VERNDALE, Minn. — Abby Ervasti walked onto the mat for the 145-pound weight class during the Section 6A semifinals on Feb. 14, looked up into the air and took a deep breath.

Ervasti, an eighth grader from Verndale who wrestles for eighth-ranked Bertha-Hewitt-Verndale-Parkers Prairie, was about to take on New York Mills senior Gage Geiser. She knew the outcome was likely already written.

Geiser is the eighth-ranked wrestler in the state at 145 pounds. He went on to win by fall in the first period, but at no point did Ervasti think about telling Raiders head coach Bill Wagner that she didn’t want to wrestle on a night when B-H-V-Parkers Prairie would go on to win the section championship.

Ervasti knows there are going to be tough nights for her on a personal level. To get through it, she enters each match with a specific approach that isn’t always so simple.

“I just try to be brave,” Ervasti said. “It’s really hard. Being on varsity as an 8th-grader and being smaller than a lot of the guys I’m wrestling, I don’t get a ton of wins right now. That’s hard. I want to be there for my team and get the wins we need, but it’s just a grind. You got to get through it, you got to keep going.”

Ervasti was often a regular in the Raiders’ lineup this season because of her ability to keep going. Her older brother, Gideon, is a sophomore and ranked ninth in the state at 182 pounds. Their close relationship includes some tough love for Abby to push her, but Gideon is the reason Abby wanted to wrestle in the first place when she started at 4-years old.

“I wanted to be just like my brother,” she said.

Never backing down

Abby grew up honing her skills on the mat by facing other boys all the time.

That was never easy, but it prepared her for what she was about to embrace when she stepped into the wrestling room in Verndale as a sixth-grader on the junior high team.

“She is intense,” Wagner said with a smile as he recalled Abby first coming into the program. “She doesn’t ever give up, and we had some new kids come out. She’s been wrestling for six years and she would just pound them. Then they would quit. It was like, ‘Abby, stop wrestling these boys. We need to keep them to grow our team.’”

That’s the thing everyone in the room came to know about Abby — she won’t back down.

Abby Ervasti looks for her shot against Gage Geiser of New York Mills during their match at 145 pounds in the Section 6A semifinals at Underwood High School on Feb. 14. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Abby Ervasti looks for her shot against Gage Geiser of New York Mills during their match at 145 pounds in the Section 6A semifinals at Underwood High School on Feb. 14. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“She doesn’t care who she wrestles,” Wagner said. “She’ll wrestle up to 152, 160 pounds. She’ll grab anybody and just go. She never quits. Other guys around her start building that up, and it spreads to the whole team.”

Abby has taken her lumps against boys at the varsity level, but she rose to the occasion when given the chance to compete against other girls.

The Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association hosted its first-ever girls state championships on Feb. 1 at Champlin Park High School. Abby weighed in that morning at 144 pounds, making her eligible to wrestle at 145, but there was a problem. One of her best friends in the sport was also in that weight class, and they didn’t want to run the risk of stealing a spot on the podium from each other. Abby quickly agreed that she would wrestle up a class at 160 pounds.

“Us coaches are thinking, ‘What are you doing?’” Wagner said with a laugh.

Abby proved she could handle the challenge just fine. She won her first three matches, one by a close decision and then with two straight pins.

That sent her to the championship against Madi Horn, a senior from Stillwater who is committed to wrestle for the women’s team at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Horn’s experience and talent won out as Abby took second place in the division.

“It was really cool because when I was little, I never really knew that other girls wrestled,” Abby said. “I’d see another girl at maybe one tournament each year. Now, I can see how much the sport is growing, and it’s so amazing. I love it.”

Abby is even seeing that at the younger levels for the Raiders, where she said there are about eight girls competing in wrestling at the elementary level.

“It would be so nice to see them grow up and be on the varsity with me in a couple years,” she said. “I don’t really feel like an example, but people tell me I’m one. It’s kind of nice to hear that people are thinking about me.”

‘Don’t be afraid’

Abby might not see it, but Wagner said she already is an example to all the Raiders wrestlers.

He remembers back to the beginning of this season when the athletes were tasked with picking their own conditioning drill at the end of practice. There were multiple options to choose from.

“She immediately blurts out, ‘The toughest thing we have,’” Wagner said. “The guys look at her like what the heck are you doing? That’s just her. She wants to challenge herself all the time. She’s a special kid.”

Nights when losses mount up and pins against state-ranked opponents seem inevitable can be hard to take, but Abby has no regrets.

“I love my team,” she said. “Practices are hard, meets are hard, cutting weight is hard. It’s a hard sport, but it has so many rewarding aspects to it.”

That’s why she keeps coming back. It’s what pushed her to earn a spot in the lineup on a state tournament team, and what will continue to push her as she tries to keep that spot in the varsity lineup in the years to come.

Abby wants to win girls state, prove herself on the boys’ team and wrestle in a women’s college program some day. For now, she’s focused on what it will take to keep improving.

It has been a challenge for Abby to get here. She knows nothing will come easy going forward, but if there’s one thing she wants other young girls to see through her wrestling, it’s how rewarding facing a challenge head on can be.

“People are going to tell you you shouldn’t try it, but try it. You might love it,” Abby said. “You might find out it’s something you want to keep doing until you can’t anymore. It’s always great to try something new. If you don’t like it, that’s OK. You can always do something else, but if you want to try something, try it. Don’t be afraid.”