. 5 on the list focuses on the fastest-growing high school sport in Minnesota, girls wrestling. This story was originally posted on Jan. 22

The growth of high school girls wrestling in Minnesota has been remarkable. This season is the third one since the MSHSL officially sanctioned girls wrestling, and more than a thousand females are participating, from schools large and small all over the state.

A few hundred girls wrestled in the 2021-22 school year and the number rose to more than 500 last season. Some schools have a few female wrestlers, some have a handful and some have a large contingent. One of the latter is St. Michael-Albertville, which has long held a reputation as one of the top boys wrestling programs in Minnesota. The Knights own nine state team titles since 1996 along with 11 second-place finishes.

This season, there are 50 boys wrestling at St. Michael-Albertville. And guess what? There are also 50 girls participating in the sport. It’s quite remarkable, as is the person who is serving as the girls head coach.

Dan Lefebvre, a 1982 St. Michael-Albertville graduate, was the Knights head wrestling coach from 2006 until 2018. Under his watch, the team won four state championships and had a dual-meet record of 315-59-1. He is a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and yes, he is the head coach of the Knights’ girls wrestling team.

Lefebvre, who retired from teaching last spring after 34 years of middle school math, said what he has seen from the girls he coaches and the athletes they compete against has been special.

“With the boys we were chasing championships and it was rewarding, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was always fun. But coaching the girls is fun. You’re back to a basic level, teaching them how to wrestle, and they actually believe the old guy knows what he’s talking about.”

St. Michael-Albertville didn’t have a girls wrestling program two years ago. But the rapid growth has been more than anyone expected. The Knights wrestled at Saturday’s Pine Island Panthers Girls Classic, which included 297 wrestlers competing on four mats in two gyms. With division for more experienced wrestlers as well as newcomers, the competition was held in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd.

The Knights took 35 girls to the tournament, with others absent for varying reasons.

“We have some injuries, some sickness and other commitments,” Lefebvre said. “To promote girls wrestling you have to be flexible, and we have some full-time volleyball and soccer players who train year round. They sometimes have weekend tournaments and we tell them, ‘Go ahead, you can go. We’ll coach you when you get back.’

“I’m hoping in the next year or two the girls will tell their volleyball and soccer coaches, ‘I have to leave early because I have offseason wrestling.’ ”

St. Michael-Albertville had 21 female wrestlers last year, and nearly all who weren’t seniors are back this season. The team captains are seniors Kaci Brannan, Sadie Strait, Rachel Heil, Gracie Kobus, Maggie Steele and Fae Bromley; all of them have been involved in other sports, including tennis, soccer, softball, track and field, cross-country and lacrosse. Academically, Heil ranks No. 1 in the senior class.

The St. Michael-Albertville girls and boys wrestling teams practice separately.

“I didn't really know what I was getting into when I joined,” Heil said during a break in the action in Pine Island. “Girls wrestling? What the heck is that?

“It’s helped me develop a certain discipline, something that applies to a lot of different aspects of my life. It’s like being able to push yourself to limits you didn't know you could reach. That's why I like it.”

Since none of the girls had wrestled when they were little – like many male wrestlers do – coaching focuses on the basic, things like body position and leverage. After each wrestler finished a match in Pine Island, Lefebvre or one of the assistant coaches (Jesse Hackenmueller, Shaun Little, Heather Strait, Kristen Snyder and Tori Jeske) talked with them, offering advice, tips and motivation.

“The practices are so hard. Losing is awful. There's so much of it that is so hard,” Brannan said. “And there's zero chance I would have come back (this season) if we didn't have the coaches we do. All of them are just so awesome. They're so uplifting. If you lose, you can be frustrated but they'll always come up to us and they'll be like, ‘We see improvements in everything you're doing.’ ”

The wrestlers and coaches have developed strong bonds. Lefebvre recently turned 60, and the girls sang Happy Birthday and brought him a cupcake with a candle to blow out. When his mother passed away this winter, the team brought flowers and hand-written notes to practice.

“Lefebvre has baked us cookies and brought us chocolate milk,” said Brannan. “He's amazing, he's just a fantastic coach. And I don't think any of us would have been as willing to do this again, especially senior year when we have other things we could be doing, if we didn't have the coaches.”

As any wrestler knows, the sport is hard. Practices, strength training, competition … it’s not glamorous but the rewards can be incredible.

“Once I had my first match, I just remember telling myself I'm either going to love this or hate it because it hurts so bad,” said Strait, who will play Division I soccer at the University of South Dakota. “I've played high levels of other sports but those six minutes of wrestling? Nothing really compares.”

Having experience in wrestling, along with the lessons it teaches, inpacted decisions by Brannan and Steele to embark on careers in the Air Force after high school.

“Wrestling just opened a lot of doors, including the possibility that you can go into the Air Force,” Steele said. “It just opened a lot of doors that I didn't know were possible. And it just gave me so much self-confidence that I can go into the military and I can do all these things.”

At a high school with an enrollment of more than 2,000 students, there are many activities to choose from. The Knights’ history of success in boys wrestling was a factor in some of the girls picking the sport, although most of them don’t come from wrestling families.

“For some reason it’s become a popular thing, a trendy thing to do,” Lefebvre said. “It’s just phenomenal. I’m amazed. This is bigger than I even expected. It’s been wonderful.”

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] or [email protected]

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