Each of the three Brookfield East wrestlers on their way to the WIAA Division 1 state individual tournament all have taken their own unique paths to Madison.
One joined the team just over two weeks ago. Another was hungry for revenge after a regional upset last season, and the third missed the postseason altogether a year ago due to a serious injury.
Saif Ibraheem won a sectional title, while Caleb Wright and David Holzem wrestled back for second-place finishes Feb. 18 at the West Allis Central sectional, giving the Spartans their most qualifiers to the state meet since sending four wrestlers in 2010.
"There were people that questioned the path," first-year Brookfield East coach Andrew Mueller said. "We just got them right back on track. They started seeing the light at the end of the year, and all of a sudden, good things started happening to them and they realized this is why we did this. It definitely paid off in the last few weeks here."
Wright was sitting in the stands watching Brookfield East wrestle rival Brookfield Central in a dual meet Jan. 26 when his desire to return to the sport became too much for him to ignore.
"After seeing my friends wrestle this year, I realized I miss it and I love it," Wright said. "I knew I had to give it one more shot, at least. At the dual meet against Central, I realized I would give anything to be back on the mat.
"I talked to the coaches after and said, 'No promises of wrestling at meets or anything, but can I at least get in the practice room?' One thing led to another and they asked me to wrestle at conference. I thought about it and thought, 'Why not?"
Mueller was hesitant about allowing Wright to join the team, a proposition that easily could have been rejected since the regular season was over.
Wright wasn't new to the sport by any means. He qualified for sectionals at 195 pounds with a 24-9 record as a freshman. Wright won his first-round match at sectionals before losing in the semifinals and dropping the third-place match in overtime.
But a desire to focus on his primary sport of football led Wright to skip wrestling as a sophomore and the beginning of his junior year. A key member of Brookfield East's state-championship football team, Wright was a first-team All-Greater Metro pick on the defensive line, recording 88 tackles and eight sacks.
"We had a really good culture in our room," Mueller said. "I didn't know what bringing a new guy in was going to do to that. I didn't want to impact that just for somebody that decided to come out late. I had a talk with my assistants and they thought we should give him a chance. So we opened it up to him and he came back. He's just taken a step every time, every day."
The decision has paid off, as Wright took second at the Greater Metro Conference tournament, won a regional championship and now has earned a trip to state.
Wright opened his day at sectionals with a pin West Allis Hale's Justin Schroeder in 2 minutes, 56 seconds before beating Darius Adkins of West Allis Central, 7-4, in the semifinals. After being pinned in 4:35 by Aric Bohn of Mukwonago in the finals, Wright (8-2) recovered to make state with a pin of Brookfield Central's Jacob Somlai in 5:56.
"It is very surprising," Wright said. "Technique-wise, I remember everything from freshman year. It was just about getting back into it and going the three rounds and overtime. It is so surreal. I can't believe it."
Fueled by an early exit from the postseason a year ago, Ibraheem (27-6) emerged from the 160-pound bracket as sectional champion.
"This means so much to me," Ibraheem said. "Since last year's upset at regionals, I've been working so hard for this. You can't count the number of late nights I've had and hours I've put in. Losing last year just fueled me so much. I went to find the best practice partners and made sure I was kicking their butts to be on their level."
A first-round loss at regionals prevented Ibraheem from having a chance to wrestleback for a sectional berth in 2016. He opened sectionals with a 7-1 decision over Jake Schultz of West Allis Central and a 5-2 win over Hunter Bourdo of Mukwonago. He fell behind Drew Malicki of Waukesha North in the finals before rallying for a 13-10 victory.
"I knew he was going to try to throw me a lot," Ibraheem said. "Technique-wise, he wasn't that great. It was a lot of throwing around that I wasn't used to. I just had to stay in good position."
Holzem was unable to wrestle at the conference tournament or regionals last season after separating the sternoclavicular joint in his shoulder.
He made the most of his chance this season. Holzem (26-12) advanced to the 132 finals with a 5-1 win over Devin Dietrich of West Allis Central and a 6-4 victory over Anthony Christenson of Waukesha South. He lost, 3-2, to Wauwatosa's Cole Acker in the finals but did not need to wrestle back for second place since Christenson won the third-place match.
"The injury made me just want to work harder," Holzem said. "I wanted to strengthen my arms so it wouldn't happen again. My dad (East assistant Kevin Holzem) has been coaching me since I was 5, and to have that letdown of not being able to see me wrestle at the end of last year, to come back and go to state really means a lot."
The WIAA Division 1 state individual tournament begins at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Kohl Center in Madison. Holzem will face Port Washington's Preston Makoutz (27-12) in his first-round match, Ibraheem drew DeForest's Greg Fischer (27-13), and Wright will take on fifth-ranked Cole Godbout (34-4) of Hudson.