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Prep wrestling: Proctor/Hermantown’s McPhee continues to make his mark

Program’s all-time wins leader has pinned an opponent in an incredible 12 of 14 weight classes.

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee, right, of Proctor/Hermantown wrestles with Damian Tapio of Rock Ridge in the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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PROCTOR — Fans flocked to Rails Indoor Sports Complex Thursday for a wrestling quadrangular hosted by Proctor/Hermantown, and as soon as the wrestlers took to the mat, the chatter started.

“You’re riding too high … gotta move, gotta move,” came the orders as coaches and teammates barked from the sidelines. “Hips up,” “build a base” and “that’s it, now lock it up tight.”

That’s wrestling banter that Proctor junior Zak McPhee knows all too well, having started wrestling at age 4 with the North Shore Wrestling Club and having wrestled varsity since seventh grade. He is Proctor/Hermantown’s all-time leader with 158 wins and 88 pins.

McPhee, who currently wrestles at 182 pounds, improved to 13-0 this season with a 10-0 major decision over Rock Ridge standout Damian Tapio, who wrestled up a weight against the heavier McPhee.

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee of Proctor Hermantown talks with a teammate after competing in the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“You never know with wrestling,” McPhee said. “You can be on one day and off the next day. I felt like I set the tone right away, and that’s important.”

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McPhee has pinned an opponent in an incredible 12 of the 14 weight classes as he has gradually worked his way up during his varsity career. He has a goal of getting a pin in all 14.

Zak’s father, Proctor/Hermantown coach Eric McPhee, was asked how unusual that is.

“I really want to know. I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s pretty rare,” Eric McPhee said. “I was talking to the coach from Grand Rapids, and I’m like, ‘Do we have a name for that?’ Is that like batting for the cycle? I don’t know what that is.

“It never even crossed my mind until we had summer practice and a kid from Superior was talking about some guy in Wisconsin doing it. And then I started thinking, ‘Geez, what about Zak?’ Then I had to go back and look at the records.”

The crowd was larger than normal Thursday at Rails Indoor Sports Complex as it was both Senior Night and Parents Night. It was Proctor/Hermantown’s only home event this season — yeah, tough crowd — so they were trying to squeeze it all in.

Some of the most noise generated Thursday came in McPhee’s match with Tapio.

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee of Proctor/Hermantown holds Damian Tapio of Rock Ridge in a near-fall during the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

McPhee appeared to be close to pinning Tapio at the end of the match. It would have been Zak’s eighth pin of the season but ultimately it didn’t matter as Rock Ridge won 51-25, dropping Proctor/Hermantown United to 3-4 on the season.

“I don’t really know,” McPhee said of whether he pinned Tapio or not. “I feel like time was waning, and I was happy with what I did. These matches here are really just to get better, they are just prepping for the section and state tournament. That’s what the focus is on. It was awesome that Damian bumped up (in weight) to wrestle me. That’s how you grow — competition.”

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Especially in the Northland where good wrestling competition can sometimes be hard to find.

The 6-foot tall McPhee also competes in track and field and in football, where he is a running back and linebacker for the Proctor Rails and is one of their leading tacklers.

McPhee was asked what’s his favorite.

“Kind of whatever one I’m in. I like all sports,” he said. “I like staying active and keeping busy. I dedicate pretty much all my time to the sport that I’m in.”

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee of Proctor/Hermantown talks with assistant coach Cody Weiland after competing in the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Former Minnesota Duluth football player and retired Duluth police officer Tony Radloff would agree. Radloff works with St. Luke’s as a strength and conditioning coach and has worked with local athletes in a variety of sports. He was in attendance Thursday to support the Proctor/Hermantown wrestlers.

“I work with Zak two or three times a week at 6:15 in the morning and he never misses a day,” Radloff said. “He’s amazing.”

Zak McPhee is strong and explosive. He has a career record of 158-36. His older brother Alex, who wrestles at Concordia-Moorhead, was the program’s previous wins leader with 143.

Not that brothers would brag.

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“Zak keeps getting better with age and maturity and just dedicating himself,” Eric McPhee said. “He’s super self-motivated, always pushing himself, and that makes it super-easy coaching him.”

Zak McPhee was ranked third at 182 pounds in the latest Minnesota Class AA rankings by “The Guillotine.” He has qualified for the state meet the past two seasons but has yet to place in the top six.

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee of Proctor/Hermantown shoots in on the legs of Damian Tapio of Rock Ridge in the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

What’s his goal this year?

“As high as I can go,” McPhee said. “It’s any given match, really. We’ll shoot for all the way, but if not, we’ll just get back to it for next year.”

McPhee is undecided on what he wants to do for college but wants to compete in a sport. Teaching and being a DNR officer have piqued his interest. Whatever sport and whatever school he chooses, the 4.0 student is sure to be a good catch.

What’s even more impressive with McPhee’s undefeated junior season is he isn’t even 100%. He tweaked his right hamstring playing football this fall and got off to a slow start this wrestling season.

“I’m as good as I’m going to be (for this season), but over time, it’ll get better,” he said. “There’s still some times where it feels a little iffy, but I feel confident in my abilities and I definitely like wrestling, so I’m definitely going to go out there and give it my best.”

And McPhee’s best is pretty darn good.

So what’s his best move?

“I don’t really know. I don’t think I have one,” McPhee said. “I don’t have a solid go-to. I’m just well-rounded, and that’s one of my advantages. I’m not one-dimensional.”

How many moves are we talking here?

McPhee laughed and said, “Too many to count.”

So while coaches and teammates will continue to bark out instructions, McPhee will continue to wrestle like he’s on autopilot. When you've been doing this as long as he has, some things appear to come easy, even if they’re not.

“At this point it’s just by feel,” he said. “I don’t have to do much thinking when I’m out there.”

high school boys wrestling
Zak McPhee of Proctor/Hermantown wrestles with Damian Tapio of Rock Ridge in the 182-pound weight class at the Proctor Indoor Sports Complex on Thursday in Proctor.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
MORE PREPS COVERAGE:

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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