Could Iowa wrestler Drake Ayala come out of redshirt? After the Southern Scuffle, maybe.
All eyes were on Drake Ayala this weekend.
Ayala, the Iowa’s true freshman 125-pounder, led all Hawkeye wrestlers with a third-place finish at the Southern Scuffle this weekend. He went 5-1, his only loss coming to Minnesota All-American Pat McKee, and his five wins were by a combined 68-28.
It was a minor miracle this opportunity even happened. Iowa normally attends the Midlands Championships each season, but Northwestern cancelled the competition this year due to COVID-19. The Iowa City Sports Commission team then tried to launch the Hawkeye Open at Coralville’s Xtream Arena, but that herculean effort proved too much.
As a last-gasp effort, Iowa called the Southern Scuffle, which was once considered the toughest midseason tournament in college wrestling not too long ago. This year’s field wasn’t quite the same barnburner it's been in previous seasons, but it did offer plenty of high-level competition for the 14 Hawkeye wrestlers that attended.
As such, Ayala’s performance this weekend was always going to be intriguing, and it gained even more interest after Spencer Lee, the Hawkeyes’ three-time NCAA champ, announced Saturday night that he’ll be missing the rest of the 2021-22 season.
After winning all three of his matches at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals last month, Lee is opting for surgery to repair both of his knees — a wise move, yes, but that also means Iowa will need a 125-pounder for the remainder of the season.
Ayala’s performance this weekend was one heck of a statement that he’s ready if Iowa coach Tom Brands decides to pull him out of redshirt. (For the record: could then redshirt next season if that happens once Lee comes back healthy.)
“You guys know as much as me,” Ayala told media afterward. “If they choose for me to step out there I’m going to be ready, and if not I’m going to trust my coaches.”
The Fort Dodge native entered the Scuffle unseeded, then stormed to the semifinals and ultimately finished third. He defeated Oklahoma State’s sixth-seeded Reece Witcraft, 17-6; Missouri’s third-seeded Noah Surtin twice: in the quarterfinals, 9-3, then for third, 14-10; and Appalachian State’s fifth-seeded Caleb Smith, 5-2.
His second victory over Surtin was one of the most impressive individual performances of the tournament. Surtin threw Ayala to his back in the first period and led 7-0 entering the third. Ayala then outscored Surtin 14-3 over the final 95 seconds, on four takedowns and a couple turns. Surtin is ranked No. 14 nationally, by the way.
Ayala’s only hiccup came in the semifinals, against McKee, who took third at last year’s NCAA Championships and is currently ranked No. 9 nationally. Ayala led 4-2 after scoring two takedowns in the first period, but McKee charged back on a reversal in the second period, a takedown in the third, plus the match-deciding point on riding-time.
It was a much different match from their last meeting. McKee beat Ayala, 8-4, at the UNI Open in mid-December. There, Ayala scored an early takedown, but McKee settled in and prevailed thanks to two takedowns and, again, riding-time.
Ayala is now 10-2 while in redshirt this season, and both losses have come to McKee. Perhaps they’ll see each other again on Friday night in Iowa City. The top-ranked Hawkeyes host both No. 10 Minnesota and No. 25 Purdue on Jan. 7 and 9, a Friday-Sunday doubleheader at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
More importantly, Ayala has shown that he might very well be Iowa’s best option at 125 pounds now that Lee is done for the season.
Jesse Ybarra manned the starting spot at 125 earlier this season, to the tune of a 5-1 record. Three of those wins came at the Luther Open, another via forfeit, and the other was a 3-1 overtime win over Army’s Ryan Chauvin. Aaron Cashman is the Hawkeyes’ other option at 125, but he hasn’t wrestled yet this season and is 7-5 all-time for Iowa.
After three tournaments this season, Ayala passes the eye test. He’s aggressive — he averaged 13.6 points per match at the Scuffle; to compare, Ybarra has scored 33 points total in five contested matches — and also tactical and smart defensively. He's shown promising flashes while still learning and adjusting to competing at the Division I level.
“Drake Ayala is ready to go,” Brands said after the Hawkeyes beat Iowa State in early December. “He’s ready to go, and we love him.”
Drake Ayala showed he’s plenty ready at the Scuffle this weekend. We’ll find out soon if that means he’ll be in Iowa’s lineup the rest of this season.
► MORE IOWA WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE REGISTER
- Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee to miss the rest of the 2021-22 season
- Gabe Arnold, the nation's No. 1-ranked 170-pounder, commits to Iowa
- Wrestling Mailbag: Recapping the Hawkeyes' performance in Florida
Cullan Schriever, Wyatt Henson, Patrick Kennedy among redshirt performers
Of the 14 Iowa wrestlers that competed at the Scuffle, hosted by Tennessee-Chattanooga at McKenzie Arena, six finished on the podium — and four of them were guys that are currently redshirting.
We talked about Ayala already. The other three: Cullan Schriever took fourth at 133 pounds, Wyatt Henson took fifth at 141, and Patrick Kennedy took sixth at 165.
Schriever seems to have a nose for fourth place — that’s where he finished at both the Junior and U23 men’s freestyle world team trials last spring. At the Scuffle, he went 5-2 overall, losing only to Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley, 10-5 in the semifinals, and Chattanooga’s Brayden Palmer, 4-2 in overtime in the third-place match.
Schriever continues to show he’s capable offensively — in his five wins, he put up 41 points, and even in his losses, he got in on many shots. Against Palmer, his struggles were primarily finishing those shots. Against Foley, he rallied from down 5-1 to come within 6-5, but gave up a late takedown and couldn’t complete the comeback.
Henson also went 5-2, reached the quarterfinals, and beat both Rider’s 26th-ranked Quinn Kinner, 7-3, and Cal-State Bakersfield’s 21st-ranked Angelo Martinoni, 10-2. He had an opportunity to upset Northern Colorado’s 8th-ranked Andrew Alirez, a Senior men’s freestyle national champ, but couldn’t generate much offense and lost 1-0.
Kennedy finished 4-3 overall, but went 4-2 in contested matches (he medically-forfeited out of his fifth-place match). Both losses were identical 6-4 overtime defeats to West Virginia’s 13th-ranked Peyton Hall and Appalachian State’s 24th-ranked Will Formato. Both out-scrambled Kennedy to erase his opportunities and score points themselves.
Tournaments like the Scuffle and Midlands are valuable to all wrestlers, but especially those who are redshirting or still developing because of the lessons that can be learned. This high-level competition gives them things to work on when they go back to the practice room.
Swafford, Costello show Iowa's depth
Both Brennan Swafford and Aaron Costello were the other two Iowa wrestlers to finish on the podium. Swafford, competing attached for the first time this season, took sixth at 174, while Costello took fourth at 285.
Swafford started hot and ended cold. He won his first three matches, a run punctuated by a 9-7 win over Arkansas-Little Rock’s 31st-ranked Triston Wills. That put Swafford in the semifinals, where he lost to South Dakota State’s Cade DeVos (yes, the Southeast Polk grad; more on him in a minute), then tumbled all the way to sixth place.
Swafford scored nine takedowns in his first three matches, where he outscored his opponents 26-13, then none in his final three, where he was outscored 25-4. Again, hot and cold.
Costello also reached the semifinals, then wrestled back for fourth, finishing 5-2 overall. He notched a 5-3 win over over West Virginia’s 19th-ranked Michael Wolfgram, and a 7-5 win over N.C. State’s Tyrie Houghton. He also beat Virginia Tech’s Hunter Catka, an NCAA qualifier, in the quarterfinals, 3-1.
His two losses came to Cornell’s 18th-ranked Lewis Fernandez, 9-0 in the semifinals, and North Dakota State’s Brandon Metz, 4-1 in the third-place match. In both matches, Costello struggled to get out from bottom. He wrestled both guys well while in neutral, attacking well despite not finishing those scoring opportunities.
We don’t get to see Costello wrestle a lot because Tony Cassioppi is Iowa’s starter at heavyweight, but he showed this weekend that he is more than capable, and that the Hawkeyes have some nice depth at that weight.
Cade DeVos wins Scuffle title at 174
DeVos, a two-time state champion for Southeast Polk, won the Scuffle for South Dakota State. Wrestling at 174 pounds, DeVos went 5-0 and outscored his opponents 40-14. In the finals, he scored a third-period takedown and beat Missouri's Peyton Mocco, 3-2.
DeVos is now up at 174 after spending his first two seasons at 157 pounds, and the move has worked well thus far. His length was a problem all weekend for his opponents — in five matches, he didn't allow a single takedown and scored 15 — and he pushed his overall record this season to 18-2. He's ranked No. 12 nationally by InterMat.
Mocco was DeVos's toughest opponent at the Scuffle, both on paper (Mocco is ranked No. 13) and in result (the 3-2 finals win was DeVos's closest score this weekend). But even with the Big 12 and NCAA Championships still more than 10 weeks away, DeVos had the look of a darkhorse All-American candidate this weekend in Chattanooga.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.