State wrestling: Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala cements his spot as one of the best in Iowa history

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

The final chapter to one of Iowa's greatest high school wrestling careers begins a takedown 18 seconds into the first period, then immediately granting an escape. Then two more takedowns in the second and another in the third to win a state championship.

It's Drake Ayala, one of the best Iowa's ever seen, challenging himself, and delivering on that chase with a third state title Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena. The Fort Dodge senior defeated Waverly-Shell Rock's Ryder Block 11-3 to win at 132 pounds.

"This means a lot more," Ayala said, "because I had something to prove to myself."

In doing so, Ayala cemented his spot at the table as one of the best to ever do it in Iowa. His final high-school resume: three state titles in four finals appearances, a 171-3 career record, two freestyle national titles, a Super 32 Challenge belt, a Who's No. 1 victory, a top-10 overall recruiting distinction, and the No. 1 ranking in the country.

The results speak for themselves, of course, but what made this final chapter so legendary was the fact that it happened at all.

Fort Dodge's DrakeÊAyala defeats Waverly-Shell Rock's RyderÊBlock 11-3 during their class 3A 132 pound championship match of the Iowa high school state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Des Moines, IA.

Block handed Ayala his third career loss last month via a 9-7 decision at Waverly-Shell Rock's Rick Caldwell Invitational. A returning state champion himself, Block used takedowns in the first and second periods to win.

That loss lit a fire inside Ayala, one that doesn't burn in the rest of us, or even in the vast majority of high-level wrestlers. Before the season even started, Ayala said he wanted to "fix my weaknesses, learn more about myself and learn more about wrestling before I go to the next level." He wanted to grow, as a wrestler, a competitor, a person.

"It’s not about the wins and losses at this point," Ayala said in October. "I don’t necessarily look forward to a high school state tournament now, if that makes sense. It’s more about growing in every aspect of my wrestling to get ready for college and beyond."

That loss to Block, then, was a learning experience, a teachable moment — and one hell of a motivator.

Ayala, a natural 126-pounder — that's where MatScouts ranks him as No. 1 in the country — decided to bump up the rest for the rest of the season. He decided chase Block, who entered Saturday night with a 68-0 career record. He decided to push himself to become a better wrestler and better version of himself.

The result was Saturday night's finals match, a dominant four-takedown performance against a wrestler who is developing an elite résumé of his own. Ayala led 2-1 after the first period and 7-2 after the second. Block threw a last-gasp effort with short time in the third, but Ayala planted him on his back to secure the major decision.

This was the best version of Drake Ayala. What separates him from many of the great Iowa high-schoolers who came before him is that this was ultimately not about a result. This was about improvement, about committing himself to a process. He went for it because he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it — and sure enough, he did it.

Ayala will be remembered for this big individual victory and many others like it, but the road he took to get there will prepare him for the bigger things ahead: a Division I career with the Hawkeyes, a Senior-level freestyle career that is sure to follow, and perhaps a coaching career a ways down the road.

Afterward, Ayala stood in the arena's catacombs holding his third commemorative bracket, wearing a shirt that says, "Winners Win," but his mind was already pushing forward. 

"It's crazy," Ayala said about the end of his high school career. "It's sad, but I'm excited for the future. I have a lot of big things ahead of me, so I'm excited."

Bigger challenges await. Hopefully we're all lucky enough to watch.

More state wrestling coverage

Waverly-Shell Rock outlasts Waukee in thrilling team race

Waverly-Shell Rock won the Class 3A team title for the third straight year. But unlike the past two years, the Go-Hawks had to wait until Saturday night before they could celebrate.

It was a three-team race for the majority of the week, between the Go-Hawks, Waukee and Southeast Polk. The Warriors led most of the way, but Waverly-Shell Rock surged ahead after putting five wrestlers into Saturday night's finals.

Entering the championship round, the Go-Hawks led Waukee, 146.5-141. The Warriors had four finalists, but the teams' only meeting came at 182 pounds, between Waverly-Shell Rock's McCrae Hagarty and Waukee's Griffin Gammell. The match ultimately is what clinched it for the Go-Hawks.

Before then, Waukee freshman Carter Freeman bolstered his team's hopes with a 12-4 major decision over Cedar Rapids Prairie's Blake Gioimo at 106 pounds. That brought the Warriors within a half-point, with three opportunities available.

But those chances evaporated when Koufax Christensen lost to Southeast Polk's Nate Jesuroga at 113, then Thurman Christensen lost to Bettendorf's Dustin Bohren at 126.

The Go-Hawks took a giant step forward when junior Aiden Riggins beat Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen for the title at 152 pounds. That gave Waverly-Shell Rock a 4.5-point lead heading into 182. Gammell needed bonus points to gave the Warriors any chance at all. Hagarty didn't allow the opportunity, with a 3-2 win on a third-period takedown.

"I didn't just win it for myself, I won it for my team," Hagarty said. "It was pretty stressful. I knew he was their last wrestler, and if I had messed up, he could've given them the lead, so I just stayed fundamentally sound and wrestled my match."

That clinched the Go-Hawks' third straight team title and eighth overall. They finished with 154.5 points thanks to two champs and seven other medalists. Waukee scored 146 with one champ and nine total medalists. Southeast Polk, with a pair of champions and eight total medalists, finished third with 143.

Ankeny's Trever Anderson back on top, bum shoulder and all

Ankeny's Trever Anderson made a strong case Saturday that he's perhaps one of the toughest wrestlers, pound-for-pound, in the state.

The junior returned to the top of the state podium, defeating Hempstead's Chad Bellis 3-2 to win at 120 pounds. It is his second state title in three years, and it came a month after he seriously injured his shoulder.

Exactly 42 days ago, Anderson busted his shoulder during a match against Southeast Polk's Nate Jesuroga. He refused to go see a doctor because he was afraid they might shut him down for the season.

Instead, he wore a sling for a couple of weeks and a brace when he returned during last week's regional dual action. After Saturday night's final, he said his arm was numb.

"I have a doctor's appointment in six days," Anderson said with a smile. "It hurt (all week), but you have to do what you have to do."

What Anderson did was this: a 7-0 record once he returned to action, which included four wins this week by a cumulative 30-5 count.

In the finals against Bellis, a past Illinois state champ, Anderson connected on the match-winning takedown with less than a minute left. Bellis went for an inside trip, but Anderson put him on his hip for two points — and, ultimately, a second state title.

"My arm is numb right now, I can't feel it," Anderson said. "But my coaches told me that I could win this with a hurt shoulder, no shoulders, whatever. I just had to put in the work, and that's what I did."

Southeast Polk's Jesuroga brothers earn state titles

Southeast Polk's third-place finish was led by the Jesuroga brothers.

Nate, a sophomore, won a state title at 113 pounds, defeating Waukee's Koufax Christensen 11-4 in the finals. He scored five takedowns to beat Christensen for the fourth time this season, outscored his four opponents 55-20 this week and recorded 25 takedowns in four matches while allowing none.

Joel, a junior, won at 145 pounds, beating Fort Dodge's Dreyzon Phillips 6-1 in the final. Tied 1-all with 39 seconds left in the match, he took Phillips to his back for a takedown and three back points. That capped a week wherein he outscored his four opponents 28-4, and a season where he went 30-1.

"Whenever I watch (Nate), and he wins, it helps me a bunch," Joel said. "His wins always give me confidence."

Johnston's Helgeson finally breaks through, wins elusive state title

It took Caleb Helgeson three tries to finally secure a semifinal win, but just one attempt to win a state title.

Helgeson, a Johnston senior, won at 170 pounds on Saturday night, defeating Des Moines Lincoln's Mickey Griffith 4-1. Helgeson scored a takedown in the first period and a reversal in the second to defeat Griffith, who was the returning state champion.

During each of the last two seasons, Helgeson had reached the state semifinals, but lost both times. This year, he fell behind early during Friday's semifinal round against Muscatine's Timothy Nimely, but rebounded to pin him in the second period.

That matched him up with Griffith for the third time this season. Griffith, a junior, won their first meeting 9-2. Then Helgeson got him back at districts last week 6-4 in sudden victory. 

Then came Saturday's rubber-match, which went to Helgeson once again.

Quick results from the other Class 3A finals

138 pounds: Iowa City West's Hunter Garvin won his second-straight state title with a third-period pin over Cedar Falls' Dylan Whitt. Garvin, a junior, led 14-1 when he threw Whitt to his back for the fall.

160 pounds: Linn-Mar's Tate Naaktgeboren defeated West Des Moines Valley's Caleb Corbin, 3-1, in a battle of returning state runner-ups. Naaktgeboren, a sophomore, scored a takedown midway through the first period. It held up as the match-winner.

195 pounds: Iowa City High's Ben Kueter won his second-straight state title, defeating Waverly-Shell Rock's Jake Walker, 5-0. After a scoreless first period, Kueter, a sophomore, scored three back points in the second, then added a reversal in the third.

220 pounds: Bettendorf's Bradley Hill topped Waverly-Shell Rock's Luke Walker, 5-3, to win his first state title. Hill, a junior, scored takedowns in the first and second period to beat Walker for the second time this season.

285 pounds: Griffin Liddle, an Iowa football recruit, gave Bettendorf a third champ by defeating Ames' Gabe Greenlee, 3-1, at heavyweight, thanks to a second-period takedown. He is the first back-to-back heavyweight state champ in Class 3A since Xavier's Mike Shadek, who won twice in 2000-01.

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

Final Class 3A Team Scores

1. Waverly-Shell Rock, 154.5

2. Waukee, 146

3. Southeast Polk, 143

4. Bettendorf, 100.5

5. Ankeny, 96.5