Jarrid Braunagel was just 7 years old when he strapped on the headgear for the first time as a member of the O’Fallon Little Panthers youth wrestling team. His younger twin brothers, Danny and Zac, were just 5.
But it was Joe Braunagel, their dad, whose first taste of the sport most quickly turned to passion.
“My dad never wrestled but from the time he got us started, it didn’t take long for him to get really involved,” Jarrid Braunagel recalled. “I did it my first year and I really didn’t like it that well because I just wasn’t very good at it. I remember at the start of my second year, I really didn’t want to wrestle. I really didn’t. But I was afraid to tell my dad for fear of what he might think. Anyway, I went on to win the state tournament at the end of my second year. It was a good thing I stayed with it.”
Beginning this Thursday at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Jarrid, now a senior at Althoff, will try to win another state title. So will his younger brothers.
Third in the state at three different weight classes the past three years, Jarrid will enter his first round Class 1A State Tournament match ranked No. 1 in the state in the 138-pound weight class and with a shiny record of 42-1. But he’s not the only member of the family hoping to be on on the medal stand on Saturday night or on top of the medal stand.
One weight class heavier than Jarrid at 145 is Danny who is 40-2 and ranked fifth in the division. Zac, a member of the Crusaders’ football team which reached the Class 4A state title game, is 39-4 and ranked ninth in the 170-pound weight class.
Fresh off winning titles at the regional and sectional competitions in the past two weeks, the Braunagel brothers all have real legitimate chances at winning state championships this weekend.
“It would be unbelievable if we would all win it,” Zac said. “We’re all capable and we’re all wrestling well right now. My dad said he always wanted to see all of us win the state title before Jarrid graduates. He’s a senior this year. This is our last chance.”
Jarrid has been top ranked heading into the state tournament before. On pace to become the Crusaders’ first four-time state medal winner since Aaron Winning, he was ranked No 1 a year ago before falling at the state finals and finishing third in the 132-pound weight class.
He was third in the 113 pound weight class as a freshman and placed third at 120 pounds as a sophomore. Now as a senior who will advance his career to the college level this fall at McKendree University, he will leave Althoff this May as one of the best wrestlers ever with or without a state championship.
“I don’t really look at like I’ve got any pressure on me this year, I’m going to college to wrestle and I’ve done everything there is to do in wrestling while I’ve been here,” Braunagel said, “I’ve been a team captain and won everything there is to win with the exception of a state championship since I’ve been here.
“Things may not have worked out the way I wanted them too at the state tournament. But I don’t think it should take away from what I’ve accomplished as a wrestler at this school. Everybody close to this program knows how hard I’ve worked and how every day I walk into this practice room looking to improve.’’
Danny weighs 145 pounds while Zac weighs in at 170. But they are twins, rivals, competitors and also friends for life.
“It gets a little heated at times when we wrestle. Jarrid and I are close in weight so we work out a lot together,” Danny said. “We’re both super competitive and so when we’re in the practice room and me, being his little brother, I’m able to take him down. He takes it a little personal. He comes back at me a little more physically. That’s all right because he knows I can take it.”
Zac, who had to lose 25 pounds following the football season, said the competition between him and his brothers carries over out of the wrestling room.
“Sometimes we’ll just see who can eat the most,” Zac said laughing. “But at practice we’ll count the number of takedowns we get sometimes. The winner gets bragging rights at least for the day.”
But on the mat, the twins are quickly getting to their older brother’s level.
Danny’s two losses both came when he moved up a weight class to wrestle tougher competition. One loss came at the “Battle of Belleville” where he dropped a hard-fought 5-2 decision to Belleville West senior Nick Foster.
Foster is currently the No. 1 ranked Class 3A 152-pound wrestler in the state and has been ranked in the top 10 nationally by several important national publications.
“I lost 7-6 to a kid from Shelbyville and if I wrestle him again I think I’d beat him. Foster? I’m not sure. He’s good,” Danny Braunagel said. “I feel good about the way I’m wrestling. The way we’re all wrestling. We’ve worked hard for this time of year.”
Zac, like his two brothers, was a state qualifier a year ago. Losing in the first round left a real bad taste in his mouth.
“I lost lost a few matches early that maybe I shouldn’t have. If I wrestled those guys again I feel I would beat them,” he said. “I don’t really concern myself with where I am ranked. I don’t think rankings mean that much except that they help get your name out there a little bit more.
“Being ranked ninth might actually help me. If somebody sees I’m ranked ninth they might take me lightly. That’s fine. I don’t mind flying under the radar a little bit.”
One person who believes the Braunagels all have a great chance of earning medals and state championships this weekend is Crusaders’ wrestling coach Josh Harper.
Harper said that while things get a little heated in an already steamy Crusaders practice room when the brothers battle, he believes the competitive nature is good for the team.
“We try to put them together as much as possible. But yes, it can get a little heated. It’s a brothers thing, a sibling thing. We can usually tell when we have to pull them apart,’’ Harper said, laughing. “They are all good kids and great role models for the others.
“Jarrid has been close the last three years and so we’re hoping that this is his year when he wins it all. He’s certainly paid his dues. Danny has two losses, one to Foster and he won the Quincy Tournament when he beat a kid from Iowa in the finals. He’s been on fire since then and Zac’s got the kind of style that usually does pretty good at the 170-pound weight class.”
Coach and brother
On top of being the older brother, Jarrid also coached Danny and Zac while they were in the seventh and eighth grades. He said it was a valuable and a learning experience.
“It was fun to see them grow up and and mature from the little kids they were into the men that they are today. Just to see them on the mat and how far they’ve come as not only wrestlers but as people and to know that I may have played a small part in that it’s cool” Jarrid said. “ I mean we’re brothers and while things may get a little heated out there on the mat when we’re working out from time to time we’re still brothers and we’ve been together forever.”
But how tough is Jarrid on his brothers?
“He’s tougher on us then he would be on anybody else because he knows we can take it both physically and mentally,” Danny said. “I’ve learned a lot from him both as a wrestler and as a person.”
Medalists in the making?
The quest to become a state champion begins on Thursday in Champaign and will end one way or another Saturday night.
“For all of us to be able to win medals would be great. For all of us to win state championships, that would be unbelievable. Do I think we can all win it? Yes I do,” Danny said. “But we all know we have to be at our very best every match. No it won’t be disappointing if we all don’t win. If we all come away from the state tournament this weekend knowing that we did our very best, that’s all we can do.”
Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean