Iowa's Gabe Arnold continues career year with Junior freestyle wrestling national championship

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Gabe Arnold’s eyes welled up with tears right at the beginning of his post-match interview on Sunday evening. He tried to wipe them away as he articulated his thoughts, but it’s hard when the moment means so much.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Arnold told USA Wrestling. “It’s a great feeling. I’m ecstatic. I’m emotional. This has been a freaking journey, man, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Arnold added another line to what’s becoming a career year. The Iowa City High senior won gold at the Junior men’s freestyle national championships on Sunday, part of USA Wrestling’s U.S. Open events last week in Las Vegas.

The future Hawkeye went 6-0 to win at 79 kilograms (174 pounds), with three technical falls and a pin while outscoring his opponents 52-3. In the finals, he muscled out a 3-2 win over Rocco Welsh, a Pennsylvania native and Ohio State recruit.

Gabe Arnold, an incoming Iowa recruit, won the Junior men's freestyle national title at 79 kilograms (174 pounds) at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

As such, Arnold advances directly to the best-of-three finals at the Junior world team trials, set for June 2-4 in Ohio. Two wins there will earn him a spot on the U.S. Junior men’s freestyle world team.

“I’m seeing stuff pay off,” Arnold continued afterward, “and now I’m one step closer to my ultimate goal, and that’s being a world champ.”

Arnold’s emotions flowed freely Sunday after his finals triumph. That match was a tad personal. He and Welsh, considered the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2023 class by MatScouts, split their two previous meetings, both in 2021. Arnold won at Who’s Number One in September. Welsh won at the Powerade Tournament in December.

But more than that, at this time a year ago, Arnold was arguably at his lowest.

Arnold came to Iowa City High for his senior season after spending three years at Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he won two national prep titles, a 16U freestyle national title, and became one of the top wrestling recruits in the country. He wrestled under Scott Green, who turned Wyoming Seminary into a national prep powerhouse.

Ahead of the 2021-22 wrestling season, Green left for Army West Point, and Arnold didn’t necessarily mesh with the new staff. On top of that, he took it upon himself to be a leader for the younger guys in the program. That meant pouring more into others than himself. It’s hard to do anything well when your own cup isn’t full.

Gabe Arnold, an incoming recruit for the Iowa wrestling program, reached the finals of the Junior men's freestyle national championships on Saturday at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open in Las Vegas.

Arnold, a Georgia native, suffered as a result. He took losses he normally wouldn’t have. He struggled with injuries. He suffered mentally. It all came to a head at last year’s Cadet world team trials, where he failed to make the team. The guy that beat him, Zack Ryder, is a 2024 blue-chipper who ultimately won bronze at the Cadet world championships.

But Arnold turned inward after that tournament. He needed to get healthy. He needed to be selfish. He sought change — a scary notion, he admits now, but a necessary one if he wanted to find the best version of himself.

“Sometimes, you outgrow places,” Arnold said. “My parents reminded me of that. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave. Even after the trials here last year, when it didn’t go my way, I didn’t want to leave those guys. But I had to do what’s best for me.

“It was time for change, and there’s nothing wrong with change, especially when the change is going to be positive and keep moving you forward toward your goal. That’s how I viewed the move to Iowa City. It’s been seamless. I fit in like a puzzle piece.”

Arnold’s whole family — father Phil, mother Liz — moved to Iowa City ahead of his senior season. The reunion (Wyoming Seminary is a private boarding school) was good for everybody. Arnold felt at home, felt healthy, and felt ready to compete again, and his parents could regularly watch him from up close for the first time in years.

Gabe Arnold (blue), an incoming Iowa recruit, won the Junior men's freestyle national title at 79 kilograms (174 pounds) at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

The results: Arnold went 41-0, with 22 pins and 11 technical falls, and won the Class 3A state title at 182 pounds for Iowa City High. He returned to the blue-chip form that caught the attention of Tom Brands and the Iowa wrestling program.

Then, this past weekend, he throttled the field en route to first. He won his first four matches by a combined 41-0. In the semifinals, he won 8-1 over Pitt’s Luca Augustine, last year’s Junior national champ. Then came his finals triumph over Welsh on Sunday.

When the final whistle sounded, Gabe Arnold let out a celebratory roar inside the South Point Arena. It’s been a wild year, but it’s led to some of the best wrestling of his young career — so far.

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Arnold said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff, man. Mentally. Physically. Everything.  But I’m happy again. I feel great. I can beat the best guys in the nation, and that’s a stepping stone to beating the best guys in the world.”

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Iowa Hawkeye wrestlers, recruits shine at USA Wrestling's Junior freestyle national championships

Arnold was one of five Iowa wrestlers, either current or incoming, to earn All-American honors at the Junior freestyle national championships over the weekend. Here are some highlights and observations from their performances:

  • Kale Petersen, a three-time Iowa state champ and late addition to the Hawkeyes’ 2023 recruiting class, reached the finals as the 6-seed at 61 kilos (134). He shredded the bottom half of the bracket, winning his first five matches by a combined 53-3. In the finals, he lost 11-8 to Ohio State's Nic Bouzakis, a returning Junior world-teamer. Bouzakis led 8-0 in the first and 10-4 in the second. Petersen scored a big 4-point takedown to come within 10-8, but Bouzakis held him off late.
  • Jace Rhodes, a Mason City native and true freshman this past season, reached the semifinals on the other side of the 61-kg bracket, knocking off the 4- and 5-seeds. He outscored his first four opponents 40-9 before losing to Bouzakis in the semifinals and rallying for 5th.
  • Aiden Riggins, a true freshman from Waverly-Shell Rock, went 9-2 overall to take 5th at 74 kilos (163). After losing his first match on Saturday, Riggins won eight in a row in the wrestlebacks — by a combined 73-8 — to reach the podium. Gritty stuff.
  • Bradley Hill, another true freshman from Bettendorf, joined Petersen and Arnold in the finals, at 125 kilos (275). Hill entered as the 9-seed, won his first three matches by a combined 30-0, won a thrilling semifinal over Nebraska’s Harley Andrews 13-11, then lost to incoming Oklahoma State recruit Christian Carroll 13-2 in the finals. Hill is still a tad undersized at heavyweight, but he picked his spots when attacking and wrestled well overall this weekend.
Iowa's Bradley Hill (top) finished second at 125 kilograms (275 pounds) at the Junior men's freestyle national championships at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

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Paniro Johnson takes third; Iowa State’s recruits shine in Junior freestyle

After a disappointing showing at the NCAA Championships, Paniro Johnson returned to the mat this weekend and went from the 6-seed to third-place at 70 kilos (154) at the Junior freestyle national championships.

Johnson, a Big 12 champion this past season, went 7-1 and reached the semifinals, where he lost to Nebraska’s Antrell Taylor. But Johnson rebounded with wins over Oklahoma’s John Wiley, who beat him in the regular season, and Stanford’s Daniel Cardenas, who reached the bloodround at the NCAA Championships in March.

Outside of his 12-1 loss to Taylor, Johnson didn’t surrender a point all weekend, outscoring his other seven opponents 64-0. He’ll get another crack at Taylor, and perhaps eventual champ Meyer Shapiro, at the Junior world team trials in June.

While Johnson was the only current Cyclone to earn Junior freestyle All-American honors this weekend, a trio of Iowa State recruits put forth performances that will have folks in Ames excited for the future:

  • Adrian Meza, a 2024 commit from Arizona, went 5-2 and took 5th at 57 kilos (125). Meza won his first four matches to reach the semifinals, where he led Jore Volk, last year’s Junior world champ, 3-0 before losing 5-3. He rallied for fifth.
  • Tate Naaktgeboren, an incoming 2023 signee from Linn-Mar, went 5-2 and took 7th at 86 kilos (189). He earned double All-American honors after a third-place finish in the Junior Greco-Roman tournament on Friday, and went 9-3 overall this weekend.
  • Sawyer Bartelt, another 2024 commit from Florida, also earned double All-American honors, adding a third-place freestyle finish to his greco title. Bartelt went 5-1 and made the semifinals before finishing third at 97 kilos (213).
Paniro Johnson, a Big 12 champion for Iowa State, reached the semifinals of the Junior men's freestyle national championships at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open in Las Vegas.

Three UNI wrestlers become Junior freestyle All-Americans

  • Wyatt Voelker, a Junior greco champ on Friday, added a freestyle All-American finish to his hardware haul on Sunday, finishing 4th at 86 kilos. Voelker went 6-2 overall, reaching the quarterfinals, then winning three in a row in the wrestlebacks to reach the third-place match.
  • Ryder Downey, a state champ from Indianola, revealed himself to be a pretty good freestyler with a sixth-place finish at 70 kilos. He went 6-3 overall, including four wins in the wrestlebacks to reach the podium after a loss in the Round-of-16. He also had some hilarious on-the-mat antics during his matches.
  • Jared Simma, a redshirt freshman this past season, went 5-2 and took 7th at 79 kilos. Simma, originally from Kansas, reached the quarterfinals, then registered a 14-4 technical fall over Cornell’s Evan Canoyer in the bloodround to earn All-American status.
Northern Iowa's Ryder Downey (red) took sixth at 70 kilograms (154 pounds) at the Junior men's freestyle national championships at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events.

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Iowa City West’s Hunter Garvin reached Junior national finals

It appears the West Coast is treating Hunter Garvin pretty well.

Garvin, a three-time state champ from Iowa City West who’s now at Stanford, finished his weekend with double All-American honors at the Junior national championships, adding a runner-up freestyle finish at 74 kilos to his fourth-place greco finish on Friday.

In all, Garvin went 9-3 overall — 4-2 in greco, then 5-1 in freestyle. In Saturday’s Junior freestyle preliminary rounds, Garvin won his first five matches by a combined 53-11, highlighted by a 14-11 semifinal win over Joe Sealey, a Cadet world champ last year.

In the finals, Garvin lost 16-6 to Mitchell Mesenbrink, a returning Junior freestyle world silver medalist. Garvin hung with Mesenbrink during a high-flying first period, tying the match at 4-4 halfway through before Mesenbrink surged ahead for a 12-6 lead at the break. In the second, Mesenbrink ended the match with a big 4-point takedown.

This was Garvin’s second straight double All-American showing at the Junior national championships. Last year, he took second in greco and fourth in freestyle. After redshirting this season, he is expected to step into Stanford’s starting lineup next year.

Hunter Garvin (blue), an Iowa City West grad and current Stanford wrestler, finished second at 74 kilograms (163 pounds) at the Junior men's freestyle national championships at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events.

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Dreshaun Ross leads Iowa high-schoolers at the Cadet freestyle world team trials

Dreshaun Ross’s bid to sweep the Cadet world team spots at 92 kilos (202) was shut down on Sunday. Ross, Fort Dodge’s insanely-talented freshman, took second to Wisconsin’s Aeoden Sinclair, losing two matches to none in the best-of-three finals.

After Ross went 5-0 and won a spot on the Cadet Greco-Roman world team last Thursday, he won his first three freestyle matches to reach Sunday’s finals. Sinclair, a Mizzou recruit and the No. 9 overall prospect in the 2024 class, scored late to win the first match, 3-3 on criteria, then pinned Ross in the second match to win the spot.

Ross will still compete at the Cadet world championships this summer, set for July 31-August 6 in Istanbul, Turkey, but only in the greco competition — still an amazing accomplishment and opportunity considering he’s still only 15 years old.

Despite not sweeping both spots, Ross confirmed his position as one of the nation’s brightest young wrestling talents. He went 8-2 overall during the week, and is already the state of Iowa’s next great blue-chip wrestler.

Fort Dodge's Dreshaun Ross (blue) took second at the Cadet freestyle world team trials at 92 kilograms (202 pounds) at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

Ross was one of four Iowa high-schoolers to earn All-American honors at the Cadet world team trials. Here’s a rundown of the other four:

  • Linn-Mar’s Kane Naaktgeboren finally had his breakout freestyle performance, posting a 9-2 record and finishing 5th at 65 kilos (143). Naaktgeboren, a 16U greco All-American last summer and another Iowa State recruit, won six consecutive matches in the wrestlebacks after an early loss to earn a spot on the podium.
  • Don Bosco’s Kyler Knaack went 5-2 and finished 4th at 71 kilos (156). After coming up short in the Cadet greco world team trials, Knaack won his first four freestyle matches by a combined 41-2 to reach the semifinals and earn a top-four finish.
  • Southeast Polk’s Mike Slade went 4-3 to finish 6th at 80 kilos (176). He joined Ross as a double Cadet All-American, adding to his fifth-place finish in greco. He reached the freestyle semifinals before sliding to 6th and finished the weekend 9-5 overall.
  • Additionally, Mac Crosson, a 16U freestyle national champ at 88 pounds last summer, went 3-2 and took 7th at 45 kilos (99). Crosson is an Indianola middle-schooler.

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