In what will go down as arguably the greatest individual season in the history of Redwood Falls wrestling, Redwood Valley’s Kaleb Haase capped off an undefeated senior campaign with the Cardinals' first state championship in nearly 40 years Saturday night (Feb. 29) at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Haase (41-0) needed just 1:41 to dispose of Connor Bleymeyer of Chisago Lakes in the Class AA heavyweight championship match to put the end to the final chapter of a remarkable three year run to the state title.
“It’s still so surreal,” Haase said. “It still kinda feels like a dream to be honest.”
Haase entered the state tournament with plenty of fanfare and a resume to boot, including a perfect 37-0 record with 27 falls and a number one ranking according to The Guillotine Web site. Despite those credentials, he was given the number three seed in the heavyweight division behind Dustin Portales of Fergus Falls and Logan Wingert of Plainview-Elgin-Millville.
“I probably should’ve been seeded better, but it really didn’t matter to me,” Haase said. “I was confident, and mentally I was ready to face whoever they put out on the mat against me.”
In the prelims he had an easy go of Brendan Rokala of Dassel/Cokato-Litchfield, winning by fall in just 52 seconds.
In the quarterfinals, it would be much different as he was forced to face Elijah Novak of Foley, a wrestler ranked fourth in the state with 46 wins on the season.
“He was a good wrestler, a big kid,” Haase said. “I was able to get a lead on him, and ultimately it was good to have a match like that heading into the semifinals.”
Haase would go on to post a 5-0 decision over Novak, setting up a battle with number two seed Portales for the right to advance on to the championship match.
As both a sophomore and junior, Haase had reached the semifinals but would fall by a single point both times.
The pressure was on.
Making things even more interesting, as Haase was on the mat preparing to wrestle, he was forced to wait for the conclusion of the 220 pound AA semifinal match being held on the adjacent mat between Becker’s Brayden Weber and Orono’s Danny Striggow. As the match was completed, Weber began to walk to his corner when he collapsed face first on to the mat.
Medical personnel immediately began to attend to him and it didn’t take long to realize something was not right. Weber was in trouble. They began CPR on Weber as a hushed Xcel Energy crowd sat quietly in stunned silence.
“It was terrifying,” Haase said. “It was a traumatizing moment. I mean I had just talked to him minutes before his match. I wrestled him last season in the fifth place match at state. It was tough to watch, at that moment I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wrestle.”
The medical staff on hand were fortunately able to bring Weber back, and after a nearly 20 minute wait he was wheeled out of the arena, giving a thumbs up to the relieved crowd.
After all of that, the most important match of his life was ready to take place and it had an auspicious start. Haase, who had only been taken down once all season, was thrown to his back by Portales and found himself down 4-0 after the first period.
“Honestly I was pretty calm even being down early, I almost felt like I needed to calm my coaches down more than myself, because I was confident I was gonna be alright,” Haase said.
Choosing down to start the second period, Haase would get an escape, and then with under a minute to go in the period, Haase was able to throw Portales to his back and would secure the fall with just three seconds remaining in the period.
“I felt great after that match,” Haase said. “It’s a testament to Coach Carlson and Coach Hildebrandt for helping me to be more mentally focused this season. It really helped out when I needed to dig deep and get the job done.”
Following his win, he was informed he would not be facing the number one seed Wingert (41-4), as he had been upset in the semifinals by unranked and unseeded Bleymer of Chisago Lakes.
“I really wanted Wingert, but Bleymeyer wrestled a good tournament so I didn’t want to overlook him either,” Haase said.
The championship match was all Haase from the get-go, as he managed to use his strength and size to bully Bleymeyer to his back and pin him in the first period to seal his first championship in style.
“If I hadn’t won the title this year it would’ve been extremely disappointing,” Haase said. “It would’ve really felt like I had let myself and everybody down. So to be able to close it out really is a dream come true.”
In the end, he would finish a perfect 41-0 with a school record 30 falls (breaking the old record of 24), a Redwood River Riot championship and the Cardinals’ first state title since the legendary Duane Heiling accomplished the feat back in 1981 under Head Coach Dennis Stoterau.
He was taken down just three times in 41 matches and surrendered back points just once (in the semifinals at state). He gave up no reversals and only eight escapes, most of which were of his own accord.
For his career, he finished with a mark of 129-27 with 77 career falls and three trips to the state tournament, including fifth-place finishes in 2018 and 2019.
“One goal we talked about every week with Kaleb was to win a state title,” Coach Paul Carlson said. “We’re extremely proud of him, because of his phenomenal work ethic and drive to be the best. He set a highly positive tone in the practice room all season and showed all the wrestlers what it takes to become elite. He gave everything to our program, and it paid off.”
Haase will now continue to train for the senior nationals which take place in Virginia Beach, Va. at the end of March and then go right into Freestyle/Greco Roman action where a season ago he was one match away from earning All-American honors.
Next season he will join the elite collegiate wrestling program at St. Cloud State University.
“It’s been a lot of fun the last few years,” Haase said. “I really want to thank my coaches and teammates and my family for everything they’ve done to help me get where I am. It feels good to bring a state championship back to Redwood Valley.”