Even before the NDHSAA State Wrestling Tournament started Thursday at the Bismarck Civic Center, Valley City High School senior Brandon Larson could make a case for his place among the top grapplers in school history.
“He holds school records for most takedowns, most wins, most pins, most everything,” Aaron Larson, Brandon’s father and VCHS coach said earlier this week. “He’s probably the best wrestler the school’s ever had.”
But for all that Brandon has accomplished, his drive for his last tournament as a Hi-Liner this weekend is based on what he hasn’t done — win a state championship.
It’s a feat that he narrowly missed accomplishing his sophomore and junior years. In both instances, he beat the eventual state champion during the regular season. This year is his last shot at the feat.
“It’s been my motivator that I could have been a three time state champ but I have none,” Brandon said during practice Tuesday.
As a sophomore two years ago, Valley City’s lone year in Class B, he made it to the finals at 125 pounds, but admits he “choked” in the loss to Carrington’s Kyle Bahm and was pinned in 5:46 to take second place.
Last year, things went well during the regular season, but bouts with several diseases including mono and pneumonia only weeks before state left him weak entering the tournament and instead he took fourth.
“I probably shouldn’t have been wrestling but I wasn’t going to let that stop me,” he said. “I ended up losing two tough matches.”
It was an experience that left him motivated.
“I’ve just been working hard all summer and throughout the season, staying healthy, getting ready for this year,” Brandon said. “So far it’s all working out.”
The experience is a long way from where Brandon was as a fourth grader when he got started wrestling competitively. Brandon said he initially got into the sport because of his father.
“My dad was a state champion at Carrington and was my role model,” Brandon said. “I wanted to be like him, so it’s kind of motivated me to be like him.”
Aaron said it wasn’t a sport Brandon took to naturally.
“He wasn’t very good in fourth grade,” Aaron Larson said. “He lost more than he won but he always gained on his competition every year.”
A crucial part of his development, Aaron said, was Brandon’s year-round wrestling schedule. Brandon estimated that he wrestled nearly 100 matches a year as part of a club team in Fargo and has wrestled all summer long since the seventh grade.
He also took advantage of wrestling camps to improve his skill.
Once he hit eighth grade, Aaron said Brandon developed a strong inner drive regarding the sport. That year he won over 20 matches wrestling at the 125 pound weight class on the varsity team.
“That’s when I knew he could be good,” Aaron said.
It’s a drive that has forced him to make sacrifices for the sake of skill. While most kids would rather sleep in, he’s up before dawn making the 16 mile drive from his family’s farm to Valley City.
“I lift every day all summer and then leave the house every morning at 5:30 to go lift weights before school and train hard,” he said. “It’s the cost-benefit. I’m not able to have fun all the time with friends but it’s something I really want, so it’s worth it.”
“He does it all on his own,” Aaron said. “Nobody goes with him.”
This year, Brandon enters the state tournament with one loss, which happened at the Rumble on the Red tournament in December.
The rest of his matches have been quick pins. He’ll be the top seed at 195 pounds and beat the state’s No. 2 seed, West Fargo’s Drew Johnson, with a pin in 1:46 at the Eastern Dakota Conference regional tournament last weekend.
Brandon was named the Eastern Dakota Conference wrestler of the year and is one of four nominees for the state’s Mr. Wrestler award.
If he wins it, he’ll be only the second Hi-Liner in history to take it home. The only other local wrestler to win it was Jason Sjostrom in 1990.
“I’m going in healthy and haven’t had a close match yet,” Brandon said. “I’m going in looking to pin everyone first period. That’s my goal.”
Brandon will be joined by plenty of company at the tournament as well. The Hi-Liners have 11 wrestlers qualified in eight weight classes.
Among those expected to do well are Shane Undem at 138 and Reed Beckman at 145, both of whom Aaron Larson said could potentially win state championships.
Larson also expects a good performance from Brady Beckman at 220, the only senior besides Brandon.
Beckman is seeded eighth in the 220 pound bracket but took second at the EDC regional meet due to a medical forfeit in the championship match. The x-factor will be a torn labrum in his shoulder and whether it holds together, Aaron Larson said.
“He’s a No. 8 seed, but he could win the tournament, he’s that good,” he said. “A lot of it’s going to be on his shoulder, whether that shoulder can stay together.”
Mark Miller is the No. 5 seed at 126 pounds and could place well, Aaron Larson said.
The Hi-Liners also could get a good finish from Steven Horner in the heavyweight division. Horner enters unseeded due to a sixth place finish at the regional meet.
Brandon Larson is looking forward to not only accomplishing his goals but plans on supporting the rest of his squad.
“I want my team to do well too,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to be disappointed like I was.”