Ellsworth’s Penn takes 2nd at National Competition

By Joe Peine
Posted 11/16/23

In Ellsworth, wrestling is the next thing to a religion, and with winter sports ramping up, top Panther wrestler Willy Penn is already back on the mat making big things happen.

On Oct. 28, Penn …

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Ellsworth’s Penn takes 2nd at National Competition


In Ellsworth, wrestling is the next thing to a religion, and with winter sports ramping up, top Panther wrestler Willy Penn is already back on the mat making big things happen.

On Oct. 28, Penn competed in the Brian Keck Preseason Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa. There were 67 entries from across the nation that came to wrestle in the 144-pound weight class, and Penn beat out 66 of them. En route to his second-place finish and the championship round, he actually eliminated the one seed by a score of 14-2 in the semifinal round.

The way that Division 2 wrestling is set up, which includes Ellsworth and the Dunn-St. Croix, is that you have to place in the top four of your super regional to qualify for individual sectionals, and then you have to take top three at sectionals to qualify for the state tournament. Even though Penn basically missed out on an entire season of development due to Covid, he came back as a sophomore, made it to sectionals and came up just short of advancing to state. He rectified that last year as a junior where, not only did he make it to state, he took fourth place.

Mark Matzek, who is entering his ninth season as head coach, says that Penn has always been a good wrestler, he’s already been named team captain and he is a clear leader on the team.

“Coaches always talk about fundamentals, Willy has that. He’s technically sound. He stays in good position in all three positions in wrestling whether it be in the neutral position, on top or on bottom, and he's always looking to score,” Matzek said. “No one works harder than he does, whether it's in a weight room or the wrestling room. He got on the podium last year, and I feel like his aspiration this year is to be a state champion.”

For Ellsworth, Penn is part of a culture that fits the metaphor of having an embarrassment of riches, as he is part of what is basically a Panthers dynasty. At one point, they won sectionals and advanced to state 14 times in a row. They’ve won 42 conference championships, 34 sectional championships, eight state championships as a team, taken runner up seven times at state, had 33 state champions, 24 state finalists and 87 state place winners.

Maybe more impressive or importantly than all of that, is that Matzek is still only the fourth total head coach the team has ever had.

“It all started with Kirby Symes. He was the guy that started the program because there was too many boys out for basketball, so he had started a wrestling program and taught it out of a book,” Matzek said. “The foundation of the program is still the same, hard work and high expectations.”

With all the success that their program has had, they hit a bit of a rough patch starting with the aforementioned Covid year, and they haven’t been back to state as a team since 2019. Matzek says their team is well balanced with an even mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and the hope is that the underclassmen can get behind their captain in Penn and bring another state championship home to Ellsworth.

“Number one, we have to stay healthy. And then secondly, as a coaching staff we’ve got to develop our guys and see where the matches lie with the other teams in our conference, region and section because a huge aspect of winning a wrestling dual is the matchups,” Matzek said. “We have 14 weights, and we have to see how all the matchups come down and see how the other teams are and if they're staying healthy as well towards the end of the season. We’ll focus on improving each and every week and working hard and winning matches. The kids are tough, and they get tougher by how hard we train them.”

Even though he’s just one wrestler, having an elite athlete like Penn on the team is huge. Matzek says that if Penn can approach the season with the right mindset, success will follow.

“For guys like him that love to work hard and push their body, wrestling is the best sport for them. He's fallen in love,” Matzek said. “The biggest thing for him to have his senior year be the pinnacle of his high school career is to just honestly enjoy the journey, focus on the process and be thankful that he has this opportunity to wrestle. I think if he approaches his wrestling and training with that mindset, the winning and losing will take care of itself.”

For Penn, the rest of the Panthers’ wrestlers and their fans, the wait is almost over as their first meet of the season is on Saturday, Dec. 2 when Ellsworth will host an all-day invitational.

Ellsworth Panthers, wrestling, Willy Penn