RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- Every year since 1997, for two-days between Christmas and New Years, wrestling fans flock to River Falls for the Northern Badger Wrestling Classic. And while the wrestlers get all the attention, Wildcat coach Kevin Black said a lot of things go unseen and unappreciated to make it one of the biggest events of the year at River Falls High School.

“The wrestling community in River Falls goes above and beyond to make the Northern Badger a great event,” Black said. “They all give up family time over break and spend several days in that gym setting up and taking down the tournament.”

The Northern Badger Classic was first held at UW-Stout’s Johnson Fieldhouse in Menomonie in 1985. River Falls has hosted the tournament every year since 1997, first at UW-River Falls’ Knowles Center before moving to the high school in 2000.

The 35th Northern Badger, held this past Friday and Saturday, Dec. 27-28, didn’t disappoint, with nearly 2,000 fans a day attending the event despite icy road conditions Saturday morning that pushed the start time back about 90 minutes. The host Wildcats gave the hometown fans plenty to cheer about with a third place overall finish in the 39-team field and three wrestlers reaching the finals.

But Black said the annual tournament is about a lot more than wrestling. From money spent at the local hotels and restaurants, to concession sales that help offset the cost of free and reduced lunches for school district students, Black said it’s all made possible by the work of volunteers.

“The impact is endless,” he said. “It's an important part of our community, and our wrestling supporters enjoy being those unsung heroes during the holiday season. Many people think it's a ‘cash cow’ for the wrestling program, but we don't make any of the money. All of it goes to the athletic department and we're grateful for the opportunity to serve our school district in this way and, in the end, compete right in our home town.”

As far as the competition went, Black said he was pleased with the Wildcats’ strong showing at their premier home tournament of the season, but feels like they also missed some opportunities.

“We scored a lot of team points and had as many place winners as we've had in a long time, however, we left feeling like we missed an opportunity to really do something special as a team,” he said. “Our wrestlers are constantly improving and we have a great core of young athletes who are going to do great things, but we need to accelerate our progress because the teams that finished ahead of us are young, too, and they're constantly improving.”

St. Croix Falls took the overall team title with 323 points and Cadott was second with 314.5. River Falls’ total of 280.5 was good enough for first place in the 13-team Division 1 field and third overall.

Sophomore Vito Massa went 5-0 to earn the 138-pound title, pinning Zack Clark of St. Croix Falls in 4 minutes, 41 seconds in the finals, and sophomore Tyler Haydon reached the finals at 152-pounds before losing a 3-0 decision to Bowen Rothbauer of Bloomer/Colfax. Senior Garett Borth also reached the title bout at 170 pounds, where he dropped a 10-1 decision to defending state champion and University of Minnesota recruit Brady Spaeth of Cadott.

Sophomore James Hampton contributed a third place finish at 126 pounds to the Wildcats’ team score and sophomore Miles Longsdorf placed seventh at 145 pounds while junior Marcus Cudd and senior Gabe Glaubitz were eighth at 220 and 285 pounds, respectively. Sophomore Owen Larson was ninth at 132 pounds, and freshman Gavin Kohel and senior Austin Mueller each placed tenth at 160 and 195 pounds, respectively.

With seven of the Wildcats’ 10 placewinners underclassmen, Black said the Wildcats’ improvement will come with experience.

“There's an element to us needing to close the gap, but more about our kids doing everything they can to be successful,” he said. “Over the two days, the kids we lost to have simply wrestled more than our kids. We need to pay our dues and put in the time on the mats in the off season. That's the big takeaway.”

The Wildcats will return to the mat with a Big Rivers Conference dual at home against Menomonie Thursday, Jan. 9.