Wrestling: At the Junior world team trials, Iowa high-schoolers get to clash with college wrestlers

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

CORALVILLE, Ia. — The UWW Junior freestyle world team trials was the main draw here this weekend at Xtream Arena. Many of the nation’s most-talented wrestlers aged 20 and younger came to compete over two grueling days.

But one of the unique parts about the competition that decides USA Wrestling’s Junior world team is that it’s a mix of the nation’s best high-schoolers and young college stars all in the same tournament wrestling against each other.

The dynamic is intriguing, for a number of reasons. It allows the high-schoolers an opportunity to see how they stack up against guys who have been in training in college rooms, and these college guys can see how they compare against others their age.

That meant plenty of storylines for those that follow the Iowa wrestling scene.

Drake Ayala looks up at the time clock during a match at 57 kg during the UWW Junior National freestyle championships, Saturday, May 1, 2021, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

A trio of Iowa high school seniors, Fort Dodge’s Drake Ayala, Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen, and Southeast Polk’s Kalob Runyon, all finished in the top five at their respective weights. Ayala went 5-2 and took fifth at 57 kilograms (125 pounds). Rathjen went 8-2 and took fourth at 65 kilos (143). Runyon went 2-2 and took fourth at 97 kilos (213).

And a few got their hands on some current Division I wrestlers along the way.

Ayala beat Pittsburgh’s Colton Camacho, 13-7, rallying from a 7-2 deficit by scoring 11 unanswered in the second period. He lost to Minnesota’s Matthew Ramos, 10-3, in the wrestlebacks, but rebounded with a 12-2 win over Lehigh’s Sheldon Seymour to take fifth. (His other loss came to Richie Figueroa, who ultimately made the team.)

Rathjen notched wins over Cal Poly’s Adam Jacob (12-1), North Carolina State’s Ryan Jack (by pin) and Campbell’s Shannon Hanna (7-4), but also took a 10-0 loss to Missouri’s Josh Edmond in the third-place match. Rathjen also beat two Northern Iowa wrestlers, too, in Connor Thorpe (14-4) and Julian Farber (10-0).

"Just the physicality," Rathjen said of the experience wrestling college guys. "Tough hand-fights, tough matches. That's a big thing. I've got to put together six minutes of good wrestling in freestyle."

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There was also Manny Rojas, a Michigan native, current junior in high school and Iowa State commit, who went 4-2 and took fifth at 79 kilos (174). He defeated South Dakota State’s Cade King on his way to the semifinals, but also took losses to Lehigh’s Jacob Logan (9-6) and Arizona State’s Trent Munoz (10-0). 

Both Iowa and Northern Iowa were well-represented in the Junior tournament, too. The opportunity for them to compete was a long time coming after the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into their normal collegiate schedules during the 2020-21 season. 

Iowa’s Cullan Schriever, now fully healthy again, 8-2 this weekend and took fourth at 61 kilos (134), a run that included seven straight wins in the wrestlebacks over the likes of Oklahoma State’s Jakason Burks, another Cowboy Reece Witcraft, and Columbia’s Mason Clarke. He only wrestled four matches during Iowa’s regular season.

"It felt good," Schriever said afterward. "It felt good to be healthy … the matches I lost, and the matches I won even, there's a lot of adjustments to be made. I was proud of the in-match adjustments that I did make. I need to wrestle like that all the time.

"It felt good to be back out there, but I definitely have more I can improve on."

Jack Thomsen, a Union grad and freshman at South Dakota State, went 5-2 and took fourth at 70 kilos. Northern Iowa’s Evan Yant went 8-2 and took seventh at the same weight, which included seven-straight consolation wins. Gage Linahon, a state finalist from Newton now at Central College, made the semifinals and beat Runyon for third.

None made the Junior world team, which would’ve been a tremendous second chapter for Iowa’s spring and summer wrestling seasons after Southeast Polk’s Nate Jesuroga made the Cadet freestyle world team last weekend. But two did reach Sunday’s finals.

Cade DeVos, a former Ram and current Jackrabbit, made the finals at 74 kilos (163), but fell to Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole, two matches to none, by scores of 11-1 and 8-0. Zach Glazier, a redshirt freshman at Iowa, made the finals at 92 kilos (202), but also lost to a Tiger wrestler, Rocky Elam, two matches to none (10-0, 3-2).

Many will view this weekend as something of a disappointment because nobody from Iowa made the Junior world team, which is a fair assessment. But the opportunity to compete at a high-level many times over the course of a weekend was made available to them, and it’s hard to say they didn’t take advantage.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.