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Big Bear Wrestling Tournament: Little town, big tournament

Jerry and Darlys Hess of Fergus Falls, whose grandsons Aaron and Abram Aho are wrestling in the Big Bear Wrestling Tournament in Cass Lake, were joined by grandson Ike Carlson, a senior at Bemidji state University. Above, they look over brackets while sending in results to Fergus Falls. Laurie Swenson | Bemidji Pioneer

CASS LAKE — Wrestling is part of everyday life for Jerry and Darlys Hess, who have two grandsons in the two-day Big Bear wrestling tournament hosted by Blackduck-Cass Lake-Bena and have three other grandsons in the sport. Last year, they had nine.

Brothers Abbot and Abram Aho are wrestling in, respectively, the 113-pound weight class and the 195-pound class. On Friday afternoon, Darlys Hess said both had made the quarterfinals.

They’ve been coming to the Big Bear tournament ever since Fergus Falls has been involved.

 “We have been here many times,” Darlys said. “It’s a wonderful tournament — lots of good wrestlers.”

“It’s pretty amazing how they run this tournament,” Jerry said.

Darlys is hoping that Abbot, ranked third in the state in Class A, will meet Bemidji’s Brian Maas, ranked second in Class 8AAA, in the championship today.

Jerry Hess coached wrestling at Fergus Falls Community College for 20 years and coached in high schools in Benson, Minn., and Redfield and Aberdeen, S.D.

The Hesses wore Fergus Falls wrestling shirts, along with their grandson Ike Carlson, a senior at Bemidji State University.

“It’s really fun to have this in our family,” Darlys said, adding that they go to tournaments all over the state.


The tournament, being played on four mats in the Cass Lake-Bena High School and four mats in the CL-B Middle School, brings together a rich history of coaching, starting with the four men who were involved in organizing it in 2002.

Ron Milbrandt was activities director at the time, and Steve Bechtold and Mike Hanson, the current activities director, coached Blackduck-Cass Lake-Bena wrestling. Jerry Cleveland, former CL-B coach, was working elsewhere at the time but took part in the plans. He later returned and is on the tournament committee.

The tournament is like a reunion for the longtime coaches, who get to see former BCLB high school wrestlers who return to work the scoring table or other duties.

Hanson pointed out Scotty Larson, who was officiating a match. Larson, now a dentist in Bemidji, is a former BCLB wrestler who is the all-time leader in wins from Cass Lake-Bena with a 146-23 record, five-time region champion and three-time state placewinner. He was All-American at Minnesota State University-Moorhead in wrestling. (Tim Klein is the overall BCLB wins record-holder with a 156-43 record; he placed fourth at state.)

“How could you not be proud of that?” Hanson said.

“It’s fun to watch it all work for Jerry and Steve and Mike and I,” Milbrandt said.

They rely heavily on other coaches to help out, such as Tom Gravelin, former coach from Fosston.

“It’s been fun and interesting for us old-timers,” Milbrandt said. “You get to visit with coaches you’ve seen over the years.”

“It’s like a labor of love,” Hanson said.

Wrestling is a family activity, Cleveland said, adding that his high school coach from Staples is there watching his grandson wrestle.

“It’s always a reunion now, because these guys keep coming back,” he said. “The family just keeps on getting bigger.”

biggest in state

Thirty-five teams are in the Big Bear, the biggest competition in the state besides the state tournament.

The first year, there were 22 teams. “Every year since, we’ve had at least 30,” Bechtold said. “Generally, we have to turn teams away.”

He said the wrestlers get to see a lot of other competitors from northern Minnesota and elsewhere, and the best wrestlers get good competition.

“You get to see some great wrestling,” he said. “We’ve had defending state champions who haven’t won the title here.”

The tournament is a source of pride for the community, Cleveland said, and a good gauge for wrestlers to know where they stand.

“It’s a good way to showcase northern Minnesota wrestling and how good it is,” Cleveland said.

Milbrandt estimates that the competition brings in 1,500 people. Cass Lake, Walker and Bemidji businesses benefit from that, he said. Plus, “it’s good PR for our school and community. If we can give people a good experience, it reflects on everyone.”

“It’s huge for our community,” Hanson said.

Stacy Manecke of Fosston has been working the Big Bear Tournament for several years. She is a graduate of Fosston High School, where she was wrestling manager as a student. Sherry Wyman, also a Fosston graduate, works as announcer.

“I help Steve run the tournament,” Manecke said, “whatever Steve tells me to do.”

Laurie Swenson
Laurie Swenson is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. She has been with the Pioneer since 2004.