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Open Mike: Miller does his part to help St. Francis get back on top

Senior Mike Miller (right) stands with his medal and plaque after winning the 132-pound weight class at All-Catholics. Photo by Michael Petro.
There are 15 weight classes in high school wrestling, and each team’s goal is to not only have the most competitive wrestlers throughout a lineup, but also fill as many of those spots as possible.

In his freshman season, Mike Miller remembers, at its peak, Saint Francis having only nine wrestlers. It was barely enough to field a team, let alone be competitive in many of those weight classes.

“I remember in the match for the league championship, losing like 60 – 15,” said Miller of Hamburg.

In trying to take positives away from the season, head coach Mike Messore picked out Miller, maybe an unlikely choose at the time considering it was the freshman’s first year as a wrestler. Miller had played basketball, but was cut his freshman season and decided to give wrestling a try. Messore saw something special in the youngster.

“I needed a guy to build on and I told him it would be you,” Messore remembered informing Miller.

The following season also brought hope, in the form of a freshmen class with talent, but maybe even more importantly, its numbers created depth for a program not used to having those types of problems.

The Red Raiders had their growing pains that year, but still managed to pull out a regular season title, before falling short of recapturing the All-Catholics crown. That would not be a problem the past two seasons, as Saint Francis rolled to both titles each year. On Sunday, St. Francis won the All-Catholics crown, with eight of 11 wrestlers that competed in a final winning a weight class.

“They’ve really made some great strides, building the program back up,” said Miller, a senior, of the now junior class. “It’s been amazing; it’s been a blessing to be a part of.”

Jake Braunscheidel, also of Hamburg, leads the crew of talented juniors. He won the 195-pound weight class and was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at All-Catholics. Coming up short at the same event, as a team, during the 2011-12 season left an impression that he hasn’t forgotten.

“When I was a freshman, one of our assistant coaches said he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose in the championship like this,” he said. “So, since then, that’s been my hope for the team — all the years that I’ve been here, win every year.”

All the while, Miller has continued to be the steady influence on the team. Individually, he picked up his 110th win, while earning another All-Catholics title, pinning his opponent in the final at 132 pounds.

“He’s been a great leader and is one of the guys all year long who’s dependable and I know exactly what I’m getting out of him every time he goes out on the mat,” Messore said. “He gets beat by some kids, but he never wrestles a bad match.”

Like any great leader, Miller, who was also a standout defensive back for the football team, cares little about individual accomplishments and weighs much of his success on how the team performs.

“It was nice to get my 100th win, but it was never something that was present in my mind, it’s just something that happened,” Miller said. “I never looked at it as something I’ve got to get to. My goals were always to try to help the team and put my best foot forward every week.”

And now, St. Francis is back to producing solid freshman classes annually, replenishing a lineup that is no longer thin. Three freshmen made this year’s All-Catholic finals.

“Last year, we stepped up and took everything back,” Messore said of the league titles. “We’ve traditionally been the team to beat in the league and we’ve gotten back to that form.”

But Messore admits there is still a long way to go to getting back to being a perennial top 10 large school as the program was for years.

“We’re still setting our sights higher,” Messore noted. “We want to get even better. We’re not satisfied. But we definitely had to get some where first after what we went through.”

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