Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala wins second Junior freestyle wrestling national title, Team Iowa takes fifth

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

FARGO, N.D. — Drake Ayala loves the FargoDome. Loves the smell of the roasted nuts up on the concourse. Loves the brackets that hang on the walls nearby. The 25 mats that cover the turf field each July, with Mat 1 on a stage right smack in the middle. 

This is where a lot of his favorite memories have been made, of course — where he first burst onto the national wrestling scene, where he then solidified his stardom, and where, on Tuesday afternoon, he capped his legendary high school wrestling career.

Ayala added one final sterling line to his prep wrestling résumé, winning another Junior men’s freestyle national title at 126 pounds. He beat Indiana’s Sergio Lemley by a 10-0 technical fall in the championship match. He is the eighth Iowa high-schooler to win two Junior freestyle national titles, and the first since Nate Moore, who won in ’07-08.

“This is one of my favorite tournaments,” said Ayala, a graduated senior from Fort Dodge who will soon join the Iowa wrestling program. “I actually came here before I was in high school, with Cullan Schriever. You guys probably know him.

“We would come here and watch and dream about it. Then he won it, and I watched him, and then I won it, and now I’ve won it two more times.”

Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala won the Junior men's freestyle national title at 126 pounds on Tuesday inside the FargoDome in Fargo, N.D.

Team Iowa takes 5th at Junior men's freestyle national championships

The only thing that would’ve made it sweeter is if others from Team Iowa had joined him on top of the podium.

This week’s Junior men’s freestyle national championships was the individual-oriented encore to last month’s Junior National Duals, where Team Iowa won in dominant fashion. There was plenty of optimism about possibly sweeping both of USA Wrestling’s prestigious high-school wrestling competitions.

In the end, Iowa took fifth in the Junior men’s freestyle team race. Behind seven All-Americans, they scored just 98 points, well behind champion Illinois (11 All-Americans, 130 points). Pennsylvania finished second (10, 111), followed by Michigan (7, 107) and Wisconsin (10, 103).

It would be easy to dismiss Iowa’s efforts as underwhelming or disappointing, especially after many of the same wrestlers made up the Junior national dual team that bullied its way to a title last month in Tulsa. That would miss the larger point that Iowa’s showing is more indicative of a deeper truth — that this tournament is freaking hard.

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Iowa wrestling's history in Fargo

Iowa last won the Junior men’s freestyle national team championship in 2008, and has only won it nine times in the competition’s 50-year history. All except the 2008 title are considered unofficial, as USA Wrestling starting keeping team scores 2006. Since then, Iowa has taken second 4 times, including three years in a row from 2010-12, with 13, 12 and 10 All-Americans, respectively. Illinois reigned supreme each time.

This year’s team had all the potential to end what’s become a 13-year drought. The coaching staff again approached the week with guarded optimism. After COVID-19 cancelled last summer’s tournament, this year’s version featured 1,585 entries across 15 weights, the most in tournament history, topping the old mark of 1,272 from 2019.

The field’s overall depth and talent was on display in different ways. The 15 national title-winners represented 11 different states. The 120 All-Americans came from 29 different states. Again, this tournament is freaking hard.

Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen reached the finals at 145 pounds at the Junior men's freestyle national championships at the FargoDome in Fargo, N.D. Rathjen lost to Oklahoma's Jordan Williams, 4-3, and finished second.

How Iowa wrestlers did in Fargo

As each day unfolded — the tournament ran Sunday through Tuesday — Iowa positioned itself for a chance, pushing nine wrestlers into the quarterfinal round while another 12 fought through the wrestlebacks.

That’s where Iowa’s momentum halted. Only four reached the semifinals, and 10 made the bloodround, where one more win means All-American status. Iowa wrestlers went 3-7 in those matches.

Bettendorf’s Brad Hill lost by fall after leading 4-0. Clarinda’s Crew Howard held a 6-2 lead then lost 12-7. Linn-Mar’s Tate Naaktgeboren, a folkstyle national champ, also lost. Underwood’s Gable Porter beat the 15th-ranked kid in the nation, then lost twice. West Delaware’s Wyatt Voelker beat Osage’s Spencer Mooberry in the bloodround at 195.

Again, this tournament is freaking hard.

Before the bloodround, others from Team Iowa began faltering on Day Two.

Southeast Polk’s Joel Jesuroga went 4-2 at 138 pounds while two wrestlers he beat last month, Wisconsin’s Blaine Brenner and Illinois’s Kole Brower, made the podium. Waverly-Shell Rock’s Ryder Block went 5-2 at 132 and lost to two All-Americans. So did Gilbert’s Fernando Villaescusa at 182. So did Porter, and so many others.

Iowa City West’s Robert Avila Jr., a three-time Iowa state champ and past folkstyle national title winner, went 7-2 at 145 pounds, rattling off seven-straight wrestleback wins after losing in the first round. He was still two wins away from the podium.

Again, this tournament is freaking hard.

That sour taste remained as Tuesday’s final round unfolded. Despite all the tough breaks, Team Iowa still had an outside shot at the team title if everything broke right. Four Iowa wrestlers made the finals, and three others could earn points in their placement matches. A top-three finish was more likely. Neither ultimately happened.

Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen (145) and Waverly-Shell Rock’s Aiden Riggins (160) lost on heartbreaking, last-second scoring sequences — Rathjen to Oklahoma’s Jordan Williams, 4-3; Riggins to Michigan’s Joshua Barr, 4-4 on criteria. Iowa City High’s Ben Kueter then lost to Indiana’s Christian Carroll, 10-0, at 220.

Again, this tournament is freaking hard.

Which is what made Ayala’s run through the tournament so spectacular.

Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala won the Junior men's freestyle national title at 126 pounds on Tuesday inside the FargoDome in Fargo, N.D.

Drake Ayala's Iowa wrestling legacy

The 126-pound bracket was considered one of the tournament’s deepest, a 139-man field that included five top-150 prospects in the outgoing 2021 class, another five top-150 recruits in other classes, multiple other Division I prospects, plus 15 of the top-25 nationally-ranked wrestlers in MatScouts’ latest poll, including 7 of the top-8.

Ayala knifed through it: 7-0 overall and outscored his opponents 72-4. None of his seven matches reached the second period, and he wrestled a total of 10 minutes and 13 seconds. He was named the most outstanding wrestler in a tournament full of them, cementing his spot, again, as one of the best in Iowa high school history.

“I wanted to end this chapter on top,” Ayala said. “I talked with people that were close to me, about what they thought and what I thought. It was just the best thing for me at this time.”

By now, you know the accomplishments:

  • three Class 3A state titles in four trips to the finals;
  • a 171-3 career record as a Dodger;
  • three freestyle national titles (once as a Cadet, twice as a Junior);
  • a Junior folkstyle national title;
  • a Junior National Duals crown;
  • a Super 32 Challenge belt;
  • a Who's No. 1 victory;
  • a top-five overall recruiting distinction;
  • and, for a time, the No. 1 ranking in the country.

Some of his favorite memories, as he said, took place in this building. In hindsight, that 2017 Cadet national title, at 88 pounds, was really an announcement of what was coming. Two years later, his first Junior title, was his first official claim as one of the country’s most talented wrestlers.

This week, then, was one final reminder of what Iowa high school wrestling looks like at its best. His next journey awaits him at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, where he will chase bigger dreams, wrestle bigger matches, and compete on bigger stages — offering hope and confidence to those who follow his lead.

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

2021 Junior Men's Freestyle National Championships

Iowa All-Americans

  • Drake Ayala, champion at 126 pounds
  • Caleb Rathjen, second at 145 pounds
  • Aiden Riggins, second at 160 pounds
  • Ben Kueter, second at 220 pounds
  • Connor Fiser, fifth at 106 pounds
  • Griffin Gammell, eighth at 182 pounds
  • Wyatt Voelker, eighth at 195 pounds

Team Scores

  1. Illinois, 130
  2. Pennsylvania, 111
  3. Michigan, 107
  4. Wisconsin, 103
  5. Iowa, 98