Inside the Rivalry Chapter 4: Zach McKray (Iowa City High) vs. Mitch Mueller (CR Kennedy/Iowa City West)

By Joshua Swafford for The Predicament

Mitch Mueller

Zach McKray

Ashten Richardson vs. Jody Vedepo

Jake Halverson vs. Kyle Anson

Brad Stockton vs. Anthony Watson

Jake Halverson vs. Cody Smith

Josh Shalla vs. Anthony Watson

James Ferentz vs. Ben Schott

Derek St. John vs. Colton Smith

MARK REILAND VS. BRAD SMITH!!!

Everyone catching my drift? The set of names above is a list of Iowa City West and Iowa City High wrestlers who all ended up at the same weight in the same year and battled each other. These guys battled not only for Conference, District and State Championships, but battled to see who was the best man at their weight in their own city... for sometimes that was up for debate even when that particular city was the home of an elite caliber wrestler, it wasn't a given that they didn't have competition in their own back yard. These guys are from the same city, but different school and if you look at that list of names/match-ups, something sticks out.... Something is missing....You can't talk about the Iowa City High vs. Iowa City West rivalry without mentioning Mitch Mueller of Iowa City West vs. Zach McKray of Iowa City High.

When you accumulate all of the times that Mueller and McKray wrestled each other, the results were rather lopsided. They both wrestled so much that they both have no idea how many times they actually wrestled as juniors and seniors. And Mueller won all, but one... sometimes by staggering margins. The only time McKray beat Mueller was in the semifinals at state when they were seniors. They met quite a few times before that when the stakes were extremely high, including a Mitch Mueller victory in the state finals when they were juniors.  This match-up was a classic case of someone repeatedly having the upper hand against someone who made gradual gains and eventually closed the gap to the point where the roles were reversed in a high-intensity situation. And McKray pulled through on his last chance to do so.

It's important to note that in their corners when they met up as juniors and seniors, were coaches who both happened to be NCAA Champions for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Mitch Mueller was coached by Mark Reiland of Iowa City West and McKray was coached by Brad Smith at Iowa City High. So not only was this a clash of very good wrestlers from opposing intra-city schools, but it was between two of Iowa's wrestling legends, considering who was occupying the seats in their corners.

2005 was an exciting year in wrestling in every class and a lot of this can be attributed to how talented that particular grade was.  The 2005 Seniors were top-notch.

In 1A, Ryan Morningstar of Lisbon won his third title at 1A 152. He went on to wrestle for the Hawkeyes and is now an assistant coach for them.  David O'Laughlin of Gilbertville Don Bosco denied Patrick Makey of Logan Magnolia of his third title when he defeated him in the finals. Mark Kist was dominant. Daniel Leclere won his fourth title and received the coveted two standing ovations.

In 2A, TJ Sebolt won his third of four state titles and looked dominant in doing so. Laramie Shaffer (Winterset) , Tyler Halverson (Cherokee Washington), Pat McCaffery (Centerville), Nick Pickerell (Albia), Luke Satern (Humboldt),  Travis Eggers (MFL Marmac), Justin Kerber (Emmetsburg) Micah Keller (Mediapolis), Brett Hakeman (Union Laporte City), Chad Beatty (Wilton), Joe Curran (Bishop Heelan), Ben Lehman (Independence) and Mike Zimmerly (Independence) all won 2A state titles.

In 3A, Jay Borschel of Linn Mar stole the show by winning his fourth state title at 3A 171. And to think he started out as a freshman at 103. He was almost twice that size by the time he was a senior and obviously excelled at wrestling at every weight range and every level, for he became an NCAA Champion for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Jimmy Waters of Lewis Central won his first of, I believe, three titles as a sophomore. There was a lot of hype about him wrestling D1, but chose to play baseball in college instead. Matt Ballweg of Waverly Shellrock was Matt Ballweg. Dominant. Future NCAA runner-up for the Hawkeyes and former teammate of Mitch Mueller, Joey Slaton of Cedar Rapids Kennedy won his second state title as a senior that year. Future NCAA runner up for the Hawkeyes, Montel Marion of Valley West Des Moines, won his first title as a junior...the two previous years, he had been beaten in the finals by Derek Moyer of Oskaloosa, brother of Dominick. Russell Weakley of Fort Madison won his 2nd title. In one of the most anticipated match-ups of the tournament, Mark Ballweg of Waverly Shellrick defeated Nate Moore of Iowa City West.  A battle of two highly touted freshmen at 103 lbs who, I believe, went back and forth with each other.

The Class of 2005 was one of the best senior Classes in the history of Iowa high school wrestling. As mentioned, this class included Zach McKray and Mitch Mueller...the stars of this article.

Zach McKray finished his career with a record of 138-32. He qualified for state as a freshman and sophomore, placed 2nd as junior and was a state champion as a senior in 2005. Zach McKray was successful from a young age, racking up a variety of state and national folkstyle and freestyle titles. He wrestled at college for Wartburg and was an All-American as a freshman and a D III runner up as a senior. He cites Brad Smith as being his most influential coach. He was also coached in club wrestling by Pablo Ubasa and Eric Akin. His favorite two wrestling memories included winning a state title and contributing to a state team title. The wrestler he describes as being the most influential to him is Dan Gable.  He describes his wrestling style as always being on the offense. Zach is an avid Iowa Hawkeyes fan and was exclusively a wrestler and did so all year round. He hit the freestyle circuit hard. Zach stated his main hobby these days is running with his dog.

Mitch Mueller was a very exciting wrestler to watch. He received a lot of respect and was discussed in a very high regard amongst wrestling fans due to his aggressive style that consisted of a variety of "go-to" moves. I specifically remember him being one of my dad's favorite wrestlers in that age group. I remember helping out at a West Burlington wrestling tournament and my dad pulled me aside and said, "Watch this kid wrestle. My favorite youth wrestler in the state right now. I love his style. His name is Mitch Mueller, an 8th grader." I looked at who he was pointing to and saw that he was wrestling against a kid with a reputation of being a stud in the Southeast region of the state. Mueller outside-carried this kid to his back and pinned him in 0:20 seconds. I had never seen the Southeast Iowa kid overhauled like that and I immediately understood what my dad was talking about. My dad had seen him at some Future Hawkeye club practices that my brother, Justin had attended.  With that said, Mueller was successful from a young age as well, racking up his share of big tourney titles. In high school he placed 3rd, 3rd, 1st and 3rd. He finished with a record of 177-7. He was unsure of the amount of wins he tallied up, but was absolutely sure that he had seven losses. He wrestled for Cedar Rapids Kennedy as a freshman and sophomore and for Iowa City West as a junior and senior.  Mueller wrestled for the Iowa State Cyclones and did very well there, although one of his worst wrestling memories was making it to the round of twelve at nationals and being beaten in OT to be eliminated. That loss stung, as well as a loss he took his sophomore year in high school in which he was headlocked and pinned...a major upset of the tournament.

Some of his other notable rivals were guys that he wrestled with in practice. This included guys like Kyle Anson, Jay Borschel, Joe Slaton, TJ Sebolt and...Zach McKray. When asked to describe his wrestling style, the wise beyond his years Mueller stated, "It always evolves as you move through the stages (youth, highschool, college) but scoring points and takedowns and staying more aggressive/offensive than defensive. I wanted to take a guy down whenever I wanted to and be able to defend when I needed to."

Mitch is a big fan of baseball and an avid fan of the Iowa State Cyclones, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Chiefs. When asked about his current hobbies, Mitch replied, "Currently it’s everything Avengers thanks to my son but that changes every 5 minutes with him. Traveling and experiencing new things and places. Anything that has to do with boating."

So now that we know some of their background information, let's get to know these two competitors as people and how they approach their series of matches with each other.

Zach McKray:

"Mitch Mueller and I knew each other through working out together and through working at Carew Landscaping together for a summer. I have a lot of respect for him as a person and as a wrestler.  Mueller and I had some very tough matches. We wrestled several times, with me only winning the last match, which was in the state semifinals our senior year. We wrestled a bit in the practice room growing up as well. While our matches were tough, I didn't feel the scoreboard indicated it as such at times. I felt the matches were closer than the scoreboard at times. Looking back, I was maybe outclassed a bit my junior year. Although I was beaten handily by him at times, I always felt confident when I wrestled him. I always had confidence in myself and my abilities.  I met him in the state finals that year. I felt like I was starting to close the gap after we had a very close match at Conference our Senior year. That's when I felt like I was gaining some steam. The match I won in the semifinals was by a score of 2-1. I scored a reversal in the waning seconds of the match. My game plan against Mueller evolved as we met up. It went from staying on my offense, to trying to stay as offensive as possible withouth letting the match get out of hand early in the match, which it did at times.  While the losses I took against Mueller and other opponents hurt, they were easier to deal with when I knew I had given it all on the mat. Losses were more difficult to stomach if I felt like I left points on the board. After defeating Mitch in the semis and going on to win state, I felt proud and had a great sense that all the hard work that I had put in had all been worth it and it paid off."

"If I were to give any advice to the wrestling youngsters out there, I would say enjoy wrestling while it lasts, for it's gone sooner than you realize. If I were to take one thing back about my high school career, it'd be putting more time in the off season, and trying to make the most of the four years of high school wrestling that I had.  My experience(s) with wrestling have been good and valuable for in life, I am hard working at my job and pay close attention to detail. I attribute this to wrestling."

When asked if there is any chance of seeing a rematch between he and Mitch and an old-timers tournament, McKray said:  "Yes, as long as I can make the weight!"

Mitch Mueller:

"Zach and I had wrestled in practice numerous time and been around each other for years with youth wrestling. So we both knew of each other and we both knew that we both had to be ready to go for our matches against each other. Growing up wrestling at a young age and throughout your career you form a competitive but respectful relationship. He is great person and competitor on and off the mat. My dad would always say be enemies on the mat but friends off of that mat. A lot of coaches will say leave whatever is happening off the mat off the mat.  Zach is a great person and tough competitor and I had a big respect of that person/rivalry. He was tough and wrestled hard against me every single time. Rivalries are good in many ways to keep you hungry and focused. At the same time you want to beat that person but you have a underlying respect knowing they work hard and suffer/sacrifice just like you which is what is great about the sport of wrestling."

"Zach and I actually used to wrestle in practice quite often with the Hawkeye Kids Wrestling Club that was run by Pablo Ubasa. We were one of the first in his club and it was run in Carver wrestling room. In competition we were never in the same weight up until high school.  First time we crossed paths was junior year in high school and mind you this is going on thirteen years or more, so trying to recall all the matches is tough.The game plan had always been the same regardless of who it was and that was to score points. Take him down, ride him out, escape and take him down again. We wrestled probably close to 7-8 times within those two years with him winning the most important our senior year in the state semis. I had beaten him previously every time (including state finales junior year). I do remember our matches senior year being closer and closer which after you wrestle someone that much it’s going to happen. I was very confident in the sense I had never lost to him but at the same time I knew our matches had been closer and closer due to the amount of times we had wrestled each other in that short period of time and he was closing the gap on me. So I knew it was going to be a fight and I had to be ready to go. I was confident, but would never take Zach lightly, regardless of past outcomes. I had nerves when I wrestled Zach, but then again, I can’t remember a wrestling match I wasn’t nervous in. Whether it was someone I had always beaten or someone I had never beaten. Being nervous isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It keeps you ready and on your toes and not complacent. In our last match being the state semis our senior year I might have been too nervous and uptight which caused me to lose and not wrestle how I should have which is scoring points and not hanging on to win. Aside from my 2-1 loss in the state semis, I’d say the next closest match we had was the conference finals in which I won by a few points but it was close with both of us going at it throughout the entire match.  I had a lot of respect for his wrestling skills. We were both brought up in the state of Iowa with wrestling and at that a young age the Iowa wrestling room specifically and around/coached by legends of the sport. So those skill sets we observed first hand and made us both competitors."

"When I would defeat Zach, I felt good, but not satisfied.  When I lost any match, I would become angry and more motivated. You are either spreading the gap between you and your opponent and/or chasing down the guy in front of you or they are catching up to you and/or spreading the gap. With wrestling, to be successful, working hard is mandatory. So I wrestled all year round for the most part. Once folkstyle ended I was at practice the next week doing freestyle till my last match at nationals. Then I took a short break then back to the grind again and then repeated the cycle. The best moments I had in my career were the ones where I felt as low as you can be, but I was able to pull myself out of the muck and come back stronger. Some examples:  Not winning kids state to winning school boy freestyle nationals, not winning state senior year to winning Junior freestyle nationals, dislocating my elbow three weeks before NCAAs to coming back and qualifying to wrestle at NCAAS with one arm.  I was very, very happy to bounce back and win Junior Nationals as a senior after not winning state."

"I have a lot of respect for everyone who coached/helped me. They all brought something different that I would hang on to. In high school I was coached by Mark Reiland at Iowa City West and prior Dennis Hynek at Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Both were great coaches for me. Reiland would coach me through the entire year with freestyle tournaments and I can’t thank him enough for being there for the ups and downs. Pablo Ubasa was definitely in my youth development, the most influential. In college I was fortunate to be coached by Bobby Douglas, Chris Bono, Cael/Cody Sanderson and Kevin Jackson, all of which are household names in the sport and very good coaches. I also received a lot of help from some assistant coaches Dylan Long, Nate Gallick, Dwight Henson and Zach Roberson and a few others I’m probably missing. I was always a big fan of Cael Sanderson and Dan Gable. After college wrestling I became a fan of Jordan Burroughs who I had to wrestle my sophomore year in Duals and the Big 12 finals. I am still a big fan of him and glad to know that no one else in the world can stop his double leg. I have some current HS wrestlers I kind of pull for. I helped coached Ankeny youth club with Topher Ewing for five years so my favorites are any and all of the kids I was fortunate to help coach in that time period. Most are in high school now or just about to be. Great kids and parents."

"If I could change one thing about my wrestling career, it would be to go back and tell myself that in certain matches (ones I lost mainly) to maintain my focus. I think the outcomes would be different. In short, I’d smirk and wrestle my butt off and let the chips land where they land. To me wrestling has shown me, maybe even subconsciously, how to deal with daily adversity/challenges and keep going forward. Being hungry whether that be on the mat, school, work or playing a game I always want to win as cliché as that sounds its true.   Wrestling has shaped me as a person to this day, for to me its shown me, maybe even subconsciously, how to deal with daily adversity/challenges and keep moving  forward. I am always hungry for success, whether that be on the mat, school, work or playing a game. I always want to win, as cliché as that sounds, it's true.

When asked if there is a possibility of seeing a McKray vs. Mueller rematch at an old man's tournament, Mitch replied, "I’m full dad bod now so definitely not. My matches now consist of me chasing my 3 year old around."