DES MOINES —
Ottumwa senior Karsten Van Velsor walked into the second day of his second and final Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament knowing the challenges that stood in front of him.
In order to keep his state championship dream alive Friday, Van Velsor needed two straight wins. Both would have to be against ranked opponents. Both would push Van Velsor to the limit.
Fortunately, Van Velsor’s been pushing himself to get to this point for years.
From a debilitating foot injury that could have easily kept Van Velsor off the mat entirely — to Friday’s 138-pound matchups with top-ranked Waverly-Shell Rock senior Andrew Steiert and fourth-ranked Cedar Rapids Prairie junior Trey Blaha — nothing was going to stop Van Velsor from dancing on the biggest stage in state wrestling.
As a result, the Bulldog 138-pound star will finish his prep career wrestling for a championship after holding on for a 4-2 quarterfinal win over Steiert and an 8-7 victory over Blaha.
“I don’t know what to say,” Van Velsor said after qualifying for the 3A 138 final. “It’s hard work, I guess. I just wrestled hard for six minutes. It’s gotten me this far.
“I’m not done yet. I still have one more match.”
That match will be against Bettendorf’s Jacob Woodard, marking the fourth straight rated opponent for Van Velsor. The second-ranked sophomore beat out third-ranked Iowa City West senior Keegan Wakefield, 5-2, to improve to 37-7 heading into the finals.
Tonight’s championship results won’t do anything to diminish one fantastic comeback story by Van Velsor from an injury suffered two years ago in an automobile accident to the verge of a state wrestling title.
“I never doubted I’d be at this point,” Van Velsor said. “I just kept pushing and kept working to get better from that day forward. It’s kind of hard to believe right now.”
“I’ve pushed a lot of kids over the years, and Karsten is by far right at the top among the elite kids I’ve coached,” Ottumwa head coach Kevin Cochran said. Cochran will be coaching a wrestler in the state finals for the first time since 2006 at Centerville, where he guided Nick Pickrell to a second straight state title and T.J. Sebolt to becoming just the 17th four-time state champion. “He is always mentally prepared. I think that’s what has helped push him to this point thus far.”
Van Velsor’s mentality on Friday never changed. Despite facing two highly-rated rivals, Van Velsor stuck to his game plan of being aggressive and continuing to attack.
“I’ve had most of my success coming right after guys. I wasn’t going to change it now,” Van Velsor said.
Van Velsor used that early aggression to take down Steiert twice, holding down the top-ranked Go-Hawk star for almost five minutes after scoring the second to take a 4-2 lead. Against Blaha, Van Velsor’s aggressiveness nearly cost him, as Blaha took an early lead and nearly scored nearfall points before Van Velsor could escape.
“He does the sorts of things you wouldn’t normally want your wrestler to do as a head coach,” Cochran said. “He can get himself in positions you might not want, but he can always find a way to work out of it.”
Van Velsor took the lead for good with a third-period near fall. Once again, the Bulldog senior rode out a tough win and will look to finish his Ottumwa ride off as a champion tonight.
“These were definitely the biggest wins of my career,” Van Velsor said. “Hopefully, that’s only until tonight.”