Wrestle Mania For four days each February, all eyes in Iowa turn to the supercharged state high school championships in Des Moines

March 01, 2004

They say, if you want to rob a bank in Osage, do it during the
state tournament.
--Tallia Goodale, 11-year-old sister of three-time state
wrestling champ Trent Goodale

In late February, Iowa high school wrestling fans flock, like
migratory fowl, to their traditional spots in Veterans Memorial
Auditorium in Des Moines. Osage fans, wearing green sweatshirts,
go to section 19 and 21 on the arena's south side; Don Bosco
boosters, dressed in blue and gold, rush to sections 23 and 25 on
the same side. Even the officials at the Iowa State Wrestling
Tournament work their regular tables year after year. "I wouldn't
think of missing this event," says Dallas Kray, a retired high
school athletic director who has operated the clock at table 6
for the last 12 years. "It's the biggest show on earth ... well,
in Iowa, anyway. Certainly it's the biggest wrestling tournament in
the nation."

Even as wrestling is dying out in colleges around the country,
the sport thrives in Iowa's high schools. In the years since the
first tournament, in 1926--the year Marshalltown won the team
championship under the supervision of Adolph Rupp, who would
later coach Kentucky's basketball team to four NCAA titles--the
event has expanded from one class to three and from two days to
four. In the early 1960s about 100 Iowa high schools had
wrestling programs. Today 347 of the 402 schools in the Iowa High
School Athletic Association (IHSAA) are represented on 300
wrestling teams. Last year the 672 state qualifiers hailed from
237 of those teams and drew some 89,000 fans. As 50 radio
stations and 183 newspapers covered the action, spectators
consumed the equivalent of four semitruckloads of soda, hot dogs,
hamburgers, nachos, popcorn, pretzels and ice cream.

Why does wrestling have such a grip on Iowans? "Because we're
good at it!" says Andy Grove, a sportswriter and former high
school wrestler. "Most eighth-place winners in this tournament
would probably win in, say, Michigan, but they'd prefer to get
eighth here."

If you think making the finals is tough for athletes, try being a
spectator. For the last 14 years championship-night tickets have
been sold out on the day they've gone on sale in December.

The goal of any young wrestler in Iowa is to reach the state
tournament. Randy McDonald, the coach at Winterset High, which
sent eight wrestlers to state last year, didn't make it when he
was in high school. "I think that's why I have so much intensity
as a coach," he says. "I missed coming here. Every corner of Iowa
shows up here. Kids can just feel the intensity when they come
upstairs [from the basement warmup area]. The goose bumps pop up,
and the adrenaline starts flowing."

As their loyal fans fill the stands, the wrestlers prowl the
warmup room and the arena perimeter looking nervous and hungry.
They wear hooded sweatshirts or letterman jackets adorned with
diaper pins (one for each time the wrestler has pinned an
opponent) or T-shirts with slogans like no one will outwork me
today! Many wrestlers sport mop-top hairdos like that of Iowa
native Ashton Kutcher on That '70s Show but not out of any
particular fondness for Kutcher, the show or, God forbid,
fashion. "The reason wrestlers don't cut their hair is
superstition," says Amy Lehn, whose shaggy-haired son, Nick
Schropp, earned a fifth-place medal in the 2A 140-pound division
for Williamsburg last year. "Once they start winning--however
they've won--they won't change it."

As they await their turn on a mat, wrestlers bounce on their
toes, nervously slapping their legs and heads while their coaches
shout reminders into their ears. When the P.A. announcer--whose
rapid-fire delivery suggests a career auctioning hogs at the
state fair--calls out their match, they jog to their assigned
mat, followed by a couple of coaches, a string of cheerleaders
and, along the mat's perimeter, an army of fans. Everyone who
shouts instructions (and everyone does, it seems) is well-versed
in the nuances of grappling. Mothers, dads, siblings and friends
urge their man on: "Move him!" "Work him!" "Break him down!" "We
have what I would call a sophisticated blue-collar crowd," says
IHSAA media liaison Bud Legg.

Wrestling schools such as Rockwell City-Lytton, which sent three
wrestlers to state last year, don't bother holding school during
the tournament because so many students go to Des Moines. The
same is not true for Gilbert, a tiny burg that might
imaginatively be called an Ames suburb. When the town's lone
state wrestler, Danny Schmidt, upset fourth-ranked Andrew
Westendorf of Wapsie Valley (Fairbank) High in the first round of
the 1A 145-pound class on Thursday night last year, a clutch of
schoolmates gathered around him to pound his back and bask in his
reflected glory. Then, one by one, they peeled off to punch
numbers into cellphones. With a finger in one ear and the mobile
in the other, they shouted the highlights of the match to
classmates stuck at home. "This sport takes so much dedication,
so much discipline," said Schmidt. "Getting a win like this makes
it all seem worth it."

The flip side of the winner's euphoria is the loser's misery,
which is especially acute at this event. Soon after Schmidt's
admirers had dispersed, a distraught wrestler from another high
school stormed past on the way to the warmup room, his face and
singlet merged in a blur of red. As soon as he was out of sight
of the public and his gathering consolers, he let loose a
wretched cry of despair. "When you lose in football, you have the
whole team to share it," says Gilbert coach Scott Auderer. "In
wrestling it's just you getting your heart ripped out."

Last year's championship night was notable for three things: 1)
the absence of native son wrestling legend Dan Gable, who missed
the evening for only the fourth time since he was in junior high
(his daughter Molly was swimming in a meet for Iowa); 2) the
presence of Cael Sanderson, who surpassed Gable's
accomplishments, if not his legend, at Iowa State by going 159-0
in his four years as a Cyclone and 3) the crowning of two
four-time champions on the same night for the first time.

Those four-time champs, C.J. Ettelson, who won the 1A 135-pound
class for Hudson High, and Mack Reiter, who won the 1A 125-pound
class for Don Bosco, looked perfectly calm after they received
standing ovations on the medal stand. It was the adults around
them who seemed shattered by the magnitude of the high schoolers'
accomplishments. As Reiter's dad, Doug, one of seven wrestling
brothers, cried in a corner, his son's coach, Ray Fox, sat
slumped on the bleachers, his hands trembling. "I feel like I did
when I won it, in 1977," said Fox. "Your feet don't even touch
the ground. I don't think most professional athletes ever feel
this. I won't sleep. Mack won't either. But that's O.K. because
tomorrow he gets the day off."

Si.com
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COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES WINNER TAKE ALL Centerville's T.J. Sebolt was a champ at 103. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES LORDS OF THE RING Last year the four-day tournament in Veterans Memorial Auditorium featured 672 state qualifiers and drew 89,000 fans. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES PINS AND NEEDLES As wrestlers such as Humboldt High's Tommy Christiansen (top) and Vinton-Shellsburg's Joel Neve grapple for glory, rabid fans hang on their every move.

"Most eighth-place winners in this tournament would probably win
in, say, Michigan," Grove says, "but they'd prefer to get eighth
here."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)