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USLRA NEWS

GENERATION NEXT

NONE OF THEM HAVE ROLLED A SINGLE PROFESSIONAL FALL AT THE LUMBERJACK WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS. BUT STARTING THIS WEEK IN HAYWARD, WI, A GROUP OF TEENAGERS IS ABOUT TO CHANGE THE ENTIRE LANDSCAPE OF MEN’S PRO LOG ROLLING.


Pictured from left: Connor Birdsong, Anthony Polentini, Tanner Hallett, Tom Mengwasser, Kody Koblitz
 

It may take a few years for it to truly happen. But it’s coming. The face of men’s pro Log Rolling is about to get a major face lift beginning this week at the 58th annual Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, WI. A group of rollers that may be the most decorated collection of amateurs in at least a generation will enter the pro ranks, and kick off what could be a two year flood of young pros that will almost assuredly change the sport for at least the next decade.

The trickle began last month just outside of Chicago. And it started with perhaps the most confident of the group. 18-year old Connor Birdsong made it clear he had no interest in the back bracket. As Birdsong prepared for his pro debut at the U.S Logrolling Open in Orland Park, Ill., it was suggested by family members that as a first time pro, he might be good enough to make his way through the back bracket if he lost his first match. From his standpoint, there would be no talk of the back bracket, or for that matter second place. “You’ve always got to try and win,” says Birdsong. “It doesn’t matter that it was my first pro tournament. In order to do well you have to be confident in yourself.” When being interviewed for this piece, Birdsong quickly cut off the sentence when the talk of second or third place came up again. “No I really didn’t think about that. I had to roll Matt (Delaney) first and I thought I could probably beat him, and then I got Carl (Rick). I didn’t know exactly what I was going to get but I wasn’t about to back down from that challenge. And with Garrick I roll him in practice all the time and we beat each other up. But I beat him in practice and I knew I could beat him.” Birdsong went on to win all three of his matches, and as the youngest men’s pro in Orland Park, took home the U.S Logrolling Open title. He also grabbed a third place finish at the highly competitive Three Rivers Roleo earlier this month in Onalaska, WI, and last year as a declared amateur, won the pro event at the Namekagon River Roll-Off. Birdsong’s early success has been impressive and his pro debut in Orland Park was certainly notable. But also symbolic. A sign that the next generation of men’s pro log rollers has clearly arrived.

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The divisions at the amateur log rolling level are fairly simple. Four groups based on age. U7, U10, U13, and U17. It’s a way to keep the competition as fair as possible. And keep the action moving at a decent pace.

Starting about eight years ago, a monkey wrench was thrown into the otherwise efficient system. Tournament directors had the sometimes difficult task of reconfiguring tournaments around a group that often took more time to finish than all the others combined. When the U10 boys division rolled, it sometimes meant two to three hour marathon round robins. At certain smaller indoor tournaments, the number of rollers were eye opening. Double digits were the norm in the loaded U10 division. And often, none of the competitors were an easy out. As the group continued to improve and impress through U13 and especially U17, an obvious question started to bubble up in conversation. How many future Professional World Champions could be in this group? Beginning Thursday, observers at the Lumberjack Bowl get their first glimpse. And it’s a good bet that the foundation for what’s next in men’s Professional Log Rolling will be on full display this week.

Birdsong, following his win in Orland Park, will be joined by several of his former U10 competitors in Hayward, and together, they’ll begin what promises to be the start of a new era in Pro Log Rolling. The catch is, the 2017 rookie class is likely just the beginning. The 18 year old Birdsong, along with six time amateur World Champion Tanner Hallett and 2016 Semi-Pro World Champion Tom Mengwasser – also both 18 - each have a legitimate chance to become the first teenager to win at The Lumberjack World Championships since J.R. Salzman did so nearly 20 years ago. But the next few rookie classes, led by Anthony Polentini, Kody Koblitz, Carson Poupore, and Andrew Serpico could be just as good, if not better.

“Those guys are all going to be really good,” says Connor’s brother and fourth year pro Garrick Birdsong, who has trained with or rolled in practice with most of the young crop of rollers. “Kody is such a (physically) strong roller. With Kody it’s such a battle for control. Even though I run with him, it almost feels like a bucking match. Anthony is one of the fastest rollers I’ve seen come along in a long time. You’ve got to avoid a sprint out with him because more likely than not he’ll win.” While Polentini, Koblitz, Poupore, and Serpico will wait at least one more year before turning pro, it’s a good bet they’ll enter the professional circuit with a head of steam in 2018 or 2019. Polentini, in addition to his speed and strong technique as a roller, will also be among the top boom runners in the world the day he turns pro. Koblitz brings a combination of size, strength and skill that could eventually rival some of the top professional rollers of the past few generations. Serpico has shown strong potential with several top three finishes as an amateur and could develop into one of the top pros in the next few years. But maybe the most important element the four amateurs - along with this year’s rookie pro class - will bring to the pro ranks, is each other.

“I remember growing up back when we were little we would rotate through all those (amateur) tournaments in terms of who would win,” says Hallett. “And it was just about as close as you could get throughout the year. Growing up (with those guys) you had to be driven to practice hard before every tournament otherwise you would lose. I don’t think I would love the sport as much as I do if I hadn’t had such competitive matches when I was younger.” Poupore, who lives and trains at his home near Ft. Forth, Texas, adds that the competitive atmosphere helped him gain perspective as a younger roller. “It helped me because those guys pushed me to get better and hone in in what I’m good at. One year I was highly aggressive and then changed it up. They all gave me different looks. You had to be focused. There are five or six guys who could win (in our group) and you had to stay focused.”

Understandably, a natural respect for each other has formed among several members of the up and coming group. When asked about each other, it’s almost as if they know each other’s tendencies and nuances better than a seasoned pro might. “Anthony’s tough because his kicks are really strong,” says Koblitz. “He’s so steady and in control.” Polentini’s counter rolls off his tongue almost second nature. “With Kody, he’s a really aggressive roller,” says Polentini. “The other thing about him is his transition from back step to front step is so good. It’s kind of amazing how he does that.”

Among those taking notice of the next generation is three time Log Rolling World Champion Jaime Fischer. “They’re very talented,” says Fischer. “Both left and right shouldered rollers. And they’re not all in one program. They’re in different programs so they have the opportunities to have exciting tournaments. It’s not one person that’s going to dominate for a lot of years.”

The 36-year old Fischer, who’s won two pro tournaments this summer, is probably the favorite heading into The Lumberjack World Championships this week, but has already been pushed hard by some of the young guns this season. Hallett, who won The La Crosse Open last month, also defeated Fischer in a five fall match this past weekend to win the Namekagon River Roll-Off. Mengwasser rolled Fischer tough before losing to him in the finals in Madison last month -- Mengwasser also battled Fischer in the semi’s at the Three Rivers Roleo. This year’s crop of rookies and the group of talented amateurs behind them could form a nucleus similar to what Fischer experienced a generation ago, when he broke into the pro scene along with fellow eventual World Champions Salzman and Darren Hudson.

“When we came up we had a very strong group of rollers,” says Fischer. “There were just three of us that won the World title from 1998 until last year (Will Hoeschler won in 2016). Just getting to the finals was incredibly difficult. Now with J.R. retiring last year and Darren retiring two years ago it’s really opened the door for a lot of opportunity, and there’s now a big group of younger talented rollers.”

It’s become clear that over the next few years, the group of U10 boys from nearly a decade ago will finally get their shot. There’s no telling how many will win a World Title in the coming years. Maybe two or three of them will outwork the others and break from the pack the way Fischer, Salzman, and Hudson did. It’s possible they’ll mimic what they did as amateurs and all grab their share of titles. What’s not in question is that this generation of professional men is one of the deepest in recent memory to enter the pro ranks. And when it’s all said and done, it could end up being the best.

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WHO TO WATCH IN 2017 - MEN

Jaime Fischer - Fischer, who turned 36 years old earlier this month, is starting to look more like the 26-year old version of himself on the log. After struggling with injuries during his comeback season a year ago, the three time World Champion has been dominant this summer, with wins in Madison, Onalaska, and a runner up in Namekagon. His combination of quickness and experience under the bright lights could be tough for the rest of the field to handle. Fischer should be the favorite heading in this week, although this year’s men’s field has at least five to seven rollers who realistically could take the title.

Tanner Hallett – Hallett’s six amateur World titles give him an impressive springboard as he gears up for his first professional Lumberjack World Championships this week. He’ll also head in with a strong rookie resume so far as a pro, with a win over Fischer to grab the Namekagon title this past Sunday, and a victory at the La Crosse Open last month.

Cassidy Scheer – One of the top all around Lumberjacks in Hayward this week, Scheer has also stepped up his game on the log this summer. The son of four time World Champion roller Fred Scheer, Cassidy took home a runner-up at the Three Rivers Roleo two weeks ago, even knocking off Fischer is a closely contested 3-1 loss. Scheer’s strength and unique directional splashing ability give him a chance to make a deep run. Finished fourth last year.

Tom Mengwasser – Mengwasser has had an impressive rookie year so far. The Oconomowoc, WI native went toe to toe with Fischer before settling for second at The Midwest Championships in Madison earlier this month. He also made it to the semi-finals in a very deep field at The Rivers Roleo in Onalaska, WI. Mengwasser won last year’s Semi-Pro World Championship and should be among the top professionals this year in Hayward.

Connor Birdsong – Off to a great start as a pro, with a win in Chicago and third place finish at the Three Rivers Roleo. After a strong career as a middle and long distance runner in high school, Birdsong is headed to track and field national powerhouse UW-L this fall. Good athlete with outstanding endurance and skill on the log should put the 18-year old rookie in position to be in the mix this week in Hayward.

Garrick Birdsong - The fourth year pro made waves in 2016 with a stunning win over number one ranked Will Hoeschler to capture The Three Rivers Roleo title. He also grabbed a pro victory at Namekagon as well. The 20-year old Birdsong has two second place finishes this year (U.S. Logrolling Open / La Crosse Open) and will be among the top contenders gunning for this year’s World Championship.

Spencer Wilkinson – The Madison, WI native finished tied for fifth in Chicago last month & was a surprise second place finisher last year at LWC. Will be among the top contenders in the boom run event as well this year.

Brian Duffy – At 48 years old, five time World Champ continues to defy Mother Nature. Duffy knows how to prepare for the big stage in Hayward as well as anyone and is always a threat to pull off an upset or two. Finished third last year in Hayward.

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2017 MEN’S BOOM RUN

Charlie Fenton – Fenton has won four of the past six Boom titles in Hayward. Ran a 13.50 last year, finishing second to Will Hoeschler, who will not be competing this year.

Spencer Wilkinson – Came in third last year with a time of 13.83. Could be Fenton’s toughest challenger this week. Finished second in both 2014 & 2015.

Jaime Fischer – Ten years ago this month, won the last of his record seven straight boom titles in Hayward. Fischer is undecided now but if he decides to run, he’ll go for number eight.

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WHO TO WATCH IN 2017 - WOMEN

Ellie Davenport – The 19 year old Minnesota native is the number one ranked woman in the world and has mostly dominated the sport for the past three years. In her last 17 pro tournaments, Davenport has won 11 times. She’s the favorite heading in, but could get some stiff competition from several top contenders, including Meredith Ingbretson, who’s beaten Davenport once this year (Three Rivers Roleo), and knocked her off two years ago in Hayward.

Meredith Ingbretson – The 22-year old Hayward native has impeccable mechanics and a mental game that might be second to none. Despite being down 2-0 in the finals at the Fox Sports televised Three Rivers Roleo this month, Ingbretson came back to beat the talented Davenport, 3-2. She also came back from behind 2-0 before losing in what turned out to be a five fall match to Davenport in Madison. Ingbretson has above average strength, technique, and a comeback ability that should put her in the mix to win her second world title.

Shana Verstegen – A Four time World Champion, Verstegen has dominated the back bracket this summer, finishing third four times so far. At 37, Verstegen would be the oldest women’s champion in history if she takes home her fifth world title on Saturday. Don’t count her out this week. Verstegen’s strength and speed are still exceptional and her experience on the big stage will undoubtedly put her in position to make a run at another championship this week.

Gretchen Greene – Madison, WI native has multiple top five finishes this year, including a runner up Sunday at Namekagon. Greene should be in the hunt to win her second World Championship this week. The 22-year old has twice cracked the top four at LWC, including her championship win in 2013.

Abby Hoeschler – Hoeschler has five pro victories, and this week she should be in the mix to win her first at LWC. The Twin Cities area resident grabbed a third place finish last year in Hayward, and took fourth in 2015.

Emily Christopherson - Christopherson has been knocking on the door for four years now, and has just barely come up short each time. From 2013-15, she finished in third place three straight times at LWC. Last year, Christopherson made it to the finals before losing to Davenport and settling for second. She made a major statement this past Sunday with a win at Namekagon, defeating Davenport, Hoechler, and Greene on her way to the tournament victory. The million dollar question for Christoperson, is this finally her year to win on the biggest stage?

Lizzie Horvitz – Three-time World Champion has a legit chance to capture number four this week. If she can, she’ll join fellow 2017 competitors Verstegen and Jenny Atkinson, as one of only nine women with four or more World Titles in the history of women’s Pro Log Rolling. Horvitz finished fourth last year in Hayward.

Cladia Duffy – A strong semi-finals showing in Madison earlier this summer. Cracked the top 10 last year at LWC.

Maggie Penning – Currently ranked seventh in the world. Penning grabbed a tie for fifth in Chicago last month, and in the past two years at LWC, has finished tied for ninth and fifth.

Jenny Atkinson – Four-time World Champion continues to roll well, more than 20 years after her pro debut. Came in seventh last year in Hayward.

Haley Penning – 2016 Semi-Pro Champ among the top rookies on the women’s side this year. Penning gave Christopherson a good battle in Namekagon this past weekend, and could be a tough out for the top contenders in the early rounds.

Katie Rick – Two second place finishes in the past calendar year (Grand Marais / La Crosse Open). Came in tied for ninth last year at LWC.

Sam Hadley - Currently ranked eleventh in the world, finished tied for ninth last year in Hayward.

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2017 WOMENS BOOM RUN –

Meredith Ingbretson – Her 14.37 time was topped by only three men last year. Ingbretson is the favorite heading in this year, as she goes for her fourth straight women’s boom title and fifth in six years.

Abby Hoeschler – Very few women have a chance to beat Ingbretson, but Hoeschler certainly does. The three-time boom champ ran a 14.88 to finish second last year and should push Ingbretson hard this weekend.

Gretchen Greene – Former college track runner consistently runs sub 15 second times and should be in the mix to win this week.




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