State wrestling: Ankeny schools showcase wrestling strength, promise in Class 3A finals

Cody Goodwin
The Des Moines Register

Saturday was not the banner night wrestling fans in Ankeny were hoping for, but there was a showing of strength and promise from the city with two high schools during the Class 3A state wrestling tournament’s final round.

For the Ankeny Hawks, a pair of champs — Trever Anderson, at 106 pounds, and Caleb Rathjen, at 126. They are the first title-winners for either school since the split six years ago.

For the Ankeny Centennial Jaguars, a trio of finalists — Ben Monroe at 132, Eric Owens at 145 and Logan Neils at 170. They all came up short, which left head coach Jay Groth with a bittersweet feeling after a successful team showing this week and this year.

“Overall, I can’t complain too much,” Groth said. “Three finalists, six medalists. Two of the finalists are back, so that’s good. But we’re still looking for that first-ever Centennial state champ.”

Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen wins the 126 pound Class 3A championship match against West Des Moines Valley's Nick Oldham during the Iowa high school state wrestling tournament on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Wells Fargo Arena.

It was a strong showing inside Wells Fargo Arena for a town that’s working toward wrestling success. Back when it was just one high school, there was some — a team title in 1971 as well as 12 all-time individual title winners, the last of which came in 2012 (Ross Larson, at 195 pounds).

The split came the next year, and neither team had an individual state champ until Saturday night.

Anderson scored a takedown in all three periods and beat Mason City’s Jace Rhodes 7-0. Rathjen followed him three matches later and beat Valley’s Nick Oldham 3-2, avenging a loss in the 113-pound final a year ago. Ankeny last had two champs at the 2003 tournament.

“It means everything,” Rathjen said. “I grew up wrestling with all these kids. It’s amazing to see, you know? People always say, ‘Oh, if Ankeny was one school, look at what we’d be able to do.’

“It sucks that we split, and we’re rivals with them now. But it’s awesome for the town to go out and represent like this.”

Centennial couldn’t find the same individual glory as its Ankeny counterparts. Monroe lost in the finals for a third straight year, this time to Dubuque Hempstead’s Joe Pins in a 4-2 decision at 132. Eric Owens lost by fall at 145. Logan Neils fell decisively to Waukee’s Anthony Zach at 170.

But Groth remains encouraged about his program’s future. The entire week, it seems, was a glimpse into the continual wrestling growth in Ankeny. Monroe and Neils will be back again next year, as will three other qualifiers from this year’s team. The Jaguars finished fourth in the team race. Earlier in the week, they beat the Dodgers to take third at the state duals tournament.

The Hawks’ future looks equally bright — Rathjen is just a sophomore; Anderson is a freshman and talked briefly about working toward three more state titles on Saturday. More names from both schools will emerge once next season rolls around.

“There are some kids with talent and experience,” Groth said. “I think we’re going to be very competitive next year as well.”

During Rathjen’s finals match, assistant coach Austin Anderson stood behind Mat 3, shaking, twisting and turning as Rathjen closed out his fourth win over Oldham this season. When the buzzer sounded, he leaped from his chair, celebrating his team’s second individual crown, capturing a feeling that Ankeny wrestling hopes to feel more often over the next few years.

Go-Hawks clinch first team crown since 2011

Waverly-Shell Rock coach Eric Whitcome kept his eye on four mats on Saturday morning. He watched Aiden Riggins win his wrestleback match at 106 pounds, then turned and saw senior Dylan Albrecht win by major decision at 126, then glimpsed Evan Yant score a takedown in the third period to win at 132.

The combination of those three wins secured the team title for the Go-Hawks, their first since 2011 and sixth in school history. Waverly brought 11 wrestlers and put nine on the podium, including seven in the top five at their respective weights. That depth and success gave Waverly 157 team points, far and away more than Southeast Polk, which took second with 123.

The Go-Hawks were anchored by bonus points. They led the tournament with 15 pins, many of which came in the wrestlebacks on Friday. While the Rams stumbled — they qualified 11, but just six earned medals — Waverly surged, effectively putting the title out of reach on Friday afternoon before officially clinching it on Saturday morning.

Fort Dodge, last year’s champion, finished third with 105 points behind two champs. Centennial (86), Waukee (75) and West Des Moines Valley (74) rounded out the top six.

Waverly-Shell Rock poses for a photo after winning the 3A traditional team championship at the Iowa state wrestling championships on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019 in Des Moines.

Southeast Polk falls short in team race, but crowns three champs

Southeast Polk, the tournament favorites entering the week, did not win the traditional tournament team crown, but they did leave with three individual champions. Lance Runyon (152), Cade DeVos (160) and Gabe Christenson (195) all picked up state titles Saturday night.

Runyon defeated Norwalk’s Carter Schmidt 9-2 to win his first state crown and complete an undefeated season at 40-0. The senior pinned his way to the finals, and sought a fourth against Schmidt, who stymied his cradle attempts and only scored on a reversal in the third period.

DeVos won at 160 with a 3-1 win over Waverly’s Jacob Herrmann. DeVos, a senior bound for South Dakota State, scored a takedown in the second period after an escape, lifting him to his second individual state championship.

Christenson closed the night with an emphatic 12-2 major decision over another Waverly wrestler, Braydon Wolf, at 195 pounds. He celebrated by tossing assistant coach Jessman Smith on the mat, similar to how Cory Clark tossed Iowa coach Terry Brands after winning the NCAA title in 2017.

A fourth Ram wrestler, Devin Harmison, reached Saturday night’s finals as well, but lost to perhaps one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the state in Fort Dodge’s Drake Ayala.

Speaking of …

Fort Dodge’s Ayala caps dominant season with first state title

Before the interviews began, Drake Ayala asked what he should do with his large display bracket that comes with winning a state championship. Should I put it down, he asked, or keep it?

He held it tight while the cameras rolled. This was a moment Ayala, a Fort Dodge sophomore, worked all year long for. After finishing second a year ago, he cruised to the 113-pound crown on Saturday, capping a perfect 43-0 campaign wherein he scored bonus points in all but one match.

“I just have fun scoring points,” Ayala said. “I just want to be the most dominant wrestler in the state. That’s my goal. So I go out there and score as many points as I can.”

Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala wins the 113 pound Class 3A championship match against Southeast Polk's Devin Harmison during the Iowa high school state wrestling tournament on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Wells Fargo Arena.

Ayala’s performance this week — two pins, two technical falls — elevated him into the conversation as one of Iowa’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers. His name has long circled among the state’s elite, with a pair of Cadet freestyle All-American finishes to his name as well as two trips to the state finals in as many seasons.

As reporters peppered him with questions, Ayala smiled and took it in. He said he felt more comfortable under the lights inside Wells Fargo Arena. He’s glad he finally stood on top of the podium, a dream realized, but before he left on Saturday, he was already thinking bigger.

“This summer, I want to make a world team,” he said, “and I want to win a gold medal.”

Waukee's Anthony Zach dominant on road to title

Waukee senior Anthony Zach figured that he'd end this week as a state champion if he just didn't allow a point.

Pretty sound strategy.

Zach, a runner-up a year ago, rolled through the 170-pound bracket to claim his first state championship. He didn't allow a point all week, outscoring his opponents a combined 22-0 en route to first place.

All four D.M. East wrestlers medal

Des Moines East only brought four wrestlers this week, but each of them — Matthew Jordan (126), Brock Espalin (132), Deville Dentis (145) and Matthew Scott (182) — finished on the podium. They combine for 63 team points, good for ninth place.

Jordan went 4-1 and finished third, making a little history in the process. He became East’s first four-time state medalist. He previously finished fifth, fourth and sixth. This week, he recorded a first-round pin, then outscored his opponents a combined 28-12 in his other three victories. His only loss came to Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen in the semifinals.

“It feels awesome, man,” Jordan said. “It’s crazy. I can’t believe I’m the one who actually did it. It’s pretty cool.

“There’s been a four-time state qualifier (for East), but not a place-winner. So once placed my freshman year, I knew that I could do it. I just had to stay focused all throughout high school and get it done.”

Espalin could join Jordan next year. He took third this week at 132 pounds, matching his teammate with a 4-1 record. Twice during the week, Espalin scored match-winning takedowns in overtime against Waverly-Shell Rock’s Evan Yant.

“I just kept wrestling, kept wrestling and wrestled until the end,” Espalin said. “My teammates are always pushing me in the room, always telling me to never give up.”

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

Class 3A Team Scores

1. Waverly-Shell Rock, 157
2. Southeast Polk, 123
3. Fort Dodge, 103
4. Ankeny Centennial, 86
5. Waukee, 75

Championship Matches

106: Trever Anderson (Ankeny) dec. Jace Rhodes (Mason City), 7-0
113: Drake Ayala (Fort Dodge) tech. fall Devin Harmison (Southeast Polk), 22-7
120: Carson Taylor (Fort Dodge) dec. Hunter Garvin (Iowa City West), 13-8
126: Caleb Rathjen (Ankeny) dec. Nick Oldham (WDM Valley), 3-2
132: Joe Pins (Dubuque Hempstead) dec. Ben Monroe (Ankeny Centennial), 4-2
138: Eli Loyd (Pleasant Valley) over Colby Schriever (Mason City) by fall, 3:05
145: Collins Lewis (North Scott) over Eric Owens (Ankeny Centennial), by fall 3:41
152: Lance Runyon (Southeast Polk) dec. Carter Schmidt (Norwalk), 9-2
160: Cade DeVos (Southeast Polk) dec. Jacob Herrmann (Waverly-Shell Rock), 3-1
170: Anthony Zach (Waukee) dec. Logan Neils (Ankeny Centennial), 7-0
182: Jacob Wempen (Linn-Mar) over Devin Ludwig (Western Dubuque) by fall, 1:07
195: Gabe Christenson (Southeast Polk) maj. dec. Brayden Wolf (Waverly-Shell Rock), 12-2
220: Beau Lombardi (WDM Valley) dec. Cameron Baker (C.B. Thomas Jefferson), 4-1 (TB1)
285: Andrew Snyder (Waverly-Shell Rock) dec. Griffin Liddle (Bettendorf), 2-1