West High junior Chris Walters knew the race had just started after winning his first-round match Thursday at the Class 3A State Tournament in Wells Fargo Arena.
Walters, who finished runner-up last season while wrestling for Cedar Rapids Prairie, is ranked second at 126 and improved to 50-7 on the season with a 17-6 major decision over Chase Petty of Pella.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove still,” Walters said. “There’s still a state championship I want to go out there and get.”
Walters made it to state as a freshman but did not place. It was after that he decided to change how he prepared for wrestling season.
He went out for cross country.
“It helps a lot,” Walters said. “After my freshman year, I felt like I wasn’t in shape compared to other kids I wrestled. Cross country was the best choice.”
As a cross country runner, Walters looks like a wrestler. Short and thick, he contrasted with the mostly tall, slender long-striding runners who typically populate the sport.
Walters said his best time was 18:11. That would have been good for second-to-last at the 4A boys state cross country meet last fall.
“It is a lot different,’ Walters said. “It is not physical like wrestling. And definitely mental. You have to have mental strength to keep pushing.”
The running seemed to pay off for Walters, who placed second at 120 pounds last year. He stayed with the sport when he moved to West for his junior season.
But his finish from a year ago also put a target on his back. He knows eyes are on him when he takes the mat at state this year.
“Everybody is always watching to see how you’re doing,” Walters said. “It’s more pressure, but it doesn’t really get to me.”
Walters set the tone in his first match, getting three takedowns in the first period for a 6-2 lead. He finished with eight takedowns, and Petty only scored when he was cut loose by Walters.
“He was quicker than I thought he was going to be,” Walters said. “I kind of underestimated him a little bit.”
Walters now has to square off today against third-ranked Josh Wenger of Cedar Rapids Prairie, his former team.
West High was in eighth place as a team after the first round and first-round consolations with 14 points. South East Polk led Class 3A with 33.5 points.
The Trojans advanced four of their six qualifiers to the quarterfinals. No. 3 Kegan Wakefield at 138 and No. 2 Mickey Pelfrey at 195 each won by pin.
Unranked sophomore John Milani came out and upset 10th-ranked Nate Luna of Des Moines Lincoln 8-2 at 152.
“Coming in here I was really nervous,” Milani said. “It was pretty exciting to get that first win right away. I went as hard as I could, took it to him. I saw him getting tired and I kept setting up my shots.
“He started breaking, I felt it, and I kept going even harder.”
The win erased any doubt for Milani that he belonged at state and has him thinking about a spot on the stand Saturday.
But the degree of difficult keeps going up. He has to face third-ranked Dustin Caldwell of Clinton in the quarterfinals.
“I was focused on the first match and got it done,” Milani said. “My main goals, it’d be awesome to get in the semis and awesome to place. But I want to just keep going, give it my all and see how it goes.”
Also for West, unranked Tristen Bower (132) lost his opening match but came back and won his consolation bout to stay alive. Sophomore Jordan Crawford lost both matches at 106.
City High brought three wrestlers to state, and two — Colton Chalupa (106) and Bryton Jones (152) — were done after the first day.
But junior Ryan Maas is ready to carry the flag for the Little Hawks.
He went 1-2 at state last season but is fifth-ranked and 39-4 and in it for the long haul this year.
“It feels good,” Maas said after his first-period pin of Brandon Cabney of Sioux City East on Thursday. “Especially since I’m a lot better than I was here last year. I’m more confident and excited.”
Maas was able to focus Thursday. He had two powerful takedowns before turning Cabney and ending the match.
“He felt lighter than a 220-pounder,” Maas said. “I wanted to pin him. A week ago, I might’ve just said, ‘I’m not going to turn him.’ This time I wanted it. I just drove, drove, drove, and he turned over.”
Maas returns to state bigger and stronger. The challenges get bigger, too. He faces sixth-ranked Brennan Koerperich of Western Dubuque in the quarterfinals today.
“Last year I had my nerves,” Maas said. “Now it’s just another day at work.”