Four four-timers in one year? It could happen
By Jeff Budlong
DES MOINES -- It is a good time to be an Iowa high school wrestler.
The talent the state is producing is feeding into Division I wrestling programs across the nation..
There is another mark of the type of talent that has been on display in recent years -- the number of four-time state champions. The list of all-time accomplished prep wrestlers currently sits at 28, and could grow by one more on Saturday night if Centerville's Matthew Lewis can complete the feat.
Since 2012, eight wrestlers have added their name to the list, but there has never been more than two wrestlers accomplish it in a single year. Looking ahead to next year, there is a possibility of four wrestlers becoming four-timers.
Lisbon's Robert Avila Jr., Crestwood's Carter Fousek, New London's Marcel Lopez and Solon's Hayden Taylor could all join the list a year from now if they can take care of business and win title No. 3 Saturday night.
So why this explosion of possible four-timers?
"It is really offseason work and the kids study the sport so much more and are more serious about it," Lisbon head coach Brad Smith said. "The kids that are usually doing this are specializing in it and it is their thing.
"Robert Avila is constantly studying the sport and working on different things and working to get better."
The Lisbon program has produced an impressive four four-timers in Scott Morningstar (1977-80), Shane Light (1987-90), Carter Happel (2013-16) and Cael Happel (2017-20).
Underwood head coach Joe Stephens saw Alex Thomsen complete the feat in 2018, but said the work begins long before they step into a high school practice room.
"They are better because they come into high school ready to go," he said. "The younger kids, the elite ones, are light-years better than they were even 15 years ago when they come out of different club systems."
One of the biggest advantages is the amount of information that is available at the fingertips of wrestlers. Video of most wrestlers can help them improve and be used for opponents to dissect. Clubs also are far more prevalent now across the state, giving wrestlers access to a different level of coaching.
"I think the sport is evolving at a faster rate than it has before," said Sergeant Bluff-Luton head coach Clint Koedam. "There are opportunities for guys to train year-round. Twenty years ago there weren't near the clubs and freestyle organizations or schools coming together to create something."
Even the way young wrestlers perform has changed significantly as they watch the high-level senior athletes at world and Olympic competition and adapt what they see to their style.
Koedam said when he wrestled there were defensive moves that were executed without question. Now wrestlers practice in uncomfortable positions to find new ways to generate offense for themselves that is less reliant on techniques of the past.
"More guys are getting out of that Division I level and coming back and playing a role in training kids," Koedam said. "Whether it be some of it at the youth level, but most of it at the high school level."
"Scrambling has become a big thing in college over the past 10 years and that has migrated down," Stephens said. "I sometimes miss the old days where base defense was a little better, and now guys will funk roll and leg pass."
The high level of wrestling also has made it more fan friendly and easier to watch, something Koedam sees as key to growing the sport.
One thing coaches who have had four-time champions go through their program can agree on is the significant impact it makes.
"It validates what you are doing, it shows that it can be done here and you don't have to wait to win," Stephens said. "Just because you are a freshman doesn't mean you have to take a backseat to someone who has been there for a couple of years."
Wrestling is still wrestling
Not everyone is convinced great leaps and bounds have led to more wrestlers having the chance to win four titles.
Iowa City West head coach Nate Moore was a four-time state finalist and his brother, Nick was a four-time champion for the Trojans from 2007-10.
"I don't know that much has changed since back when we were wrestling," Moore said. "They definitely have access to more tools. We really didn't have access to all that."
Moore said the sport is constantly evolving, but what he sees on the mat today is not drastically different from his days wrestling or before.
Regardless of how many names get added to the list, the work behind etching a name on it will always keep it in a special place in the state.
"This is tough and this is a tough tournament," Stephens said. "Anyone who says it is not is crazy. We have seen some really good kids lose because everyone is getting better."
That was never more true than last year when West Sioux's Adam Allard was wrestling in the state finals for his fourth title only to be denied in the final seconds of the match.
"Our state has such a strong following, and there may be an opportunity for more guys to get it, but I just think it speaks volumes of the growth of the sport in Iowa," Koedam said.
"There are a lot of kids that enter the tournament every year, and when they are done with their career there are not many that can say they are a state champ," Moore said.