Lions Roar in Opening Round

By KJ Pilcher, Reporter

Linn-Mar's Mark Atwater grabs Fort Dodge's Michael Licht in their 182-pound first round bout at the state wresting tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, in Des Moines. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By James Steward

DES MOINES — The Linn-Mar Lions weren’t perfect, but boy, were they close.

Reversing the disappointing performance the opening day last year, Linn-Mar rolled in the first round of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Class 3A State wrestling tournament Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena. The Lions advanced eight to the quarterfinals and kept all nine qualifiers alive to hold second place in the team standings with 27 points and trailing Bettendorf by seven.

Matt Wempen ignited the Lions, scoring a 6-4 decision over Southeast Polk’s Aaron Meyer at 106. The fourth-ranked freshman is well aware of Linn-Mar’s rich tradition of top-performing lightweights, including Jay Borschel, Matt McDonough, Wes Shetterly, current 113-pounder Alijah Jeffery and 145-pounder Joel Northrup …

The ninth-grader knows the names, but the one he cares about most is his.

“I want to stay focused on my matches and not worry about that so much,” said Wempen, who edged Southeast Polk’s Aaron Meyer in a first-round state tournament bout Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena. “I try to do the best I can for myself and not necessarily to continue to tradition. Do it for myself, my team and my family.”

Wempen (45-2) holds the No. 4 ranking in his weight class according to The Predicament.

Northrup — a junior who placed third at 103 as a freshman before Jeffery was third last year — said Wempen shows promise.

“He’s been great this season,” Northrup said. “He worked real hard in the offseason. I think he has a good shot to win it this year.”

Wempen said anxiety made a brief appearance in his first match at state, but dissipated quickly.

“To be honest, I was pretty nervous going in there, but I was able to score a couple takedowns,” Wempen said. “Stayed in pretty good position for the most part, except for the one takedown.”

Northrup (42-5) wasn’t as anxious as he was a year ago. He attracted national attention when he refused to wrestle Cedar Falls’ Cassy Herkelman, the state’s first female individual state tournament qualifier, defaulting the first-round match due to personal convictions. He took the same mat of his historical default, but without the media attention this time.

“It was definitely nice,” said Northrup, who failed to place in 2011. “I can do quite a bit better than last year.

Northrup dominated Burlington’s Damone Manning, 9-1. He scored a second-period takedown and two nearfall points as the period expired to break open the match. He has anticipated this chance since a year ago.

“Last year motivated me,” Northrup said. “I’ve been working all year for this moment.”

The Lions continued to win and win big. Damon Griffin (120), 182-pounder Mark Atwater and A.J. Garcia at 220 all won by fall. Jeffery (42-5) and 2011 state medalist Mitch Wantock (170) added major decisions for Linn-Mar.

Cedar Rapids Prairie and Iowa City West matched Linn-Mar with nine qualifiers, but the Trojans pushed six into Friday’s quarterfinals while the Hawks had five.

Third-ranked West won six of its first seven matches, including pins from former state champions Phillip Laux (113) and Jack Hathaway (126) and top-ranked Justin Koethe at 160.

Koethe needed little time to advance while Gradey Gambrall punched his ticket with little time left.

Koethe (51-1) pinned Fort Dodge’s ninth-ranked Duke Egli in 11 seconds, tying Laurens-Marathon’s Joe Ahlers with the sixth-fastest pin in state tournament history. It’s nothing new for Koethe, who has the second-fastest pin scoring a seven-second fall in a 2010.

“I have butterflies. It seems like when the butterflies stop that’s when things go wrong,” said Koethe, a three-time placewinner who has lost winners bracket matches the last two years by disqualification for illegal slams. “I’m just trying to get them over with as quick as I can.”

Gambrall (38-11) was locked into a 1-1 tie with Davenport North’s Kenry Trowers late in the third. Gambrall shot and earned the winning takedown as time expired. He said he saw the referee blow the whistle, and believed it was correct to award the winning points.

“I get a lot of those matches here. I’ve never won by more than a decision,” said Gambrall, a 2010 state finalist. ““I just knew I had to score. I didn’t want to go into overtime.”

Second-ranked Hathaway (47-3) pinned Cedar Rapids Washington’s Jordin Eicher in 1:02, setting up a quarterfinal match with Southeast Polk’s top-ranked Cory Clark (43-1), who is attempting to become Iowa’s 20th four-time state champion. Hathaway handed Clark the only loss of his prep career earlier this season. It’s a championship caliber match early in the tournament.

“There’s a lot that people make a lot about that,” West Coach Mark Reiland said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s first round, second, third, it’s the match. If it’s on Sunday next week and we have to do it we’ll do it then. It doesn’t matter.”

West’s Dakota Bauer (49-2) earned a 15-0 technical fall over Decorah’s Zach Henning at 132 and Ernest Willis blanked Spencer’s Bailey Hawn, 6-0, to advance for the Trojans, who have nine wrestlers left and tied Southeast Polk for fourth with 24.5 points.

Prairie’s Zach Witte (20-0) kept his hopes alive and extended his win streak to 62 straight with a 9-6 decision over Bettendorf’s Drake Chase.

“You’re going to have matches like that. Guys are going to wrestle you different and he’s got a target on his target on his chest,” Prairie Coach Blake Williams said. “He wasn’t at his best. A win is a win here.”

Chris Walters (120) and Trey Blaha (126) beat ranked foes in the first round, following a fall by third-ranked 113-pounder Josh Wenger. Walters (38-3), ranked fourth, topped West Des Moines Valley’s No. 6 Eli Johnson, 9-3. Sixth-ranked Blaha handled No. 8 Chase Helenthal of Keokuk, 6-1. Cameron Rathje also advanced.

“The first three guys did a good job going out there and took control of their matches,” Williams said. “That was nice to see.”

Iowa City High and Western Dubuque each advanced three to the quarterfinals.

Alex Lemus (106), Ryan Maas (195) and 220-pounder Steve Ferentz all won for the Little Hawks. Maas had a pin against Decorah’s Austin Ashbacher.

The Bobcats received wins from Nick Steger (132), 138-pounder Dylan Gansen and Riley Demmer at 195. Steger, ranked seventh, pinned Spencer’s No. 8 Levi Gilmore in 1:52 and faces Valley’s top-ranked Kyle Larson next round.

Cedar Rapids Kennedy won both first-round bouts. No. 4 Luke Kremer (37-5) beat Mason City’s Andrew Bartel, 14-4, at 132. Teammate Ryan Rodriguez (34-12) followed with a 6-2 victory over Southeast Polk’s Briar Dittmer at 138. Rodriguez has second-ranked Connor Ryan of Bettendorf in the quarterfinals.

Cedar Rapids Xavier’s Jack Boland (37-8) moved up from 182 to 195 for the postseason. He moved on, knocking off Oskaloosa’s No. 7 Dane Jones, 5-3.

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