Oshkosh Lourdes wrestler A.J. Zemke will never forget the view from atop the medal stand, Feb. 27 at the Kohl Center in Madison. Zemke, a junior, was crowned the 135-pound WIAA Division 3 state wrestling champion after defeating Ryan Vogt of River Ridge/Cassville by a score of 9-6 in the title match.
“You are up there and you hear your name announced and it echoes through the place,” he said. “It’s really a good feeling, then you look out and see your family and everyone who has supported you cheering and clapping. It’s crazy.”
The victory served as redemption for Zemke, who finished the season 49-2. A year ago, as a sophomore, he finished second at state at 130 pounds after losing a 3-2 decision in the championship match to C.J. Hale of Auburndale.
“That match gave me a lot of motivation this year,” he said. “Any time I would feel tired in practice, I would think about that match and that one point. If you do one thing differently, that’s the match. That’s the difference between a state title and second place. I think in a lot of ways it made me a better wrestler this season. It drove me to push myself harder and to not let what happened last year happen again.”
Zemke was in control against Vogt, whom he faced in the first round of the 2009 state tournament. He quickly recorded a takedown to take a 2-0 lead, which led to some strategy.
“I realized that I could probably take him down again, so I let him go (for a one-point escape) and took him down to go up 4-1 to start off,” he said. “After I jumped out to a 6-2 lead, I figured as long as I wrestled smart that I should be fine.”
Zemke became the first Lourdes wrestler to win a WIAA state wrestling championship and the 27th in school history (26 WISAA champions) to capture gold on the mat. His father, Jamie, is the Knights’ wrestling coach. Zemke said that it can be tough at times when your father runs the program, but the rewards far exceed the challenges.
“The highs are really high and the lows are really low,” he said. “When you accomplish something really big, it’s nice to have your father there to share it with you, especially because my dad and I are really close. He wrestled all four years (in high school) and won a state title. He knows what it takes to get to that level and succeed. Having him here to help me probably was one of the biggest reasons I’ve succeeded.”
He credits all family members involved with the Lourdes wrestling program for pushing him to get better, including his brother, Nathan, a senior, who wrestled at 140 pounds for the Knights, his grandfather, Don Zemke, who serves as an assistant coach, and cousins who are part of the team.
Nathan, a conference tournament champion and sectional qualifier, will be greatly missed, said his younger brother.
“He helped me a lot,” said Zemke. “I can remember being in the wrestling room and we would just go at it the whole practice. At times, he would stay after and help me lose weight the night before a tournament. It’s hard to imagine not having him here. He was awesome to have around. We share a room and we do almost everything together. Right after I won, he gave me a big hug. He supported me a lot.”
Zemke’s 49 victories in a season are a school record, and his overall record of 142-12, is also best in Lourdes history. Two seasons ago, as a freshman, Zemke finished fourth at state at 112 pounds. He said he doesn’t think much about setting records, but hopes his achievements motivate future Lourdes grapplers.
“Everyone at (St. John) Neumann (middle school) knew about (his state title),” he said “I was at the Neumann wrestling meet and the younger wrestlers came up to me and said, ‘Good job.’ It was a really good feeling. I hope it helps them to push themselves and set their goals high.”
Zemke works on his craft year round. He competes in national Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling tournaments out of season. His goal for his senior year is to repeat as an individual state champion. He also hopes to help the Knights make it to the team state tournament. The squad returns several wrestlers including 2010 state qualifier Austin Loos and Matt Schettle, a state qualifier in 2009 who broke a finger while winning regionals this past season.
“That’s the one thing (team state) I haven’t done yet,” said Zemke. “It would be awesome to get there.”