Iowa is a Wrestling State, Land of Opportunity

By Jeff Budlong for The Predicament

Dan Burgess

Dan Burgess lived it and sees the benefits it can provide, but he also knows the flip side. A minor sport in many states around the nation, wrestlers who work as hard as their Iowa counterparts struggle to generate interest from colleges in their pursuit of a dream to earn a college scholarship and receive a quality education.

Burgess, a state champion for Lisbon High School at 155 pounds as a senior in 1983, helped the Lions claim the Class 1A team title. He remains connected to the program and its head coach Brad Smith -- the same man who guided the '83 squad.

Burgess wrestled at Cornell College in Mount Vernon before his job with AAA and American Family Insurance took him to California and eventually Nevada.

In Nevada, he dipped back into the wrestling scene when his son took up the sport. He ran a club in Reno, worked at the state level and was a team lead for the national team doing some form of coaching for more than 15 years.

Wrestlers and their parents have sought his advice on how to take the next step to become a better wrestler, garner more exposure and earn a college scholarship. That has led to several Nevada wrestlers moving to Iowa to wrestle for the Lisbon program. It began with Wally Zernich in 2015 and continues now with the recently graduated Marshall Hauck, junior Robert Avila Jr., sophomore Brandon Paez and junior Peyton Angelias.

"These kids just want the best opportunity they can get," Burgess said. "Most families are going to do what they can to give their children the best chance they can."

Burgess puts wrestlers and their families in contact with Smith -- the state's winningest coach -- and allows them to make their decision.

"Me knowing Brad and who he is, what he is about and how he works has kept me connected to the program," he said.

Burgess sees the Iowa wrestling experience providing a few key elements.

"The first is culture," he said. "I will put wrestling against any other sport out there with the dedication you have to put in to be successful at it. The difference is the culture in Iowa because you crack the newspaper, open up the internet or turn on the TV there is wrestling coverage in Iowa. These kids are getting almost "rockstar" status.

"The exposure these kids get in the media is outstanding and they get nothing like that in Nevada."

That lends itself to the other key element where Iowa's passion for the sport leads to more exposure and the greater ability to attend college on a scholarship. The state routinely sends numerous wrestlers to all levels of college, including Division I. That is not the case in states like Nevada.

“We have very talented wrestlers in Nevada that get very few looks from D-I coaches. Nevada has had a handful of excellent D-I wrestlers, but when you compare populations between say Nevada and Iowa, We should have so many more D-I wrestlers coming out of Nevada.

"When you work with kids that are the big fish in a small pond, they may never realize that work ethic it takes to go D-I because they didn't have to work hard to get what they got in that small pond," Burgess said. "All of the sudden, they are in this bigger pond and they are competing against kids that have the same athletic ability they have but didn’t get the exposure you may get in a state with a culture like Iowa. Many struggle to step to the plate and deliver that missing piece."

Burgess is a success story, wrestling several weight classes up his first three years because of a loaded Lion lineup. He had just 14 matches before state his final season after shattering his arm during a summer freestyle national tournament. He entered the state tournament unranked and dealing with the recovering arm.

He would go on to win the title after his teammate and defending state champion Royce Alger moved up to 167 to make room in the lineup.

Wally Zernich

The first

Wally Zernich is the son of Gary and Dawn, who are close friends with Burgess and his wife. Zernich had completed his sophomore year at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, outside of Las Vegas, but needed a change of scenery on and off the mat.

"Moving from the big city to the small town, I was trying to get somewhere more personable and live in that environment," he said. "There was a culture shock. Everybody was very serious about what they were doing, especially when it came to sports, and not just wrestling."

Zernich placed third at 126 with his lone state loss coming in the first round to eventual four-time state champion Alex Thomsen of Underwood.

Zernich made the trip to Iowa by himself, but not totally unfamiliar with the state, having gone to camps after his eighth grade and freshman years.

The yearlong experience left a mark on Zernich as he experienced the passion for wrestling in Iowa from competitive duals to the spectacle of the state tournament. Zernich tries to explain it to friends by saying, "wrestling in Iowa is like football in Texas."

"Coach Smith had me buying into the philosophy that as hard as you train is as good as you are going to be," he said. "I bought into the belief that I could be one of the best, if I put my effort into it."

Zernich, 21, attends the University of Nevada and is in the process of applying to medical schools -- including the University of Iowa -- and credits wrestling and his year in the Hawkeye state for setting him on the right course.

Robert Avila, Jr of Lisbon

Family decision

Avila Jr. enjoyed significant success as a youth wrestler racking up national titles. By the time he reached eighth grade, it was clear he needed to be challenged daily to continue to improve in the wrestling room.

Iowa was familiar to the Avila family because of trips to the state for national tournaments. However, it was a talk that Robert Avila Sr. heard from Smith years before that helped shape his decision when schools across the nation were reaching out.

"Coach Smith is the No. 1 reason we made the trip out here. He had done a camp for us in Vegas years back and I liked him," Avila Sr. said. "He was cool, he was humble and all the connections he had was a big selling point for us. Why would you not want to wrestle for a coach like that?"

In January of Avila Jr.'s eighth-grade year, his five siblings, along with his mom and dad, made the move from Nevada to Lisbon.

"It was kind of sketchy because we are minorities coming to a small Iowa town," Avila Sr. said, "but everyone was super welcoming and it was arms wide open." Avila Sr. also added "We are pretty founded on the Lord as a family. Through a lot of prayer for the move, we felt that God had made a way for us to move here."

Avila Jr. has made the most of his time with the Lions, capturing two state titles and putting himself in line to become a fabled four-timer. Wrestling success runs in the Avila family. Robert's sister, Jannell, became Libon's first female state champion last winter with Robert coaching in her corner.

"The first week (in the wrestling room) I was doing really good the first half of the practice, and then I would just die," Avila Jr. said. "It was completely different cardio and it was hard to adapt, but I fell in love with it immediately and knew I needed it."

"The amount of attention he has received has certainly benefited him, hearing from six or seven Big Ten schools," Avila Sr. said. "That would never have been possible in Nevada. There is nothing like the exposure you get in Iowa compared to any other place."

Avila Jr. is one of the most sought after recruits in the nation entering his junior campaign.

Marshall Houck of Lisbon

One chance

Marshall Hauck was entering his senior year of high school in Reno, Nevada, and, although he had success on the mat, his dream of wrestling at the D-I level seemed far off. With no college interest at the highest level, he made the decision to transfer to Lisbon for his final year.

"I just had the goal of winning a state title and (college interest) came along with it," he said.

Hauck made the most of his lone year in Iowa, winning a state title at 152. He credits the coaching staff and his teammates, especially Avila Jr., Paez -- a freshman state champion -- and Angelias for making his transition smooth.

"Every day it is practicing against some of the top kids in the nation instead of having to push myself," said Hauck, whose previous team had fewer than 10 wrestlers."I had to learn how to deal with stuff by myself because I was (in Iowa) pretty much by myself. I had to make some sacrifices and it made me tougher."

South Dakota State was the first D-I college to offer Hauck after Lisbon's appearance in the Battle of Waterloo. Hauck's decision paid off and he will wrestle for the Jackrabbits in Brookings, South Dakota.

"(Lisbon) helped me accomplish all of my goals," said Hauck, who will major in fish and wildlife sciences.


Common denominator

Burgess said he took a lot of heat from people in both Nevada and Iowa with each wrestler that has gone to wrestle at Lisbon. He is adamant that he is not recruiting wrestlers, but will help a family explore options to improve a situation for their child.

"With all the kids that have come from Nevada it has been a huge issue," he said. “I have been part of wrestling here in Nevada for almost 20 years.  Nevada is my home. We have a great state organization, great coaches and some really good wrestlers.  It pains me when we lose one to another state as I know how hard so many have worked here to put Nevada wrestling on the map.

"We live in a world now where the holy grail of a Division I scholarship is extremely hard to find, and if you know your kid has the work ethic and desire to do that, as a parent I think you will do whatever you can to support them in that endeavor.

"Kids in all sports are going wherever they can to get the exposure they need to get to college. I am not saying it is right or wrong. That is not my decision to make. If you are a high school coach and a very talented kid calls you up and wants to move to your town because they see the opportunity that will help them achieve their goals, how many of the coaches would say no?”

The Avilas have had to deal with the social media backlash that comes all too often for athletes that join a school from outside the area.

"I come from a rough background in the suburbs of Los Angeles so words don't really affect me," Avila Sr. said. "When it is directed at my son, it does affect me. In the overall picture and goal, it is not worth listening to."

Burgess is helping to provide an opportunity, the wrestlers are making the most of it.