"You're not afraid of dogs, are you?" Laura Franek asks as we enter her family's Harwood home. "We just got a new puppy. She's our summer project."
As if on cue, a small bundle of black fur pops its head out as the door opens. Next to it, a much larger, browner bundle of fur with a graying muzzle warily assesses the stranger trespassing into its territory.
"Oh don't mind her," Laura says, as if sensing my slight hesitation. "She's older, but friendly."
Sure enough, the chocolate lab lets me scratch her ears as I walk into the kitchen.
The four of us sit - minus the dogs, Mia and Mocha, who get let outside for some fresh air - around a wooden table. Franek brothers Jacob, 13, and Jared, 11, take a seat on the right, while their mother, Laura, settles down to the left. The youngest, six-year-old Josh, busies himself playing a Spiderman video game in the living room.
I flip to an open page in my notebook. For a second, we sit in silence. Then Jacob speaks up.
"So you want to talk about wrestling?"
All in the family
All of the Franeks, little Josh included, love sports. Jacob and Jared dabble in all sorts, but their favorites are soccer and wrestling.
The latter, however, is one that holds a special place with the family and garners the most attention.
Besides being one of his son's biggest fans, their father, Shawn, is also their coach. A 1984 West Fargo High School graduate who was voted Most Valuable Wrestler in 1983, Shawn pushes his sons to excel.
But they still have fun, too.
"What I like about wrestling is you can do anything you set your mind to," Jacob says. "Confidence is a big part of it."
Still too young for school-sanctioned wrestling programs (Jacob, who is entering seventh grade, says he's going to try out for the school team this fall), the Franek boys are part of Tech Team Wrestling, a Fargo-based entity that grooms young athletes for the sport. Also a USA Wrestling-affiliated club, Tech Team prepares its athletes for transition into the prep level.
According to the team's website, www.techteamwrestlingclub.com, it has won the North Dakota State Folkstyle dual team championship four years straight. Tech Team also boasts many individual champions from its 82-wrestler roster.
One of the team's leaders is Ryan Kringlie. A co-founder of the organization, Kringlie has witnessed a lot of positive changes in the team's 10-year history.
"Guys like Scott Schiller were some of the beginners who helped pave the way," he says, referring to the former Packers wrestling standout.
Much of Tech Team's success comes from its emphasis on support, Laura says, a concept not lost on the Franek boys.
"It's nice to have good practice partners who push you to be better," Jacob says.
Jared and Jacob both have their strengths on the mat, Laura says. During their most recent season, the elder Jacob went an admirable 55-44 in the Intermediate class. He's calculative, he says, and likes to feel out an opponent before making a move. Jacob's tactic is to wear out and outwork an adversary; he'd rather best him with endurance than with brute strength.
Jared, on the other hand, is a firecracker.
"His biggest advantage is he's aggressive," Laura says. "And he's very competitive."
During Jared's most recent season wrestling in the Novice class at 80 pounds, the All-American finished with an astounding 111-16 record and snagged his third straight triple crown trophy during the North Dakota state tournament. Winning the triple crown was a culmination of first-place finishes in all three wrestling categories: folkstyle, freestyle, and Greco-Roman.
"It just seems like every kid, at some point, decides that they want something and, right now, Jared is like that," Kringlie says. "But I think an even bigger accomplishment is what he's done nationally: he's ranked No. 1."
A wrestler with such high accolades undoubtedly has some bragging rights. But Harwood principal Jerry Barnum knows you'll never hear Jared boast about his own successes.
"He's one of the most humble kids you'll ever meet," Barnum said during a recent phone conversation. "To win each style three years in a row is just amazing."
Just as advertised
Jared shows that humility today in the kitchen; he's pretty tight-lipped about the honors. He says it was a great feeling to win the triple crown again, and he really wants to do it once more this year in his final season of eligibility. But our conversation quickly diverts to other topics, and before I know it, the Franek brothers are regaling me with tales of hunting and fishing - their other passions.
Jacob is more of an upland hunter, he says, preferring to chase those wily pheasants.
Jared is a waterfowler.
"I shot my first greenhead at 80 yards," he says, proudly.
"It's true, he did," Jacob confirms.
I get a full tour of the Franek home, festooned with hunting and fishing trophies of all sorts, including a fat walleye Shawn caught on Devils Lake a few years back.
"And that's where Dad's mule-deer is going to go that he got last year," Jacob says, pointing to a bare spot of wall next to two other respectable representations of the breed. "It's a nice one."
Eventually, after I steer the excited boys back to the kitchen table, we conclude our conversation. Laura says she wants to emphasize how important Tech Team is to the family, and how much of a benefit it is to the community. The team teaches discipline and hard work, she says, concepts the whole Franek clan take to heart.
Jared's hope is to one day wrestle varsity as a Packer, he says. And Jacob wants to bring home a state championship.
But Jacob may just sum up the Franek mentality best right before I'm about to say goodbye:
"Having fun is fine, but I want to get better."