It was February 2017 and Zach Weiler had every reason to slide into a deep emotional funk.
The sophomore for the Burlington High School wrestling team had just lost a heartbreaking 6-4 wrestleback in overtime to Cole Ramos of Kenosha Bradford in a WIAA Division 1 Wrestling Sectional at Burlington.
Burlington coach Jade Gribble recalls some questionable calls going against Weiler that afternoon. The kid also didn’t wrestle the way he wanted to and there was plenty of potential for self-doubt to dull Weiler’s competitive edge during the offseason.
“That was a big mental obstacle I had to overcome,” Weiler said. “It did some significant mental damage on me, but I felt I could come back stronger than ever.”
Weiler wasted no time bulldozing away the baggage. And two years later, that’s still what Gribble remembers about him.
“I guess the moral of the story is that not once did he blame anybody else,” Gribble said. “He just took accountability and became a better wrestler and a better person.
“He talked to me afterward and he said, ‘I’m never going to let that happen again, coach.’ He took accountability. As a sophomore, that’s just not something you see all the time. He was definitely upset, but he never blamed anyone else.”
Weiler has since become the leader of a team that will try to earn a second straight berth at the WIAA Division 1 state team tournament. The Demons face Oak Creek in a sectional dual meet on Tuesday night at St. Catherine’s John F. McGuire Gymnasium.
And what a leader he is.
“My son Jake is on the Burlington wrestling team and he can’t say enough about Zach’s leadership,” Vince Skrundz recently wrote in an unsolicited email to The Journal Times. “And he is great in the classroom as well.”
In strictly wrestling terms, Weiler is among the best in the state. He is 38-3 and is ranked sixth in Division 1 at 132 pounds by Wisconsin Wrestling Online. But it’s what Weiler gets done beyond that which truly separates him.
A young man who has a 3.65 grade-point average and willingly helps teammates with their homework. He stays after practice to work on moves with anyone who wants more practice. You name it and Weiler is happy to help.
“He’s been there for me since day one,” teammate Max Ehlen said. “He’s always been the kind of guy I look up to. There was a time last year when I was struggling and not seeing the kind of production I wanted. Two or three times a week, we would stay after practice and he would wrestle with me and tell me things I needed to better.”
If there’s a most valuable wrestler on what has been an exceptional Burlington team, start with Weiler. And it doesn’t matter if he wins another match in his high school career.
The Demons have dealt with injuries most of this season and it wasn’t until the regional tournament last Saturday when they were close to full strength. Gribble contends it has been Weiler who has held together this group through the mental and physical challenges of a long season.
Weiler knows their tendencies on the mat. And he knows what’s going on inside each of their minds.
“As a captain, he basically has looked into our varsity wrestlers, gotten to know the kids and figured out what motivates them,” Gribble said. “We had a couple of kids who were in a little emotional funk at the beginning of the year and I talked to him about it. He already saw what was the best way to motivate them.
“That’s just really strange for a high school kid — to not only figure out what motivates himself but how he can motivate his teammates.”
That’s what real leaders do. As much pride as Weiler takes in himself, he takes even more in his team.
“I’m trying to help them develop their skill set as wrestlers, but I’m also helping them develop in the real world,” he said. “Coach Gribble talks about how there’s life things and wrestling things; sometimes they blend together.
“So I’m trying to help them become better people as well as better wrestlers. Anything extra they need help with, I’ll always offer my help. It’s kind of inspiring that they’re willing to put in the extra work, too.”
Where did that foundation come from? Start with Weiler’s parents, Scott and Laura.
Scott Weiler wrestled for Burlington in the 1980s and taught him the ropes on the mat as a boy. Laura was also an inspiration.
“They taught me really good morals and values,” Weiler said. “My dad just showed me the right way. And my mom is really, really smart, so she taught me the academic side of things. And I also observe her as being a leader. She’s real independent.”
As the Demons move into the team sectional Tuesday, the individual sectional at Park Saturday and then the state tournament Feb. 21-23 at Madison, they figure to be a force. And Weiler’s fingerprints will be all over this program.
“We had a lot of snow days the other week and he’s the one who took the initiative and just got everyone together and got us to work out,” Jake Skrundz said. “He’s always the last one there, rolling up mats, he’s always the one giving huge motivational speeches.
“He’s always hyping us up, getting us ready and making sure our minds are right.”