Jake Belongia could hardly breathe due to the broken nose he suffered earlier in the day. His teammate, Mike Baumann, had similar issues catching his breath due to exhaustion after a challenging match.
The New Berlin duo left everything they had on the mat Feb. 18 at the West Allis Central sectional to qualify for the WIAA Division 1 state individual tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison on Feb. 23-25.
Belongia advanced through a loaded 170-pound bracket featuring four state-ranked wrestlers to overcome a loss in the finals to wrestleback for second place and earn a spot at state for the second straight year.
"I can't be more proud of that young man," New Berlin coach Patrick Detmer said. "Coming off a tough loss to go from all of a sudden being in a spot where you think you have a good shot to go to state to now it being do or die against an excellent wrestler.
"This says so much about Jake's grit. That was one of the best matches I've ever seen him wrestle. He wrestled him really well at regionals, but man, he was just moving and doing everything he could to win that match. He was amazing today. It was beautiful, fighting through the adversity."
The Eisenhower junior handled Austin Spitzer of West Allis Hale with ease for an 11-1 major decision in the quarterfinals but suffered a broken nose in the process. Now he faced the challenge of fighting for a state berth without being able to fully breathe.
Ranked fifth at 170 pounds, Belongia won a 5-2 decision over Dustin Diebitz, honorable mention in the rankings, in the semifinals. But Tanner Cadman of Waterford, also honorable mention, prevented Belongia from a sectional title with a 4-2 decision in the championship match.
That meant Belongia had to face ninth-ranked and 2016 state qualifier Michael Burgireno of Kettle Moraine in a winner-take-all match for second place and a trip state. Belongia (37-2) beat Burgireno, 3-1, at regionals and won another close match at sectionals, holding on for a 5-4 decision.
"I know he has a ton of moves," Belongia said. "I couldn't gameplan for every single one because there are so many. It was just hard-nosed wrestling. I just kept going at it."
Baumann, who lost his first match at sectionals at 138 pounds a year ago as a sophomore, also had to wrestleback to win a second-place match after a finals loss to earn his first state appearance.
"He puts in so much time," Detmer said. "He's the kid that always wants to work more. To see him do what he did today, wrestling back to win the second-place match, this is a goal he's had for a few years.
"He moved so well and did everything we worked on in practice. He's one of the most coachable, smartest and hardest working kids I've ever seen. The rest of these young kids can see if they put in the extra time, work hard and do everything asked of them they can go to state. That's what he did."
After a quarterfinal tech fall of Julian Cagle of Whitnall/Greendale, Baumann (38-8) pinned Michael West of Mukwonago in 3 minutes, 42 seconds in the semifinals. A 9-0 loss to 11th-ranked Austin Thomas of Waterford then left Baumann needing to regroup for a wrestleback match for second place, which he won 3-1 by decision over Brent Ehrhardt of Waukesha South.
"This just feels so good," Baumann said. "I've been working for this for three years now. I'm so happy to be going. I knew the (wrestleback) was going to be tough. We both wanted to go to state."
Jaron Radish defeated Jacob Mandella of Brookfield East, 5-3, in the third-place match at 182 pounds but did not receive a wrestleback as the wrestler he lost to in the semifinals did not win the sectional championship.
Rob Snyder (113 pounds), Max Lewis (126), Peter Katris (138), Mike White (152), Joey Scaffidi (160), Zach Leverenz (195) and Zach Hansen (285) all dropped their opening matches.
Preliminary matches at the state individual tournament begin at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23. Baumann will face Subhan Umar (48-3) of Racine Horlick in his first-round match, while Belongia drew second-ranked Parker Keckeisen (42-1) of Nicolet.
Belongia is hoping to draw upon the experience of his two losses at state last season to fare better this time around.
"I was scared, for sure," Belongia said. "I had to wrestle some crazy good kids. I wasn't as prepared as I am now. I know what to expect. Hopefully, I can do better than I did last year."