ANKENY, Ia. — How strong is Iowa’s excitement for high school district wrestling?
Not even the overwhelming sense of inevitability could quiet the Class 3A District 1 crowd at Ankeny Centennial on Saturday.
As hundreds of wrestlers gathered at 24 sites across the state for the chance to claim state tournament berths, a central Iowa contingent gathered for a glimpse at an unstoppable force and, presumably, their local squads.
Top-ranked Southeast Polk won eight district titles and sent two more qualifiers to state on Saturday on its quest for a third consecutive 3A crown.
“Everyone expects Southeast Polk to just be so good,” said Rams 138-pound junior Nathan Lendt. “We don’t talk about it much, but we want this every year.
“I didn’t think our district would be this hard, but it was pretty tough today, and we got it done.”
The Rams held off challenges from Indianola, Ankeny Centennial and Norwalk, yet every squad got its chance to cheer with coveted tournament spots on the line. Winning five consecutive weights — 120, 126, 132, 138 and 145 pounds — may have helped Southeast Polk take some drama out of the finals, but everyone is back in the bracket together on Thursday morning at Wells Fargo Arena.
“(Saturday) was about being confident and being true with what works for us,” Indianola head coach Clint Manny said. “It’s what put us in the state dual tournament and now has us putting seven guys in the state tournament.
“It’s great with this being the toughest district in the state, in my opinion, hands-down. We knew Southeast Polk was going to bring a solid lineup, but anything less than second would have been a disappointment.”
Some of Southeast Polk’s state qualifications came easier than others. Gavin Babcock needed a late takedown at 170 and Cade DeVos held on to clinch at 132, but it’s hard to quibble with a favorite when second-ranked Valley (10 state qualifiers) and third-ranked Fort Dodge (11) were battling other teams in other towns.
“This is fun,” Lendt said. “We’ve got a lot of practice partners and a lot of winning.”
Five other thoughts from Saturday’s busy day of district competition:
The rowdy 2A team race
Keeping an eye on the team scoreboard through all the state tournament commotion can be tough. Class 2A is wide-open enough to make that task nearly impossible.
The mid-sized programs have produced a load of legitimate contenders, including (but not limited to) New Hampton, Solon, Creston/Orient-Macksburg, Atlantic/CAM, West Liberty and Davenport Assumption. Arguments can be made for any of them to take the trophy. New Hampton won five district titles on Saturday and could roll from 126 to 138. Solon has eight state qualifiers, including former Highland of Riverside champions Bryce and Drew West. Creston is the defending champ and has three district champs at 182, 195 and 220 … and you get the idea.
As always, alternates could go, and the total could change before Thursday’s first whistle is blown. But it looks like a wild sprint to Saturday night is on.
Running it back
Eighteen state champions from 2016 returned this season. All 18 will be back this week.
Every defending champ was a district champ on Saturday: eight in 3A, four in 2A and six in 1A. Most rolled through the competition — Iowa City Regina heavyweight Jared Brinkman needed 1 minute, 11 seconds to win two matches — and will be seeded near the top of their brackets.
The field includes six wrestlers going for their third consecutive state titles: Fort Dodge’s Brody Teske (120) and Ames’ Marcus Coleman (170) in 3A; Solon’s Bryce West (120), Clear Lake’s Ryan Leisure (145) and Creston/Orient-Macksburg’s Chase Shiltz (182) in 2A; and Underwood’s Alex Thomsen (126) in 1A.
Teske and Thomsen are unbeaten juniors, while the other four are seniors.
Freshmen wrestlers will make their presences felt at state. And not just in the lightest weight class.
Yes, 106 pounds remains a stronghold for the best rookies ready for varsity action. Just check out Mason City star Cullan Schriever — still unbeaten in 3A — or Union of LaPorte City’s Jack Thomsen or West Liberty’s Will Esmoil.
But there will be freshmen to watch in other brackets, too. Lisbon’s Cael Happel logged two technical falls at 1A-8 to earn his shot at 113. Brock Esplain will represent Des Moines East at 126 after taking runner-up honors in an overtime final at Waukee.
Missouri Valley’s Nick Haynes will be a fresh face at 170 in 1A after running his record to 51-7 and claiming district champion honors. And one weight class higher, Southeast Polk’s Gabe Christenson will be a ranked rookie in the 3A field at 182 after winning in Ankeny.
Potential tournament previews
State tournament brackets are built so district opponents take opposite halves, but it seems likely a handful of Saturday’s matchups will be seen again at Wells Fargo Arena.
A pair of No. 1 vs. No. 2 meetings went to the lower-ranked wrestler in district finals. Webster City’s Drake Doolittle topped Clear Lake’s Eric Faught 8-6 in a highly-anticipated bout at 113 pounds in 2A-8. And at 1A-3, Missouri Valley’s Tom Reif beat Logan-Magnolia’s Drake Johnsen 3-2 in overtime in a 220-pound showdown.
Finals at 195 were ready for the spotlight, too. Dowling Catholic’s top-ranked Kaden Sauer edged out Valley’s third-ranked Connor Corbin in their fifth meeting of the season in Waukee, and Fairfield’s second-ranked Michael Fritz defended his home mat in a 7-6 bout against Washington’s third-ranked Karlton Skubal.
And Indianola’s Lance Runyon walked off the mat in Ankeny to an ovation from his fans following a 4-3 loss to Southeast Polk’s Cade DeVos at 132. Runyon is ranked fourth in 3A, but he earned a late stalling call and put pressure on the top-ranked DeVos.
“DeVos is a very good wrestler, but that’s a kid that if we can match his intensity right out of the gate, we can beat,” Manny said. “Lance Runyon’s got to believe he’s capable of that.”
Girls stopped short
Two girls advanced out of last weekend’s sectionals to Saturday’s district tournaments, but none will be seen on the mats at state. South Winneshiek’s Felicity Taylor and Monticello’s Alaina Sunlin were 106-pound contenders until dropping both matches in their 1A and 2A districts.
Sunlin is a freshman. Taylor is a junior who took Saturday’s third-place match into overtime before her 2016-17 record fell to 34-13.