In a way, it was the dawn of today.
The careers of some of the state’s top college wrestlers came to light at the same site they will attempt to add to their accomplishments.
Former Iowa state champions return to the Wells Fargo Arena floor, where they excelled as preps, to face the nation’s top collegiate wrestlers at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Des Moines March 21-23. Competition begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with the finals set for Saturday night.
“I’m excited to get back in my old stomping grounds,” University of Northern Iowa 133-pounder Levi Wolfensperger said. “I won a couple of state titles there, I’m just hoping to do the same.”
The arena served as a start point for select wrestlers to pave their roads to Division I opportunities. Matt McDonough was a four-time state medalist for Linn-Mar High School, winning three state titles at Wells Fargo Arena. The career of University of Iowa’s 125-pound senior has come full circle.
“It’s pretty fun to know that I started my high school success there,” said McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion and three-time national finalist. “I made a name for myself in Wells Fargo Arena in the (Iowa) state wrestling tournament, and I get a chance to go back there one last time in my college career to put on a show.”
McDonough is a quartet of Hawkeyes, who have won individual and team championships at the venue. They will be looking to add to their own total and as nine qualifiers trying to earn Iowa’s first NCAA team title since 2010.
Senior 141-pounder Mark Ballweg, Derek St. John, seeded second at 157, and Nick Moore (165) claimed gold on the Wells Fargo stage. Moore, who is making his NCAA tournament debut, became Iowa’s 19th four-time state champion when he capped his prep career with the 160-pound title in 2010. St. John teamed with Moore, helping Iowa City West to a Class 3A team championship, winning individual titles in 2007 and 2008 at Wells Fargo.
Ballweg was a member of Waverly-Shell Rock state title teams, claiming the 3A 135-pound crown as a senior in Wells Fargo Arena.
Wolfensperger, making his second NCAA appearance, was a two-time state for Denver-Tripoli. He is the lone Iowan of the Panthers’ four national qualifiers.
Iowa State has three former Iowa state champions in the field, including red-shirt freshman Tanner Weatherman and 197-pounder Kyven Gadson. Weatherman (174) was a four-time state finalist for Ballard, winning three 2A state titles. Gadson, the sixth-seed who won a Big 12 championship to qualify, captured the 3A 171-pound title in 2009 and moved up to win at 189 in 2010. They are two of seven Cyclones qualifiers, looking to earn all-America honors after not having one for the first time in 50 years in 2012.
Other programs can boast Iowa state champions as well. Nebraska’s Josh Ihnen (184) and Ridge Kiley (133) won state titles for Sheldon and Eagle Grove, respectively, in 2008. Matt Mougin, a 174-pounder for Northern Illinois, was a 2009 145-pound state champion for Columbus Junction. Even though he was not a state champion, Oklahoma State 141-pounder Julian Feikert wrestled at Wells Fargo Arena for Keokuk High School.
But, they aren’t in high school any more.
“There were certainly good careers,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said about his four Iowan qualifiers. “A lot of good matches wrestled in that building, but it’s down the list. This is a different level. The arena will look different, even though it’s the same building.”
Moore said he hasn’t taken the venue into consideration, focusing on the task ahead. He opens with Iowa State’s Michael Moreno, who was a 2010 171-pound state champion for Urbandale.
“It’s not important to me,” said Moore, the 10th seed. “I have had a lot of great moments in there. it’s time to make new great moments. I just have to take that approach to it.”
Knowledge of Wells Fargo could be a factor with their performance. They know the tunnels and warm-up areas, moving around before and after matches with ease. The relatively friendly confines should provide a sense of comfort.
Ballweg downplayed the influence of competing in a familiar environment, and one where success has been attained.
“It’s just another wrestling tournament,” Ballweg said. “I think if I look at it like that I’ll be more relaxed and more ready to go.”
The atmosphere in a hotbed for wrestling promises to be electric. Many of these wrestlers’ hometowns are within a few hours’ drive of Des Moines. Wrestlers from Iowa will likely attract a huge following, no matter what singlet they are wearing. The energy could help propel a wrestler to a win or strong performance.
“It is going to be filled with a lot of Iowa boys, and whether you are UNI, Iowa or Iowa State it will be filled with a lot of Iowa fans and most likely they will have your back,” Wolfensperger said. “They will be behind you. I’m excited to get that crowd going and feed off their momentum.”
Their history is exactly that – history. Similar results will be tougher to accomplish. The wrestlers representing their home state will have to be better, stronger and tougher than they were when they last took the mat at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Whatever level they were at then they need to go another level higher,” Brands said. “They know that.”
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