Ayala, 120 pounds and the first Dodger to ever be ranked No. 1 nationally, is one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation. Des Moines Register
A week after learning that the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships were canceled, the Iowa wrestling program received some good news on the recruiting front.
Some really, really good news, actually.
Drake Ayala, Fort Dodge's star lightweight, announced his commitment to the Hawkeyes on Wednesday. He's the fourth known commitment in Iowa's 2021 recruiting class. Ayala picked Iowa over Ohio State, and projects at 125 pounds.
"It's where I felt the most comfortable and where I think I can grow the most as a wrestler and as a person," Ayala said.
Landing Ayala is a massive recruiting victory for the Hawkeyes.
The junior is considered the No. 9 pound-for-pound prospect nationally in the 2021 class, according to MatScout. He is the highest-ranked recruit from Iowa since Des Moines Roosevelt's John Meeks, who was considered No. 5 overall back in 2012.
Ayala is ranked No. 2 nationally at 120 pounds. Last year, he won Junior national titles in both folkstyle and men's freestyle. In 2017, he won a Cadet freestyle national title, and also earned Cadet folkstyle and freestyle All-American honors in 2018.
In three years as a Dodger, Ayala is a two-time state champ and three-time finalist in Iowa's 3A with a 135-2 overall record, which includes a current string of 91 straight victories. His two losses came against Mason City's Cullan Schriever, who signed with the Hawkeyes as part of their 2020 class.
"He’s definitely up there with some of the best we’ve ever had," Fort Dodge coach Bobby Thompson said earlier this season. "His accomplishments speak for themselves."
Ayala joins Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen, who is also a two-time 3A state champ, as well as Pennsylvania state champ Wyatt Henson and Colorado state champ Cam Lucero in Iowa's 2021 haul. All four are currently ranked in the top 100 of MatScouts' 2021 big board (Henson at No. 17, Rathjen at No. 33, Lucero at No. 97).
Those four will be the core of a recruiting class that will follow the Hawkeyes' high-powered 2020 signees. That group features five recruits in the top 105 of MatScouts' big board. Among them: Minnesota star Patrick Kennedy, Arizona standout Jesse Ybarra, Florida talent Bretli Reyna, as well as Schriever and Gabe Christenson, a two-time state champ from Southeast Polk.
Ayala, the 2020 Dan Gable Wrestler of the Year award winner for Class 3A, was among the nation's most sought-after talents. On the first day college coaches could contact 2021 recruits, he heard from Iowa and Ohio State, as well as Iowa State, Northern Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan and Minnesota, among others.
He visited them all, but the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes surged ahead over the past month. Both offered enticing recruiting pitches, too.
Ohio State has been seeking its next lightweight star since Nathan Tomasello graduated as a four-time All-American at 125 and 133 pounds back in 2018. Led by head coach Tom Ryan, the Buckeyes won an NCAA team title in 2015 and finished third in 2016 before stringing three-straight second-place finishes behind mighty Penn State.
But the Hawkeyes offered a lightweight tradition unlike any other under the direction of head coach Tom Brands and his twin brother, Terry, Iowa's associate head coach. Spencer Lee has won the past two NCAA titles at 125 pounds. Before him, Thomas Gilman, a 2017 men's freestyle world silver medalist, was a three-time All-American.
Additionally, Cory Clark, a four-time All-American and NCAA champion, continues to work with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. The combination of those three, plus the additions of Schriever, Ybarra and others, factored into Ayala's decision.
"It's awesome knowing that they have partners like that for me, so obviously that's a plus," he said. "But just the environment, people, opportunities — it was a lot more than just wrestling."
Iowa, though, is pretty good at that wrestling thing, especially in 2019-20.
The Hawkeyes went 13-0 in duals and shattered attendance records along the way, with more than 10,000 at all seven home duals, a new single-season NCAA record. They dominated their way to team titles at both the Midlands Championships and Big Ten Championships.
They sought their first NCAA team title since 2010 to cap a wire-to-wire season as the nation's No. 1 team, and were going to be the prohibitive favorites to win this week in Minneapolis until the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports championships in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
"Our coaching staff is disappointed for our guys, their families and our fans," Iowa coach Tom Brands, the 2019-20 Big Ten Wrestling Coach of the Year, said in a statement last week.
"I understand the Big Ten Conference and NCAA made decisions based on information available and are acting in what they believe is in the best interest of the student-athletes.
"We will process this and move forward, as we always do. Our guys have a lot to be proud of and much more still to accomplish."
The Hawkeyes will likely enter the 2020-21 season as top contenders again. Their work on the recruiting trail will keep the program in contention for years to come — especially now that Ayala is in the fold.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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