DES MOINES —
Championship Saturday night at the Iowa State Wrestling Meet is seen by thousands every year. Those fans each year get to witness dreams coming true and years of hard work paying off for 42 young Iowa athletes.
Of course, there’s another side to the final night of the state wrestling tournament. A side the fans don’t get to witness because that side takes place not in front of crowd, but in the lonely halls of Wells Fargo Arena.
Unfortunately, that was the side five area wrestlers all experienced on this February night in Des Moines. For Ottumwa’s Karsten Van Velsor, Albia’s Shadow Leshen, Centerville’s Riley Denny and the Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont tandem of Blake Marlof and Jason Crosby, it was a night of heartbreaking conclusions as all five young men fell just short of achieving state titles.
And for all five, the night ended with thoughts of what could have been.
“I’m definitely disappointed. I feel like I could have beaten him,” Van Velsor said after falling to Bettendorf’s Jacob Woodard 15-9 in the Class 3A 138-pound final. “I wrestled as hard as could. I thought I had it, but I just couldn’t get the match going the way I wanted it to.”
Van Velsor, who fought his way back to the state tournament for the first time since his freshman season, fought past three ranked rivals — including wins over top-ranked Andrew Steiert and fourth-ranked Trey Blaha — to become Ottumwa’s first state finalist in 45 years. Bulldog head wrestling coach Kevin Cochran could sense there would be something a little different from the early stages of the match as Woodard jumped out to an early 7-1 lead.
“There was just something I didn’t feel was quite there for Karsten that was there on Friday,” Cochran said. “I don’t know if it was nerves or maybe it took too much out of him to get here, but for Karsten to get here in the first place says a lot about the character of this kid.”
The scoreboard proved to be least in favor of the Ottumwa grappler when the end came for all five area wrestlers. Both Crosby and Denny fell by a takedown, or reversal short.
An early takedown did in Crosby, who couldn’t quite recover despite pulling within a point heading into the final period. The EBF senior looked desperately for an equalizing takedown in the final period, but couldn’t find it in a 4-2 loss to unbeaten top-ranked West Marshall senior Kyle Blocker in the 1A 138-pound title match.
“I don’t think I wrestled as well as I could have. I was nervous going out there and that probably had a lot to do with me getting taken down right away,” Crosby said. “It’s disappointing to lose my last match, but I’ll bounce back somehow.”
The loss was hard to swallow for Crosby, a four-year wrestler who had worked his way to finally earning a state championship shot in his final season. It was also tough to take for Crosby’s coach, who saw the lengths Crosby went to in his quest to be a great student athlete.
“Jason hasn’t missed a practice in four years and has a 4.0 grade point average. He’s the kind of kid you’d want your daughter to date,” EBF head coach Brett Little said. “It’s not fair, but it’s life. Nothing in life is fair.”
For Centerville’s Denny, the 2A 195-pound final was a final rematch with top-ranked Kealton Hulett. The two grapplers locked up last Saturday in Knoxville in the district finals, with Hulett scoring a close decision over Denny.
Things were just as tight and tense in Des Moines as the two grapplers engaged in a scoreless battle for almost the entire six minutes. After neither wrestler could score on each other in the opening period, Denny failed to pick up an escape in the second as Hulett kept it 0-0 heading into the final period.
Facing the proposition of having to ride out Hulett to at least force overtime, Denny held on as long as possible. Finally, after several tense rides, Hulett finally scored a reversal with just 12 seconds left to score a 2-0 win.
Unlike his fellow area competitors, however, Denny took comfort in the knowledge that he gave his best effort in his final match.
“It’s definitely disappointing, but I know I wrestled as hard as I ever have,” Denny said. “I left it all out there. It was my last match. I had to.”
“We’ve told Riley from day one that he had to ability to wrestle at this level. It’s just been in the last month I think that it finally clicked in him that he could do this,” Centerville head coach Anthony Whit said. “I think he feels like he exceeded his own expectations. That’s both a good and bad thing. I think he should always have expected to be here.”
Denny and Albia’s Leshen were on two completely different ends of the emotional spectrum by the ends of their matches. While Denny walked away with head held high, Leshen collapsed in tears in the hallways of the arena after losing a second straight state wrestling title match.
This loss was even more heartbreaking for Leshen than the 6-0 setback in the 113-pound final last year to Union’s Max Thomsen. After last year’s 106-pound champ Doug Miner, Leshen spent almost all six minutes of the match on his feet looking for one takedown on the Spirit Lake Park grappler.
Miner used a second period escape to score the only point of the match. Leshen could have chosen to equal the match by trying to escape starting the third period, but instead chose to continue looking for a go-ahead takedown.
“We felt like we’d have a better shot to try and score if Shadow stayed on his feet,” Albia head coach Dave Wenger said. “This is really tough one to take. It’s hard to swallow for all of us. Our expectations were much higher this year.”
“I tried shooting and I got a couple of chances, but I just couldn’t finish it,” Leshen said. “He’s a great defender and a great wrestler. He beat me fair and square.”
For the second straight year, Albia assistant coach Nick Pickrell was left to console his young student and nephew after watching Leshen fall short of joining his uncle as the only state wrestling champs in Albia history. It was a disappointing repeat scenario for after the build up to return to the state finals.
“One time is hard to lose. Two times makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong,” Pickrell said. “It’s almost déjà-vu. We were sitting here 365 days ago sitting in this exact same spot going over what we could have done differently again. We still have one more shot at it. I told Shadow that we’re one point away. I’ve got a kid that’s a foot away from being a state champ. We just have to figure out how we can get that one more point.”
No area wrestler, however, lost in a more of a heartbreaking fashion then Marolf in the 132-pound Class 1A final. Facing unranked Iowa Valley senior Logan Loftus, Marolf dominated the first half of the match, scoring a first period takedown before easily escaping to start the second and scoring a second takedown immediately.
Up 5-0, it appeared Marolf was well on his way to his first state championship. Suddenly, Loftus caught the Rockets’ third-ranked sophomore out of nowhere and put Marolf on his back for a sudden pin that ended the state title dreams that seemed well in hand for the two-year, two-time placewinner.
“I was doing whatever I wanted. I think he just hit a desperation move and it caught me,” Marolf said. “I guess I wasn’t as mentally focused. I overlooked him and it cost me.”
Perhaps nobody summed up this side of this Championship Saturday night at state better than Little when talking about Marolf.
“Wrestling’s a humbling sport. It doesn’t owe you anything,” Little said.