AMES — Jarrett Degen took a leap of faith.
Degen, a four-time state champion from Belgrade, Montana, a town of about 8,000 people located just northwest of Bozeman, was recruited by Mike Zadick to wrestle at Virginia Tech for head coach Kevin Dresser and fellow assistant coach Derek St. John.
Before Degen ever hit the mat for the Hokies, Dresser, Zadick and St. John were pulling up stakes and moving 950 miles west and north to Ames to take over the Iowa State wrestling program.
Degen had never set foot on the Iowa State campus before. For that matter, he hadn't even seen pictures of it and had no idea of the history of the Cyclones' program. All he knew was wherever Dresser, Zadick and St. John went, he was going to follow.
Degen was granted his release from Virginia Tech, packed his things and made the drive to Ames.
It turned out to be the best move Degen has made in his wrestling career.
Degen is the Cyclones' lone qualifier for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which begin Thursday and run through Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
"It's a pretty big opportunity. It's always been my dream to wrestle for a Division I program and my biggest dream is to make it to the NCAA Tournament. It's a dream I've always had, so this is a big opportunity," said Degen, who takes a 20-9 record into his 149-pound first-round match against Nebraska senior Colton McCrystal (21-5), an Iowa native who is the No. 13 seed. "When my coaches at Virginia Tech went to Iowa State, I knew I was going to follow them there. I made the decision without even making a visit. I just love my coaches because they don't try to change my style. I have a unique style compared to everyone else. I do a lot of fun, but they don't really try to change it. They just try to get me to stick to the basics more."
Degen is 5-7 against the field this season, but has not faced McCrystal. He won three of his four matches at the Big 12 Championships two weeks ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, finishing third behind Boo Lewallen of Oklahoma State and Max Thomsen of Northern Iowa. Degen rolled to a 20-5 technical fall over Sam Turner of Wyoming after dropping an 11-5 decision to Thomsen in the semifinals.
"I knew I would be anywhere from a three to a six seed coming in. I had some losses and I ended up as the four seed," Degen said. "I had a good first match, but I made some mistakes against Thomsen, then I came back and beat (Air Force's Dane Robbins) and Turner to get third. I felt pretty good after I beat the Air Force kid. I was sure I was going then. It's a big confidence boost coming in off a win. Leaving the Big 12s with a win has made these last two weeks of practice more fun."
Degen said he started wrestling as a release for pent-up energy he shared with two of his brothers, Lyle and Sawyer. From there it grew into his passion.
"I had two brothers close to my age and there was a bunch of energy in the house," Degen said. "We were always wrestling around. Our Dad (Terry Degen) was a boxer, so there is a lot of competitiveness in all of us."
Degen has found the perfect workout partner in St. John, who has a similar body type — tall and lanky, but deceptively strong — and loves to scramble.
"He's longer and taller like I am, so he understands more the situations I get in during matches," Degen said.
Degen has made an immediate impact for Iowa State, which is in the midst of transitioning from Kevin Jackson to Dresser. Degen is glad to be in on the ground floor of the Cyclones' rebuilding process. He has helped to lay a solid foundation by being the first national qualifier in the Dresser era. Now, he hopes to be the first one on the podium later this week.
"It's nice to be at the ground level with this coaching staff and representing Iowa State at nationals. It means a lot," Degen said. "My goal is to win a national championship. That's everyone's goal. But being an All-American is my main goal. I just have to move my hands and feet together and not make a lot of mistakes, which I am known for. If I can do that, I think I have a pretty good chance."