Mar. 24—Through his varsity wrestling career, Jonas Anez has shown plenty of grit.
As a seventh-grader competing in the state wrestling tournament, it became apparent to the coaches and his teammates.
Through personal tragedy, it shined through as Anez worked through his grief.
And as the Willmar junior prepares for the Class AAA 152-pound state quarterfinals, Anez hopes to use his grit and determination to make a run at a state championship.
"Even in the flurries on the mat, he doesn't get frazzled," said Willmar head wrestling coach Ed Oehlers. "And it's the same in everyday life."
Ranked No. 3 in Class AAA, Anez (27-1) will open the tournament against No. 2-ranked Joey Novak (27-0), a sophomore from New Prague. The Class AAA individual tournament begins at 2 p.m. Thursday at St. Michael-Albertville High School.
WCT Sports Show: State Wrestling Prelims
"My main goal since (qualifying for state) a year ago has been a state championship," Anez said. "One match at a time is what I'm going for. I'm going in knowing Novak has really long arms and long legs so I'm working on a lot of leg defense and making sure I win that first one."
Rough state start
As Willmar's 113-pounder at the 2017 team tournament, Anez got a physical introduction to state competition.
Facing off with Owatonna's Landen Johnson in the consolation championship, Anez took a beating.
"He was crazy good; I was in a power half for four minutes of that match," Anez said. "I couldn't feel my neck and I had a concussion afterwards."
Through all that, Anez did not surrender any bonus points as Johnson won a 5-1 decision.
It was a performance that still resonates with Oehlers.
"I still remember thinking he's a tough son of a gun," Oehlers said. "Against a top-ranked guy, he was just fighting and giving it his all."
It also provided Anez with plenty of motivation.
"I never wanted to be in that situation again," he said. "I wanted to be scoring points. My mindset afterwards was improving so that I can be the one controlling the match."
Over the last two seasons, Anez has compiled a 52-11 record and has scored bonus points in 34 of those wins. Twenty-one of those came this season with nine falls, three tech falls, six major decisions and three forfeits.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons, Anez credits his improvement to the off-season workouts at the Thorn Wrestling Camp in Odin and Jake Clark's wrestling-jitsu gym in St. Cloud.
"Now that Jonas has established himself and put himself through all the training, it has really paid off," Oehlers said. "If someone lasts with him until the third period, there's not a guy who'll out-endure him."
Four Willmar Cardinals on their way to state wrestling
Coping with loss
Weeks after the 2017 state tournament, the Anez family and the Willmar community were stunned at the unexpected death of Jonas' father, Jared Anez.
On March 14, 2017, Jared, 45, was found unresponsive after working out and showering at a Willmar health club. Efforts to revive him were not successful.
Along with owning Anez Consulting Inc. with his wife, Kami, Jared was chairman of the Willmar School Board.
Jared was also a youth wrestling coach for the Cardinals and was an avid supporter of Cardinal athletics.
"One of the things he'd do to give back was have a summer picnic; he'd be grilling hot dogs and burgers," Oehlers said. "He'd be trying to get the wrestling community together and build bonds beyond the mat. He came from a wrestling family. He wanted the best for his kids but also looked for the best out of others."
Jared instilled his love of wrestling into Jonas from an early age.
"The thing I loved about him was he really brought out the fun in wrestling instead of being all about winning," Jonas said. "He wanted it to be fun so we'd keep doing it, which was important to me. Then as we got older, he adapted it so we realized it was time to get competitive. I think he did a really good job of coaching us and letting us learn other things, like from the Carlson dads and lots of other people."
He continued, "He wrestled in high school (at Little Falls) and I always wanted to be like him and make him proud."
After Jared's death, Jonas admits he had a tough time being on the mat and grieving during his eighth-grade and freshman seasons.
"It was pretty hard just looking over and he wasn't there," Jonas said. "It was hard to be motivated for a while."
The fourth of Jared and Kami's six children, Jonas credits his older brother Harley along with former teammate Cael Carlson for helping him battle through the tough times.
"My brother pushed me and would tell me that I have talent and I love the sport, so keep going," Jonas said. "The Carlson family helped me a lot with developing the skill set and keeping me in the sport and improving."
Oehlers added, "I've had my own loss with my brother and know how the team and the work aspects of sports can help you to work through the stresses in life. Jonas definitely seems to have embraced it through wrestling. It's almost like he's come to some terms with it. It's tough; you're never really fully OK with certain situations but you learn how to accept and deal and grow with it."
Along with his own success, Jonas got to relish in more family success this season. His brother Sully, a 120-pound eighth-grader, is one of Willmar's six state quarter-finalists.
Jonas was swelling with pride while talking about Sully's accomplishment.
"I was happier for Sully than I was for myself," Jonas said. "Seeing my own brother and what he's gone through, and seeing my mom just smiling in the stands ... I felt blessed and proud."
WCT Sports Show: Mat Talk
Good luck footwear
On the mat, Jonas is a high-paced, physical wrestler who has been a mainstay in the top-five rankings through his junior year.
In stark contrast to his intensity on the mat is the image of junk food-inspired socks peeking over the top of his shoes.
A pair of orange Cheetos socks have become a signature look for Jonas after an obsession with the snack food after his freshman year.
"I was craving (Flamin') Hot Cheetos after the season," Jonas said after a laugh. "I ate those for a month straight and I think my mom saw (the socks) at Wal-Mart or something. She bought them, I wore them a couple times and they looked good with my wrestling shoes so I figured why not?"
It made for some light-hearted jabs from coaches and teammates. But since he's found success while wearing them, Jonas kept the flamboyant footwear, even as the bright orange fades and the text gets harder to make out.
"Before the matches, I'm not thinking about it," Jonas said, "but now it's something that I do because it's my lucky pair of socks. ... I'll wear 'em until they get a hole in 'em."
Jonas' bid for an undefeated season came to an end at the state prelims when he lost in the first-place match to Coon Rapids' Demetrius Seals, in an 8-4 decision. Losing the chance at a top seed was disappointing, but he had to get over it quickly as he had a true second-place match to get ready for.
Against Bemidji's Seth Newby, Jonas got his second straight state berth after a 6-3 decision.
"I had to flip the switch; I was a little disappointed but I had to make sure I advanced," Jonas said. "I took 10-to-15 minutes to clear my head. I just knew not to focus on the negative and I knew what I had to do next."
Through grit, skill and maybe with some luck from an old pair of socks, Jonas hopes to prove his case as one of the state's best in the Class AAA championships.
"On paper, it looks like he got a tough draw, but Jonas was undefeated before the state prelims," Oehlers said. "I'm sure (Novak's) thinking 'I got a tough first-round draw.' Jonas is definitely refocused ... hopefully we're prepared and we can execute in those first-round matches and beyond."
(At St. Michael-Albertville High School)
Class AAA team semifinals, 9 a.m.
Class AAA individual tournament, 2 p.m.
Notable: Willmar has six wrestlers competing in the state quarterfinals.
Class AA team semifinals, 9 a.m.
Class AA individual tournament, 2 p.m.
Notable: Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield (26-3) wrestles Fairmont/MCW (28-1) at 9 a.m.
There are 13 area wrestlers competing: seven from D-C/Litchfield, three from New London-Spicer, two from MAHACA, one from Team United.
Class A team semifinals, 9 a.m.
Class A individual tournament, 2 p.m.
Notable: Minnewaska's Tyson Meyer will compete for a third state championship; BBE's Walker Bents will try to win a second straight championship.
There are 14 area wrestlers competing: Four from BBE and ACGC, two from BOLD and Minnewaska, one from Benson and KMS.
How to watch: No tickets are available to the general public. Go to www.prepspotlight.com to watch any or all sessions for a fee.