Wrestling: Team Iowa wins Junior Freestyle National Duals for the first time since 2005
TULSA, Okla. — One by one, members of Iowa’s Junior freestyle national dual team climbed on top of the staged mat here inside the Cox Business Center, smiling from ear to ear. They clapped. They screamed. They laughed.
They even slapped their chests, drawing attention to their shirts, which showcased a simple motto.
This Iowa team did win, seven times in two days en route to a first-place finish at the 2021 Junior Freestyle National Duals. Iowa defeated Oklahoma, 40-23, in Saturday’s final to earn their second-ever Junior national duals title and first since 2005.
“It’s good to be back on top,” Osage senior Spencer Mooberry said.
This four-day event showcased some of the nation’s best high school wrestlers from the sport’s premiere states competing in the Olympic wrestling disciplines, Greco-Roman and freestyle. After a year hiatus due to COVID-19, it returned this year with high expectations, and delivered on that promise between Wednesday and Saturday.
Iowa came with guarded optimism and a lineup that featured many of the state’s best wrestlers. The 24-man roster has combined to win 17 individual state titles, but even more, eight have signed with Division I programs, 10 are currently in MatScouts’ national rankings, and 14 are considered some of the country’s top recruits.
“When we get our best guys here,” said Brent Jennings, Osage’s head coach and Iowa USA Wrestling’s Junior director, “we’re pretty damn good.”
Pretty damn good is putting it lightly.
Iowa torched the freestyle competition this week: 7-0 in duals, and 80-25 in individual matches. They posted a 328-117 advantage in total team points, scoring 40 in six of the seven duals, and collectively outscored their individual opponents 901-347. Of their 80 individual wins, 54 were by technical fall — 39 by shutout — and seven more by pin.
There were just six instances all week when Iowa trailed in a dual. Four of those times, they either tied or took the lead in the very next match. Their closest dual was a 36-27 win over seventh-place California on Friday night. Their biggest deficit was just four points — 6-2 to Oklahoma after the championship dual’s first two matches.
Four wrestlers went undefeated during the week: Southeast Polk’s Nate Jesuroga (7-0 at 113 pounds), City High’s Ben Kueter (5-0 at 220) and both Dru and Drake Ayala (7-0 at 100 and 126, respectively). Drake Ayala, a future Hawkeye wrestler, was named the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler after recording seven technical falls.
Eight more primary starters finished with just one loss:
- Waverly-Shell Rock’s Ryder Block, Southeast Polk’s Joel Jesuroga, Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen, and Waverly-Shell Rock’s Aiden Riggins all went 6-1;
- Waukee Northwest’s Griffin Gammell and West Delaware’s Wyatt Voelker both went 4-1;
- and Webster City’s Carson Doolittle (3-1) and Bondurant-Farrar’s Connor Fiser (2-1) tag-teamed 106 pounds.
“It was pretty special,” said Ryan Morningstar, an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes who also coaches Iowa USA Wrestling’s Junior freestyle and greco teams. “It’s a tribute to these guys and the state of Iowa and how well they’re doing.
“I’ve coached a lot of teams down here,” he continued, “and Iowa is always in the mix. We felt really good about the team we had assembled this year. They came down here for one thing. They didn’t come down here for second place. They came to win.”
Morningstar was a senior at Lisbon when Iowa last won the Junior freestyle national duals. That year, 2005, Iowa defeated New Jersey, 35-29, in the finals. Morningstar went 10-0 that week and didn’t allow a point. T.J. Moen, a two-time state champ from Saydel, beat future NCAA Champ Darrion Caldwell, 11-9, in the championship dual.
There are parallels between that team and the one that dominated this week. It was a talented group, a 19-man roster that combined to win 27 individual state titles and featured 10 Junior All-Americans. Seniors led the charge — and a cold-call to Valley’s Montell Marion led to some big victories that helped Iowa win the championship.
This year’s team came together thanks to a Snapchat conversation spurred by Caleb Rathjen, another future Hawkeye wrestler. Shortly after winning Iowa’s freestyle state tournament, he formed a group chat with most of the other state champs and posed the idea of forming a team that could win this week.
“It was like a day after freestyle state, I was like, dang, we could have a really good team,” Rathjen said. “We’ve got some good kids. I texted all the boys, and they all got on board really quickly.
“We knew we had a really good team coming in. We knew it all along, we were the best team here.”
Iowa’s Junior freestyle dual teams was a constant contender in the years after that 2005 title. Between 2006-19, Iowa finished in the top-five 10 times: fifth-place in 2009, 2013 and 2015; fourth in 2006, 2007 and 2019; third in 2011; and three finals appearances in 2008, 2010 and 2012. All three times, Iowa fell to Illinois.
This year’s team dispatched their Mississippi River neighbors in the semifinal round. Before then, Iowa rolled through their first five duals. On Friday, they topped Arkansas, 64-1; Minnesota’s b-team, 50-12; Ohio, 50-14; and California in the first dual of the championship bracket. The roll continued Saturday with a 47-17 win over Wisconsin.
Against Illinois, Iowa raced out to an 11-2 lead thanks to wins from Ryder Block, Joel Jesuroga and Rathjen. Illinois won three of the next four to close within 16-13, but Iowa responded with six wins in the final eight matches — including tech-falls from Voelker, Kueter, Dru Ayala, Fiser, Nate Jesuroga and Drake Ayala — to win comfortably, 41-23.
Oklahoma, after powering past Minnesota’s a-team 38-27 in the other semifinal, took a 6-2 lead against Iowa after two highly-competitive matches. At 138 pounds, Carter Young, a Northwestern signee, beat Joel Jesuroga, 4-1. Right after, at 145, Rathjen dropped a 8-7 decision to Jordan Williams, who’s ranked fourth nationally.
Iowa responded by flexing its overall depth and talent. Jack Gaukel, a state champ from Sergeant Bluff-Luton, scored a pair of 4-point throws and took out 14th-ranked Angelo Ferrari, 10-5, at 152. Riggins then scored a takedown with one second left on the clock to defeat top-ranked John Wiley, 7-4, at 160 pounds, tying the dual at 8-all.
Then came Gabe McGeough’s 10-9 win over Jaxon Randall at 170. McGeough, a senior-to-be at MFL MarMac, wrestled nine greco matches at 160 between Wednesday and Thursday (5-4 overall). He stuck around for freestyle, bumped up and led 9-0 early in the second period before hanging on to beat Randall, an Oklahoma state champ.
That result gave Iowa an 11-9 lead. They never trailed again.
Gammell registered a 10-0 technical fall. Voelker beat 11th-ranked AJ Heeg, 4-2, thanks to some savvy single-leg defense in the final seconds. Kueter topped Emmanuel Skillings, 10-0, Iowa’s sixth-straight win that put them up 22-10.
Technical falls from the Ayala brothers, Nate Jesuroga and Block closed the dual down. After Block scored one final takedown to defeat Jordan Cullors, 15-4, he pounded his chest as his teammates joined him on the staged mat. The scoreboard in the corner of the mat blinked the final score: Iowa wins, 40-23.
“This has been a long time coming,” Drake Ayala said afterward. “We made history. Iowa is back on top.”
Added Jennings: “National champs. Sixteen years, man. Sixteen years since the last one. Those guys did something pretty special.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2021 Junior Freestyle National Duals
Championship Dual: Iowa 40, Oklahoma 23
- 138: Carter Young (OK) dec. Joel Jesuroga (IA), 4-1
- 145: Jordan Williams (OK) dec. Caleb Rathjen (IA), 8-7
- 152: Jack Gaukel (IA) dec. Angelo Ferrari (OK), 10-5
- 160: Aiden Riggins (IA) dec. John Wiley (OK), 7-4
- 170: Gabe McGeough (IA) dec. Jaxon Randall (OK), 10-9
- 182: Griffin Gammell (IA) tech. fall Samuel Schmidt (OK), 10-0
- 195: Wyatt Voelker (IA) dec. AJ Heeg (OK), 4-2
- 220: Ben Kueter (IA) tech. fall Emmanuel Skillings (OK), 10-0
- 285: Harley Andrews (OK) dec. Bradley Hill (IA), 12-9
- 100: Dru Ayala (IA) tech. fall Treshaun Tecson (OK), 10-0
- 106: Christian Forbes (OK) dec. Carson Doolittle (IA), 14-5
- 113: Nate Jesuroga (IA) tech. fall Guy Clevenger (OK), 14-2
- 120: Eli Griffin (OK) tech. fall Chad Bellis (IA), 12-0
- 126: Drake Ayala (IA) tech. fall Jayce Caviness (OK), 13-2
- 132: Ryder Block (IA) tech. fall Jordan Cullors (OK), 15-4
Third Place: Minnesota 37, Illinois 27
Fifth Place: Wisconsin 53, Ohio 16
Seventh Place: California 38, New Jersey 31