Prairie's Blaha, St. John push each other to state finals
DES MOINES – Cedar Rapids Prairie seniors Trey Blaha and Skyler St. John have imagined wrestling in the state finals together.
All of the sweat spilled drilling, shooting takedowns, running sprints and battling each other in practice the last four years led to that vision becoming a reality.
In a fitting moment that seemed to define their friend, they achieved one of their top goals on adjacent mats within moments of each other. They even had the exact same scores. With 5-1 victories Blaha and St. John advanced to the finals of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Class 3A state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena.
The two exchanged a high-five and St. John offered a "Nice job, Dude" as Blaha passed.
"He's been my workout partner since day one," St. John said of Blaha. "We're friends outside the room. We're enemies inside the room."
Prairie Coach Blake Williams said they have propelled each other to this point, helping the other overturn disappointing close semifinal losses at last year's state tournament.
"When you watch those two go at it in the practice room, it's no holds barred," Williams said. Others stop and watch them. They are all out across the room and in the wall."
Williams went right from Blaha's corner to watching St. John from matside. It was a perfect scenario for both.
"All our coaches know our styles, and that's what's nice," Blaha said. "It's nice to have a good workout partner like Skyler in the room. We push each other and make each other better. This is where it shows."
Third-ranked St. John (44-3) beat Mason City's No. 4 Andy Bartel in the 160-pound semifinal, a little more than a week recording a late come-from-behind pin at a regional dual. He scored the opening takedown, riding Bartel most of the match and adding an escape and takedown in the third.
"I performed strong," St. John said. "I just wrestled my match."
It soothed the sting from last year's state meet that resulted in a medal but included the tough semifinal loss after illness forced him to brief hospital stay.
"The loss hurt a lot," St. John said. "I didn't do what I wanted. I really pushed it."
Blaha (39-10) beat Lewis Central's fourth-ranked Ethan Ruby in the 152 semifinals.
"It feels great to get over that hump," No. 5-rated Blaha said. "I feel great right now. (Right after the match) I thought, 'All the hard work is finally starting to pay off.' I haven't maybe won some of the close matches this year, so it's nice to finally start doing that. I'm peaking at the right time."
Blaha was able to score the first takedown and never trailed. The early lead allowed him to dictate the pace of the bout.
"I just wanted to stay in my offense, because that's my best defense. That's what we teach. I just needed to keep at it."
Williams saw a different wrestler than a year ago when his excitement led to exhaustion. Williams said he saw a lot of determination.
"He was so close last year to getting to the finals and lost a heartbreaker (in the semifinals)," Williams said. "You could just see the confidence. He was relaxed and he wrestled a great match. He wrestled his match, and it was good to see for him."
Linn-Mar also pushed two to the semifinals. Top-ranked Alijah Jeffery (120) and third-ranked Andrew Holladay at 195 will make their championship debut.
Holladay (39-4) topped Davenport North's No. 9 Jordan Trowers, 8-5, in the semifinal after a quarterfinal fall. Holladay was in the Grand March a year ago but this year he will be competing after it.
"It's a lot of fun," Holladay said. "It's a great atmosphere."
After his win, he slightly flipped his ankle bands in the air and reaped the rewards of his effort.
"Just finally made it," Holladay said about the thoughts rushing through his mind. "Hard work is paying off."
Holladay is tough on top and locked up a cradle in a wild final period. The move gave him a cushion, allowing him to wrestle intelligently late.
"It was huge," Holladay said.
Jeffery has been a state meet regular but forged his way to the finals for the first time. He will try to add a title to two third-place finishes and a fifth last season.
Jeffery battled Southeast Polk's second-ranked Nolan Hellickson to a 1-1 tie through regulation, posting a 2-1 win in tiebreaker overtime. Jeffery relied on his patented power-half ride to control Hellickson for the first 30-second tiebreaker period and escape in the next, improving to 40-0.
Teammates Damon Griffin (126) and top-ranked 152-Ross Lembeck fell short in their bouts. Griffin fell 5-0 to Mason City's Kaz Onoo. Lembeck led the majority of the match, but surrendered an escape and takedown in the third, losing 4-3 to Pleasant Valley's No. 3 Travis Willers.
Lembeck fell to 17-1, but earned his fourth state medal, as did Griffin (37-7).
The Lions were in fourth with 73 ½ points, leading fifth-place Prairie by 6 ½. Bettendorf leads with 142 points. Defending state champion Southeast Polk is second with 129, which is 11 ½ ahead of third-place Waverly-Shell Rock.
Cedar Rapids Xavier's Clint Lembeck (132) and Nick Drahozal at 145 secured top-six finishes, but fell I the semifinals. West Des Moines Valley state champ Jake Koethe pinned Lembeck (43-5) in 1:26. Third-ranked Drahozal dropped a 2-1 decision to Southeast Polk's No. 2 Briar Dittmer.
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