Nielsen, Ash bring new life to Oconto Falls

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Assistant coaches enjoying giving back to wrestling program

Greg Bates, Times Herald correspondent

Oconto Falls assistant coaches Brett Ash, left, and Cody Nielsen, center, give direction to senior wrestler Collin Schindel at the Bi-State Classic at the La Crosse Center on Dec. 29. (Contributed photo)

Oconto Falls assistant coaches Brett Ash, left, and Cody Nielsen demonstrate techniques during the team’s practice Jan. 14. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

Cody Nielsen and Brett Ash both went through the ranks of Oconto Falls youth wrestling program.

Both went on to have successful high school careers on the mat — Nielsen winning a state title as a junior, and Ash being named second-team all-Bay Conference as a senior.

Wrestling and the Oconto Falls community have always been extremely important to Nielsen and Ash. So, when they had the chance to return home and coach the program that molded them as young men, both of them jumped at the opportunity.

Ash, a 2015 Oconto Falls graduate, is in his third season as a coach. Nielsen, a 2012 graduate, is in his first as a varsity assistant.

“The Oconto Falls wrestling program was a huge part of my life,” Nielsen said. “It gave me opportunities my entire life as well as opportunities to go to college and to wrestle, travel around the country and do a lot of great things. A lot of great people put in a lot of time for me to have these opportunities. I wanted to come back and do the same thing for the kids in the program now.”

Oconto Falls tri-head coaches Marc Kinziger, Dave Brasier and Jack Magnin love having two of their former wrestlers on staff.

“It’s awesome,” Kinziger said. “With Dave, Jack and I getting up in age, it’s very nice to have that young blood. And the kids are responding very well to it. It’s very welcome.”

Everything lined up perfectly for Nielsen and Ash to come back home to coach. The pair wrestled together at Oconto Falls when Nielsen was a senior and Ash was a freshman.

Nielsen, who qualified for state three times in high school and amassed 112 wins in his final three seasons, graduated as the school’s all-time leader in career takedowns. He went on to wrestle at Northern State University, but after being diagnosed with diabetes, Nielsen decided to move closer to home to wrestle.

At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Nielsen won 53 matches in his three seasons. After college, he accepted a job as the special education teacher at Washington Middle School.

When he graduated from UWSP last spring, he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a profession.

“I just didn’t know where I wanted to work, if it was special education or with adults with disabilities,” Nielsen said. “A job opened up at Oconto Falls and I saw an opportunity to come back and be involved in the community that I grew up in, so I applied.”

Nielsen landed the job as a special education teacher at Washington Middle School.

“I’ve always wanted to coach wrestling, whether it was back home or wherever I got a job,” Nielsen said. “Once I realized I was coming home, I had a conversation with Marc (Kinziger) and Dave (Brasier) about if there was anything I could do to help the program, and an opportunity opened up to be an assistant coach.”

Ash, who finished 26-6 at the 132-pound weight class as a senior at Oconto Falls, enrolled at Fox Valley Technical College upon graduation and was commuting to campus every day from Oconto Falls. He’d get back home from class around 2 p.m., and saw the chance to coach since he was in town each afternoon.

“My brother (Bryce) was still there, and a lot of guys that were on the team with me were still wrestling, so I wanted to try and help those guys succeed,” Ash said.

Ash spent his first two seasons coaching as a volunteer assistant before becoming a full-time assistant this season. Ash works in the school district as a mechanic at the bus garage. He is also the Oconto Falls wrestling team’s bus driver for away competitions.

Kinziger and his coaches are always trying to get back former wrestlers to help with the program.

“It’s not like it just happened, we’ve been looking,” Kinziger said. “It’s just the right guys haven’t been back in town. With job schedules that most young guys have, it’s tough.”

“Wrestling’s one of those sports that when you’re in it, it’s part of your life forever,” Ash said. “Over Christmas break we’ll have like eight to 10 guys come back from college and head up to the room to wrestle.”

Since both Nielsen and Ash are young — Nielsen is 25 and Ash, 21 — they relate well to the high school wrestlers.

“They know that it wasn’t long ago I was going through the same process, the same program, wrestling at the same tournaments and going through the lull of January,” Nielsen said.

The wrestlers tend to listen a little more attentively and take stock in what they are told by Nielsen and Ash.

“They get, like, the newer trends,” senior wrestler Trevor Pankratz said. “The other coaches are like, ‘What?’”

Nielsen and Ash, who are varsity and middle school football coaches as well, provide a wealth of wrestling knowledge in many areas.

“The one big thing is probably with the weight management,” Ash said. “They probably don’t believe the older coaches what they’re telling them, because they’re so far out of it. But I still remember what I had to go through to get down to weight every week.”

After wrestling collegiately, Nielsen feels he has plenty of things on and off the mat he can teach the varsity wrestlers.

“Some of the things I bring technique-wise are from the college level, or fine-tuning some things that have already been established with takedowns and your stance and standups — things like that,” Nielsen said. “Things that all these kids have learned and established. I bring in a little more fine-tuning and getting them a little more exactly in the right position.”

The biggest thing Nielsen is preaching to the student-athletes? Making them aware they should be proud to wrestling for a well-respected program.

“Getting these kids to put in the work every day, understanding that they’re part of something pretty great and they’re part of a bigger picture with Oconto Falls wrestling,” Nielsen said. “Really getting these kids to believe in themselves and their teammates, because we have a really good group of kids this year.”

Kinziger said Nielsen and Ash bring youthful energy to the wrestling room every day. Both guys suit up for practice and get on mat with the wrestlers.

It’s one thing to teach a kid wrestling moves by giving verbal direction, but it’s a whole lot more effective to be able to show the wrestler firsthand what’s being discussed.

“Being able to go hands-on to every piece of what we do, that’s what those two bring to it,” Kinziger said.

“It’s a good thing they’re there, because they push us when we don’t want to be pushed,” Pankratz added, “and that just makes us better.”

With Nielsen and Ash being able to handle the on-mat work, it’s helping alleviate pressure from the head coaches, especially Kinziger and Brasier.

“Those two handle a lot of the paperwork stuff, setting up the practice schedule, setting up hotel rooms, getting the kids signed up for the tournament and everything,” Ash said. “They kind of give us the schedule, and me and Cody are out showing moves and repping with the kids.”

After looking up to the head coaches as role models for so many years, Nielsen feels a little strange sometimes giving advice to his former coaches and being treated as an equal. He loves to be able to help them out.

“It’s awesome that as head coaches and as successful as they have been that they would allow to take some steps back and allow (guys) like Brett and myself to take some of these responsibilities,” Nielsen said. “I don’t think you always see that in some head coaches or successful coaches; they don’t like taking the steps back. They like to be right in the mix of things. It says a lot about them and their character that they would feel confident in our abilities to take a few steps back.”

Kinziger enjoys having the extra help with the wrestlers.

“We’re just very grateful to have them,” Kinziger said. “It’s been very nice.”