By Andrew Johnson

HART – After losing four All-State wrestlers due to graduation, it would be have been understandable if the 2019-2020 Hart wrestling team had taken a step back.

But sophomore Mason Cantu is part of a special group that stepped up this season and didn’t let that happen. 

“We lost an amazing senior group,” said Cantu about the class of 2019, which featured individual state champion Robbie Altland (119  pounds) and a runner-up, his brother Noah Cantu (125). “We’ve definitely been overlooked this season, but what we’ve been able to do is amazing.”

Hart wrestler Mason Cantu, who has made major strides on the mat since his promising freshman season.

Currently the Pirates hold a 30-3 record and recently brought home a title from the Chippewa Hills Warrior team tournament, which featured a tough field of opponents.

“We had a really good tournament at Chippewa Hills,” said Hart head coach Brad Altland. “We thought we got a couple good wins by beating Chippewa Hills in the finals, and Byron Center earlier in the day, which has a good team.”

The Pirates made up for the loss of their four All-Staters by producing nine wrestlers who have posted 20 or more more wins this season: Bryce Jorissen (103), Trayce Tate (112), Spencer Vanderzwaag (125), Chance Alvesteffer (130), Fabian Vilchis-Mendoza (130), Jerry Brandel (145), Thomas Tanner (152), Leo Guadarrama (171), Braeden Carskadon (215) and Tanner Breitwisch (285).

That list also includes Cantu, who has turned in a sparkling 38-2 record so far in only his second season at the varsity level. That’s a big step up from his freshman season, when he posted a promising 30-16 record when it was all said and done.

“Mason has developed the most physically,” Altland said. “Overall he’s developed both physically and mentally this year, but he’s really worked hard to transition to becoming a better high school wrestler. He’s doing quite a bit of work outside of practice with lifting and cardio to help himself.”

Cantu and his Hart teammates are used to winning medals.

On Wednesday night, the Pirates will begin to see how far their deep lineup can take them in the state team tournament. They will compete in the Division 4 district tournament at LeRoy Pine River High School, facing Pine River in the semifinals. If they win, they will face then either Mason County Central or Evart in the finals the same night.

Last year the Pirates advanced to the Division 4 regional finals, one step short of the state quarterfinals.

“Making state as a team is a goal,” Cantu said. “We already wrestled Pine River this year and we know they’re a big challenge, so we’re trying to stay focused and not overthink it.”

No matter how they do on Wednesday, the Pirates will have to quickly turn their attention to the individual district tournament on Saturday at Oscoda High School, where the top wrestlers in each weight class will qualify for individual regionals, regardless of how their teammates do.

“I want to win a state title,” said Cantu, who qualified for the individual state finals as a freshman at 130 pounds but failed to place. “That’s my dream. When I’m a senior, looking back at what I accomplished, that would be the best feeling.”

Part of what has made Cantu successful on the mat is the bond he has with his older brother Noah, who now wrestles at University of Indianapolis.

“It brought us closer,” Cantu said about sharing the sport with his sibling. “One of us takes a tough loss and the other is always there to pick him up. My brother is always there to celebrate me and I’m there for him.”

The two brothers had a unique experience last season, when they both qualified for the state finals at the opposite ends of their high school careers – Noah as a senior and Mason as a freshman.

“It was amazing,” Cantu said. “We worked together for the longest time and we pushed each other. Being able to say that we went to state together was kind of a dream come true.”

Cantu won’t have Noah with him during the individual tournament this season, but he’s determined to make him proud by getting back to the state finals and finishing higher than last season. He will be wrestling in either the 135 or 140 weight class.

“My biggest goal is to go to state and place high,” he said. “Trying to compete for a state title is the major goal, but trying to get 50 wins on the season is another major one that I want.”