In many ways, last Saturday was your average, run-of-the-mill home loss on the gridiron for the Iowa State football team, a squad that hasn’t had a winning season since 2009.
But it was during that 25-20 loss to Northern Iowa that the school’s wrestling program got a monumental boost, the type of victory that could lead to a national championship for a historically-strong program that’s been void of one since 1987.
On his official visit to Iowa State, along with two nationally-acclaimed high school senior wrestlers, it was at that football game, surrounded by future teammates and coaches that Palm Desert’s Anthony Mantanona, a highly sought after 170-pounder in the 2017 class, found his future college home.
“I was always told that when you’re at the right school, you’re going to feel it, and I immediately felt that,” he said. “I’m comfortable calling Iowa State my home.”
Mantanona, who this winter finished second in the California State Meet at 170 pounds, picked up national titles at 160 pounds at FloNationals in Pennsylvania and in the Junior Greco National Championships in Fargo, N.D.
It was at that second meet in July, Mantanona said, that the build up to Saturday’s monumental reveal began.
The Palm Desert senior, who’s ranked No. 7 at 170 pounds and No. 35 overall in the Class of 2017 by FloWrestling, spent time with fellow 2016 FloNationals champ and Junior Freestyle National runner-up Jarod Verkleeren (No. 2 at 145 pounds, No. 26 overall) and Junior Freestyle National champ Jake Allar (No. 3 at 160 pounds, No. 17 overall) while the trio were in Fargo.
They’d interacted before at a slew of national events growing up, but with their college plans starting to take shape, it didn’t look like any of the three were headed to Iowa State.
But smartly, the Iowa State coaching staff, led by head coach and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson, brought all three interested seniors in on the same weekend recruiting trip, hoping they’d all ride the wave of the moment to Ames for good.
As Mantanona retells the story, it didn’t happen right away.
“They brought us all individually into the office, and the first guy (Verkleeren) left and said he wasn’t ready, but Iowa State was still his top school. The next guy (Allar) went in and committed on the spot. I was next, and I waited a bit, but during the football game, we both said we were ready to be a part of the team, the family. We were all in,” Mantanona said.
“You get the snowball effect from the first kid. He needed to break the ice, but it’s a crazy decision. You’ve dreamed about this since you were an eight-year-old, and to say those words, to commit yourself to a school, it’s really emotional. I needed to get someone out there to prove to me that it was time.”
But still with visits already organized to Illinois and Oklahoma State, why didn’t Mantanona take things slowly and see what it felt like to step onto the campuses in Champaign and Stillwater?
The senior, always more mature than his age, said it was a “business decision.”
“These programs have a limited amount of money, and they brought us on this trip. For them to sign two top guys in the country right before me, that put me in a situation where I’m thinking if they bring in another class and recruit someone in my spot, that’s going to bring down my value,” he said. “It’s not worth taking the risk. I know what I wanted, and it would have been a waste of time of mine and other coaches.”
In the same manner, Mantanona said he’s already decided to redshirt his freshman year to help him boost his grades while getting used to the college lifestyle in a brand new place while getting to compete in the occasional open tournament.
But don’t think the Aztecs’ star isn’t looking at this with pure excitement.
Iowa State allows Mantanona to relive the story of the overachieving underdog that he’s perfected so well with Palm Desert’s resurgent program. Even before Mantanona arrived and during his freshman season, La Quinta had dominated the Desert Valley League wrestling landscape, with Palm Desert far off the charts as a local or state powerhouse.
Slowly but surely, Mantanona’s hard work and dedication bled into his teammates before taking home a DVL title when he was a sophomore, then backing it up as a junior before the Aztecs took the next step with a CIF team title as he took second at state. A redemption with a state title as a senior seems well within reach.
Iowa State poses a similar challenge with the same type of potentially high payback, both individually and as a team.
“This incoming class and this team is looking to be No. 1 in the country in two or three years,” he said. “Everything about it is what I want to be a part when I envisioned this as a little kid.
“I think I can do the same thing individually. Stay consistent and train and hopefully become an NCAA champ.”
That national title talk isn’t just the excited hyperbole of an amped high schooler, either. Just ask Palm Desert coach Tom Lee.
“I’m sure they see an innovative and fearless style that Anthony can bring, and with his own experience, they can certainly mentor him and bring him to the top level of the NCAA,” Lee said. “As a whole, everyone that goes to Iowa State is quality historically. They’re one of the top programs. They may not be No. 1 now, but I don’t think it’ll be long before they’re back on top, and I think these three kids can get them there.”