RUNNELS — Jason Christenson used to daydream back when he was wrestling at Central College in Pella.
Every time he drove by Southeast Polk High School on the way to Des Moines, Christenson used to imagine the day he would one day work and coach wrestling at the school on the southeast outskirts of Des Moines.
One day, Christenson used to tell himself, that is where I want to work. It became his dream job and ultimately his destiny.
Christenson not only fulfilled his dream, he also reached a goal he never in his wildest dreams every thought he would achieve.
Christenson was named the National Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
That wasn’t the only good news the Rams received. In addition, assistant coach Jeff Evans was named the Assistant Coach of the Year for Iowa.
All in all it was a banner day for Christenson, Evans and the Southeast Polk wrestling program, school and community.
“I’m humbled,” Christenson said. “I realize it’s been a lot more than just me that is responsible for anything along the way. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect a lot about my career and everything that has taken place over that span. I think it’s not based just on this year, but more on longevity.
“This is really about a lot more people than just me. This is for the kids, the parent, the community support and all the assistant coaches I’ve had. I think most of us have been together since like 2007-08. This is more a credit to them than anything I have done.”
Christenson grew up in a wrestling family. His father, Dennis, coached wrestling for many years at Belle Plaine and Anamosa, which is where Jason Christenson developed a passion for the sport.
After graduating from Central College, Christenson landed his first head wrestling coach job at Collins-Maxwell-Baxter. He inherited a team which had just seven varsity wrestlers. To make matters worse, there were only three wrestlers on the junior high team.
Christenson did the only thing he knew how to do — he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
“I decided the best thing for me to do was to do it all,” Christenson said. “I would go in and coach the junior high kids before school. Then after school we had high school practice. When that was done I coached the kids club. I leaned on my Dad a lot and I was on the phone with a lot of coaches. I shed a few tears on the phone more than once.”
Christenson’s teams at CMB went a combined 9-37 in his first five years, then turned the corner with a 14-2 campaign in his final season at the helm.
Christenson was at Fargo Nationals that summer when he got a call from Oskaloosa. It was an offer too good to refuse, so Christenson and his wife packed up and moved to Oskaloosa. Of course, that meant a much longer drive to work for his wife, something that weighed heavily on the couple as time wore on.
Christenson went 50-15 in Christenson’s four years at the school. He crowned his first state champion in Dominic Moyer.
Christenson was named Coach of the Year in 2001 at Oskaloosa, but his dream was about to become reality.
Thanks to his wife, Christenson landed his dream job the next season.
“My wife was commuting from Oskaloosa to West Des Moines and in 2001, she got pregnant with Gabe. We both knew we had to move closer to her work,” Christenson said. “She came home one day, slapped the paper down in front of me, showed me the Southeast Polk job was open and said, ‘You need to apply here.’ So I did.”
Gabe Christenson was born before his father’s first season at Southeast Polk. That was 18 years ago.
In his second season at head coach, Christenson hired Evans as an assistant coach. After his fourth season helping with the Southeast Polk varsity, Evans came to Christenson with a proposal with launched the Rams on a path to success.
“He came to me and said he wanted to work only with the junior varsity, to develop the younger kids,” Christenson said. “He realized how important depth is to the program. When that happened, the program really too off.”
Christenson added Jessman Smith, Jesse Smith, Eric Morrow, Jake Agnitsch, and Tom Koch to the staff.
The Rams took another step forward when Agnitsch came on board two years ago. Agnitsch took over the kids club, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge, plenty of enthusiasm and energy off the charts.
Morrow has been a huge asset from an academics standpoint.
“He is in charge of academics, making sure everyone is getting their work done and keeping their grades up,” Christenson said. “We had three guys on the Academic All-State team this year. This is the first year where everyone was eligible for the second semester. That is something we are very proud of.”
Southeast Polk had 17 senior graduate this year who spent four years in the program, a testament to the wrestlers and the coaching staff.
Success on the mat followed.
Christenson finally got his state titles in 2013, winning the State Dual Team Championship following an undefeated dual season (29-0) and traditional state championship scoring 180.5 points (third all-time in Class 3A) with 13 state qualifiers (tied all-time), 11 state placewinners, and three state champions. Christenson's Rams continued their streak of title contentions and garnered more state championships (state duals and traditional state) in 2015 with 193 points (second all-time in 3A), 2016 (traditional), 2017 (dual & traditional), and 2019 (dual) — bringing his total to eight state championships.
Christenson’s teams at Southeast Polk are 380-52 in duals and have lost just two home duals since he arrived. The Rams are undefeated in duals in their new gym, which opened a decade ago. That includes a dual against West Des Moines Valley which drew over 5,000 fans.
Christenson has sent numerous wrestlers onto the college level, including Cory Clark, who won a national championship for Iowa.
But perhaps Christenson’s biggest thrill was watching his son, Gabe, win a state championship at 195 pounds this year.
Christenson, who will turn 50 next week and teaches physical education and is in the fitness center every day at Southeast Polk, has no intentions of slowing down any time soon. He already is gearing up for several freestyle tournaments, including Junior Duals in two weeks and Fargo Nationals in July.
While Christenson is flattered by the NWCA National Coach of the Year honor, he keeps things in perspective.
“Most of the credit goes to the people I surround myself with, the kids who do all the work, the parents and the community,” Christenson said. “I have been blessed to be surrounded by so many great people. This award is really for them, not me.”