Wells Fargo Arena hosts Iowa’s strongest sensory overload this weekend.
The experience will take many forms — sight, touch, hearing, emotion and, yes, even smell — at the 92nd high school wrestling state tournament sanctioned by the Iowa High School Athletic Association.
The first-round action starts at 9 a.m. Thursday and runs through Saturday night’s championship matches in downtown Des Moines.
“I haven’t experienced anything else like it,” said Triston Lara, a senior defending champion for Fort Dodge. “The atmosphere is amazing. You’ve got fans, family, friends all down here rooting you on, and Fort Dodge always brings a great crowd. I just love it.”
With so much to follow over three classifications, 14 weight classes and 16 state qualifiers wrestling on eight mats, we decided to sort through the noise and deliver the tournament’s top storylines to follow. Many personal tales will unfold over the next three days, but here are themes to keep your eye on once the wrestling begins.
Southeast Polk is the top-ranked, two-time defending champion towering over this field. But the district format ensured the Rams have some company.
Fort Dodge, Johnston, North Scott and Valley all qualified at least 10 wrestlers. None may have the firepower Southeast Polk can show off from 120 to 145 pounds, but there will be plenty of points up for grabs between a crowd of contenders and the backside of the bracket.
“I think we’re wrestling well,” Valley coach Travis Young said. “It’s going to be all about each guy hoping he can wrestle his best. The No. 1 goal is to get our guys medals, then we’ll see how high they can get on that podium.”
The Dodgers have three No. 1 wrestlers: Lara at 138, Drew Bennett at 113 and Brody Teske at 120.
“I feel like people are sleeping on us,” Lara said. “I’ve been down here and I’ve wrestled everyone in my weight class. My goal is to get team points and to try to get Fort Dodge a title.”
Teske is going for his third consecutive title, just like Ames senior Marcus Coleman is at 170.
Western Dubuque has a pair of undefeated senior stars in Purdue recruit Max Lyon (182) and Iowa commit Aaron Costello (285). And Valley has a defending champ (Grant Stotts) and two top-ranked standouts (Joel Shapiro, Rocky Lombardi).
Can any of them stand in the way of Southeast Polk becoming the second 3A team to win three straight crowns — Waverly-Shell Rock was first, with four in a row from 2008-2011 — since the IHSAA expanded to three classes in 1969? Cedar Rapids Prairie, Council Bluffs Lewis Central, Dubuque Hempstead, Glenwood, Indianola, and Waverly-Shell Rock will all be represented in at least half the weight classes as well.
“That’s the beauty of wrestling,” Indianola coach Clint Manny said after last Saturday’s districts. “You get the team event at state (duals). Then it’s all about you and your best performance at the tournament.”
And two Des Moines schools are each sending a trio of wrestlers. East and Lincoln have young qualifiers heading for center stage in their home towns.
The legacy of this wide-open class looks like it will carry on this weekend. No. 1 New Hampton, No. 3 Creston/Orient-Macksburg, No. 4 Atlantic/CAM and No. 6 Davenport Assumption all enter the individual tournament with six qualifiers and quality returners. No. 2 Solon is tied at the top of the heap with eight qualifiers, but will need the champion West brothers — Bryce and Drew transferred from Highland of Riverside — to work hard for its first team title.
Seven other schools are bringing at least five qualifiers, too, so the stars should shine for the favorites. Creston’s Chase Shiltz, Clear Lake’s Ryan Leisure and Bryce West are attempting to close out their senior years with three straight titles. Shiltz and Leisure are undefeated.
Creston has felt the pinch with team scoring before: The Panthers won 2A by eight points last year and tied for second in 2015, coming up three points short of eventual champion Mediapolis.
One exciting weight class the team contenders likely won’t dominate is 113. Albia’s Aden Reeves (48-1) and Clear Lake’s Eric Faught (38-2) are nationally ranked by FloWrestling, but Webster City’s Drake Doolittle (40-2) enters the tournament as the top-ranked wrestler. Add in dark-horse district champions such as Kaleb Olejniczak of Perry and senior Ashton Meyers of Keokuk and this gauntlet should be great to watch.
Iowa football recruit Tristan Wirfs from Mount Vernon is an intriguing prospect in the heavyweight field, having battled a weight cut to 285 and wrestling just 20 matches this season. Wirfs may have finished off the podium in 2016, but five of the top six place-winners are gone.
“I feel like I have unfinished business with wrestling,” Wirfs told the Register last month.
Lisbon is ranked No. 1 and has 14 team titles to its name, but none has come since 1993. Coach Brad Smith will be clamoring for another with this lineup. One year after Carter Happel became a four-time champion, his younger brother Cael is a top-ranked wrestler for the Lions and one of their nine state qualifiers.
Second-ranked Don Bosco of Gilbertville is bringing nine as well, ahead of western Iowa contenders such as No. 3 Missouri Valley (seven qualifiers), No. 4 Sibley-Ocheyedan (eight) and No. 5 Logan-Magnolia (four). Those top five programs all wrestled in Wednesday’s state duals.
Small schools take on varied schedules, so only two of the eight undefeated wrestlers in 1A sit atop the rankings. They are 195-pound defending champion Slade Sifuentes of Lake Mills and two-time winner Alex Thomsen of Underwood at 126. Both schools have six qualifiers, including the undefeated favorites.
North Linn’s Brock Henderson (113), Alburnett’s Tanner Sloan (170) and Iowa City Regina’s Jared Brinkman (285) are the three other returning state champs. All three are seniors and bring sterling records to Wells Fargo Arena.
Iowa recruit Zachary Axmear is unbeaten out of English Valleys. A runner-up at 152 last year, the future Hawkeye is 39-0 in a deep weight class.
EVEN MORE STATE WRESTLING
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Could Iowa sanction girls’ high school wrestling?
Mason City’s Cullan Schriever ready for his first crack at state title
State tourney fans: What’s new in Des Moines since last year
9:00—Class 3A first round and consolations
1:30—Class 1A first round and consolations
6:00—Class 2A first round and consolations
Tickets: $10, Wells Fargo Arena box office or www.hy-veetix.com.
TV: Comcast Sportsnet for semifinals and finals, DirecTV 665, Dish 429
Web: $9.95 for first round and quarterfinals, http://www.ihssn.com