OTTUMWA — What do you do when you've accomplished something less than 30 people have ever achieved?
Matthew Lewis simply sat back and enjoyed his first night as a four-time state wrestling champion, receiving congratulations both in person from his peers at the Iowa High School State Wrestling meet back in February and from those sending their congratulatory messages to his phone. Perhaps the achievement was still sinking in for Lewis, who became the 29th Iowa high school wrestler to win four state titles in four years after edging Osage sophomore Nick Fox, 3-2, in a thrilling 145-pound Class 2A state championship match.
"It's a huge honor looking around when your up on that podium and getting that standing ovation for accomplishing something like this," Lewis said after winning his fourth straight state title. "Having everyone come up and telling me that I did a good job is a huge honor. I'm just so thankful.
"I'm going to miss this place. It'll always have a warm spot in my heart. It's been a honor to come up here each year and get the chance to compete against the best."
Lewis was one of several athletes that achieved the ultimate championship greatness in 2021, joining T.J. Sebolt as Centerville's second high school wrestler to win four state championships. Just a few months later, an entire team of wrestlers would return to Appanoose County as national champions as the Indian Hills women's wrestling program brought home the Junior College National Tournament team title from Oregon.
"I'm not sure a lot of people even knew who Indian Hills was when we got out there for the national tournament," Cole Spree said after bringing a national championship home to close out the first year of competition for both the IHCC wrestling program. "When you start a program, you never know what to really expect. We set goals on getting a few girls at the start to join the program, then it became five girls, then 10 girls.
"There were a lot of questions going into the year. Can we fill a line-up? Are we even going to be able to compete? As coaches, none of us had ever coached on the women's side. We know how to coach wrestling and we know how to manage athletes. To put it all together, go out and win a national title is still pretty crazy."
In the first year as a program, the IHCC men and IHCC women combined to produce 17 All-American wrestlers and a pair of top-eight finishes with the Warrior men placing eighth at the NJCAA Division I national tournament to close out the program's inaugural year. Heading into 2022, both Warrior wrestling teams are currently ranked in the top five nationally each with high hopes of contending for national championships in 2022.
"To have the type of success we had as a program in its first year with everything we had to go through with COVID-19, it's crazy that we were able to achieve what we achieved last year," Spree said. "I was always confident we would have success, but I'm not sure any of us expected that we'd be having success at this level this quickly. It's been amazing, but it's been a lot of fun so far."
The national championship won by the women's wrestling program was the highlight of what truly was the most unique year the Indian Hills athletic department has ever been a part of. In 2021, IHCC started and completed two separate volleyball, men's soccer and women's soccer seasons with the 2020 campaigns being pushed back to the spring due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The IHCC volleyball team saw each season finishing within a set of a national tournament berth, falling in five-set Midwest District finals to Missouri State-West Plains both in Ottumwa in May and down in Missouri this past November. The IHCC women's soccer team combined to win 30 of 36 matches over those two seasons, following up the program's first trip to a national tournament in the spring with the winningest season in program history as the Warriors went 18-2, falling one goal short of a regional title and a second straight national tournament berth.
"It's been draining on them, but they did what we needed," Indian Hills head women's soccer coach Anthony Longo said of his Warrior players, many of whom were part of all 36 matches in the two seasons played during the past calendar year. "This class has earned everything they've accomplished."
The unusual nature of the 2020-21 Indian Hills sports season including almost every athletic team competing throughout the winter and spring, leading to some busy days on the campus with multiple games being played inside a mostly-empty Hellyer Student Life Center due to a restriction on fan attendance. It also forced for a unique men's basketball season as the Warriors played every Iowa Community College Athletic Conference team home and away during the regular season, ultimately ending with IHCC sweeping both the regional season and postseason regional championships.
"It's the biggest accomplishment we achieved all season," IHCC guard and Ankeny native Braxton Bayless said. "I'm happy. I like this. Winning something like this is fun."
It wasn't just current IHCC athletes that achieved greatness in 2021. Half a world away, Kenny Bednarek made the Warriors proud becoming the first Indian Hills graduate to win an Olympic medal after capturing the silver in the men's 200-meter dash at the Summer Games in Tokyo.
"Never before has an American track and field athlete gone straight from junior college to the pros, let alone to the Olympics and the Olympic podium," said IHCC head track and field coach Brett Ewing. "It's a true testament to Kenny's vision and his ability to have the mental and emotional strength as a young man to take the path less traveled and still not lose sight of his goals. I'm proud to say Indian Hills played a role in helping him get to this point. I'll never forget the moments we shared during his time here as a student-athlete."
Besides the success on the wrestling mats in Centerville, baseball brought plenty glory as both the IHCC Warrior and Centerville Big Red baseball teams made deep postseason runs through the spring and the summer. Matthew Torrez guided Indian Hills to a regional championship win over fifth-ranked Iowa Western, a district championship win over top-ranked Wabash Valley and a victory over third-ranked Crowder to open the first JUCO World Series appearance for the Warriors in 17 years.
“I think the kids really had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder to go out and earn some respect for the program,” Torrez said after leading the Warriors to a 44-16 record this past spring. “They know they've really started to put Indian Hills back on the map, and I feel like they've done a great job of it.”
Already on the map with three state tournament appearances in the past four years, the Centerville Big Reds came alive in the second half of the 2021 high school baseball season to win the program's fourth substate title in five years joining South Central Conference rival Davis County in the Class 2A state tournament this past July in Carroll. Van Meter would ultimately end the state championship hopes of both area squads, holding off the Cinderella Mustangs 8-7 in the state quarterfinals before scoring nine runs in the final three innings to rally for a 10-2 state championship win over a Big Red squad that needed eight innings the previous night to overcome Camanche, 12-11, in the state semifinals.
"This senior group, I already told them I don't know how many little kids I had when I was walking through after the lineup exchange telling me how they were excited to be Big Reds and as a coach you realize that's because of these players," Centerville head baseball coach Ryan Hodges said. "It's because of the tradition they built and Centerville baseball, obviously Bill Huisman built something really special and we've continued it.
"This group of seniors have done something that no other Big Red baseball team has done."
The long, successful summer of baseball would see the Ottumwa Bulldogs return to the Class 4A state tournament for the first time since 2006. Ottumwa punched its ticket to state in dramatic fashion, winning a 2-1 substate championship thriller over Iowa City High celebrating in front of an enthusiastic home crowd at Legion Memorial Field.
"There's nothing better than this," Ottumwa infielder Adam Greiner said. "It was an incredible crowd. The whole community came out here to support us. They're all behind us."
Much of that same community support helped lift the Ottumwa 14-year-old Babe Ruth baseball team into the World Series semifinals, highlighting the second World Series to be hosted by the City of Bridges. Ultimately, the championship would be won in dramatic fashion as Bridgewater, New Jersey walked off with a 6-5 win in eight innings over Tallahassee/Leon, Florida as Brad Sweet was hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a wild pitch, stole third base on a pickoff attempt and came sliding across home plate on a sacrifice fly to left center by Mike Lentini.
"We always try to put the ball in play and put the pressure on teams to make plays," Bridgewater manager Eric Schnepf said. "We're not the biggest team. We're not going to be hitting baseballs out of the yard. We're going to get guys on, hopefully get them over and get them in. That's been our mantra all season long. That's how we've been successful throughout this year."
Cale Leonard would bring home his own thrilling championship this past fall, rallying late in the final round of the Class 4A Iowa High School boys state golf tournament becoming Ottumwa's first state champion golfer since two-time champ Matthew Walker. Trailing by a shot with three holes to go, Leonard got up and down out of the trees on his 16th hole of the final round, the par-5 seventh at Beaver Hills Country Club, to sink a tying birdie putt before taking the lead for good with a tee shot on the par-3 eighth that left Leonard with a five-foot putt for a go-ahead birdie.
"There's a ton of good players here. You have to play well just to get here," Leonard said. "To do it with this pressure and with all the guys that had a chance going into the day, it means a lot. This is right at the top of the list of accomplishments and tournaments that I've won."
Both Steve and Gina Leonard were right there along all 36 holes their son played on Friday and Saturday on the way to becoming a state champion. It's been a familiar sight for Leonard, who started out finding success on the golf course from an early age.
"He played his first tournament when he was 5-years-old playing at the State Pee-Wee tournament in Grinnell. He won that tournament. It's been one of many wins in his career," Steve Leonard said. "He just keeps grinding. The last three holes were awfully nerve-racking, but it was the last three holes that made the difference for the whole tournament."
Leonard's championship was the second state title won in the Cedar Valley by Ottumwa athletes during the past year. Just six months earlier, less than 20 miles southeast of Beaver Hills Country Club, the Ottumwa girls bowling team rallied past Cedar Rapids Jefferson in the baker rounds to win the Class 3A Iowa High School state bowling tournament at Cadillac XBC in Waterloo, surging past the J-Hawks in the second baker game to post a 247 before putting away the program's seventh sanctioned state team title, topping 3,000 for the first time during the season.
"You have to be blessed whenever you can be standing here after winning a state championship," Ottumwa head girls bowling coach Doug Techel said. "To have the support from the Ottumwa fans and the high school. It doesn't get any better. To win something like this, you have to bowl good. It's a one-day deal and we did it."
The Bulldogs finished with a final team score of 3,076, beating out Jefferson by 56 pins with a meet-best 1,029 baker series score. Zoe Seamans, Olivia Pilcher and Randi O'Leary all earned all-state medals after placing in the top 10 individually with Seamans finishing as the state runner-up with a 455 two-game series total.
Other Ottumwa High School athletic highlights included a 16-win season for the boys basketball team, cracking the top 10 in the Class 4A rankings for the first time in over a decade. Kevin Kretz, Leah Chelgren, Libby Moses, Ava Johnson and Mac Payne also made history in the pool with four combined OHS swimming records with Kretz setting the school and pool records in the boys 50-meter freestyle while Chelgren, Moses, Johnson and Payne broke the girls 200 medley relay mark and tied the 200 free relay record this past fall.
Perhaps the biggest news made by Ottumwa was the news that the school will leaving the Central Iowa Metropolitan League following the current school year. Ottumwa will be joining a brand-new 11-school Iowa Alliance Conference starting with the 2021-22 calendar year.
"I think what drove the (initial) discussion is that the conference is very conducive to our needs," Ottumwa superintendent Mike McGrory said. "I think, at some point, the feeling is we would break away anyway, so why put that off? Each of the other schools districts will be discussing it with their board members and, eventually, we will be doing a resolution if the board decides they want to move forward with this."
According to Ottumwa athletic director Scott Maas, discussions had been ongoing for "the last couple of years" with coaches, administrators and community members about whether Ottumwa is still a good fit for the CIML. The realignment discussion, according to Maas, brought those discussion to a head.
"Ottumwa's had it pretty good being in the CIML for a lot of year being in the Metro with the public schools. We only play the suburban schools once in a while in various things, but not on a regular basis," Maas said. "The realignment would (have) put us in position to play a basketball round-robin with everybody, so our basketball schedule would be more difficult than it is now.
"It's just a matter of where we think Ottumwa fits the best."