A champion, indeed
Coenen tiebreaks way to 220-pound title
After the final whistle of the 2021 MSHSAA Wrestling Championships, 220-pounder Zach Coenen released his opponent, took a deep breath to recover, then asked a simple question, “Am I a champion?”
The ask was a fair one, as Coenen had come out on top of not one, not two, but three overtime matches, possibly a first for a state champion in Missouri history.
“This feels pretty incredible,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Nathan Fortner, Cassville wrestling coach, was equally without a description of the feeling.
“I can’t put it into words how happy I am,” he said. “Zach just did everything right. He has so much heart to go into three tiebreakers and win them all. It just shows his will to win.”
Coenen’s sectional title earned him a first-round bye at state, and in the quarterfinals, he was tied 1-1 at the end of three periods with junior Josh Dunmire, of Fulton. Coenen scored an escape point in the tiebreaker, then held Dunmire down for the final 30 seconds to secure the win.
In the semifinals against junior Peyton Hahn, of Boonville, the score was knotted again at 1-1 at the end of three periods. Coenen prevented an escape on top, then in the last 30 seconds, he escaped, and just for good measure, landed a takedown for a 4-1 win and championship berth.
Coenen’s title bout was one of the last two on the day, and the other match on the mat next to him ended in regulation, putting the spotlight on the senior in the 12th hour of competition.
Following the 1-1 regulation trend, Coenen repeated his quarterfinal success, but in reverse. He held his opponent in the first 30-second frame, then exploded in the last 30 for the winning point, holding on to his opponent at the end of time and left catching his breath.
The victory made him the first state champion in Cassville boys wrestling history.
“There’s not much thinking when I get to those overtimes,” Coenen said. “It’s just instincts at that point. I guess my only thought is I have to get the escape and hold my opponent down to be a champion.
Coenen’s path to gold had many at Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence wondering, was this his plan all along?
“That is definitely not my strategy,” he said. “But, I do feel comfortable in overtime. I think other guys will break when things get hard, and I will find a way to win.”
Fortner said going into the tournament if Coenen is ever tied, he would push all his chips in on the senior to come out on top.
“It’s definitely not our plan to go into overtime,” he said. “We want to just go out and win, although I did joke with him in the tunnel before the final that the only way he can do it is in a tiebreaker.
“At that point in a match, both wrestlers are exhausted, but he is confident, and in tough conditions, he has that will win where most people break.”
What may be even more impressive about Coenen’s title is that he is a relative newcomer to wrestling. A standout at fullback in football and a gridiron signee to Pittsburg State University, Coenen has only been wrestling for three years, and not consecutively.
“Fortner was my football coach in eighth grade, and he talked me into wrestling in high school,” Coenen said. “I like being around coach, and wrestling was probably the hardest thing I had ever done, so I wanted to keep doing it. I always heard people say when you wrestle, everything else is easy, so maybe that’s true.”
Fortner said Coenen started with the team as a freshman but was sidelined in his entire sophomore year due to a football-related injury.
“I have wrestled since I was 5 and never won a state title,” he said. “And, I’ve coached kids since they were 5 who have never won state titles. So, for Zach to do it in three years is pretty incredible, especially at his weight. Zach just wants to succeed. I’ve never had another kid like him. He’s that way in everything, too, like being a straight-A student. He always wants to be challenged.”
Coenen said his early arrival in Independence was a big benefit, getting to watch the Cassville girls team compete and celebrate Annie Moore winning the first championship in Cassville wrestling history.
“When we came up, I practiced some to stay loose, and watching the girls' tournament let me know what to expect,” he said. “Fortner also made plans for me in each match to help me get the win.”
Fortner said he would watch Coenen’s opponents in prior matches and point out certain tendencies to key in on.
“It’s the littlest things in wrestling that make the biggest difference,” he said. “Minor adjustments in each match help get wins, and Zach is just so smart and listens well, making those adjustments every time.”
Coenen said another benefit is his football experience, including Cassville’s most recent state runner-up and state semifinals runs.
“Football helps me get super strong, and things like head movement help, too,” he said. “I’m a fullback, so takedowns are a lot like getting tackled in football. Football has also prepared me for being in big situations like this.
Although the Wildcats’ gridiron success in recent years is high on the senior’s list of accomplishments, as well as signing to play in college, Coenen said for now, this state title is No. 1 on that list.
“It’s got to be at the top, right?” he said. “I don’t know how it can get any better than this. I absolutely love football, and it’s my sport, but I wish I had wrestled my entire life.”
Fortner said he will greatly miss having Coenen on the team.
“I will miss him greatly,” he said. “He’s a great kid to be around, and I loved wrestling him every day. He will be very successful going forward, in everything he does.”
After her championship, Moore celebrated with pie at the Cheesecake Factory. Coenen went a similar route, opting for a champion-sized milkshake and chocolate ice cream.
At the end of the day, there was only one question left on his mind, which he posed just before his medal ceremony on Thursday.
“Hey coach, can I get a ring?”