At about 8 a.m. Friday, the mood was playful in the Creston High School wrestling room, as athletes milled about during the team’s annual photo session.
There was some ornery teasing among the wrestlers, enjoying some rare “down” time from heavy preseason workouts.
Things were upbeat because this 2012-13 edition of Panther wrestling should again contend for state dual competition, and offer some excitement at the traditional state tournament, where three wrestlers competed in last year’s Saturday night finals.
Heading the excitement is senior 138-pounder Jake Marlin. He and Denver-Tripoli’s Brandon Sorenson, subjects of a documentary by Ohio filmmaker Tim Jackson, are on a quest to become the state’s 22nd and 23rd four-time champions at this year’s tourney.
But two hours after Friday’s workout began, the team’s emotions took a turn. Head coach Darrell Frain had just received word that two squad members had been involved in a tragic auto accident earlier that morning, which claimed the life of sophomore 220-pounder Dalton Hribal.
The driver, junior 138-pounder Skylar Cook, received minor injuries and was able to rejoin the squad for Sunday’s practice.
It was jolting news. Immediately emotional for some, while others sat silently in shock, already exhausted from practice.
“It’s definitely an emotional time, no doubt about it,” said Frain, now charged with the task of leading the healing process for a close-knit squad preparing for Tuesday’s opener at Interstate 35 of Truro. The Panthers face I-35 and Nodaway Valley, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
The next day, the team gathers for Hribal’s services at 2 p.m. at Creston High School.
Frain said it’s a team that not only has to be rebuilt emotionally, but even before the accident, he knew some big holes were left to fill for heavyweight state champion Collin Bevins, fifth-place 145-pounder Juwan Parrish, and state qualifiers Zac Goodrich (126 pounds) and David Thompson (152).
The Panthers were fourth in both the state dual tourney and traditional tournament with 90.5 points.
Creston/O-M trailed a tight field at the top as Denver-Tripoli claimed the 2A title with 126 points. Davenport Assumption edged West Delaware for second, 119.5 to 119.
Five state medalists return for Assumption, which is ranked No. 24 nationally by Wrestling Insider News magazine. Among them are 152-pound state champ Nick Georgean and two other state finalists. The Knights, however, experienced a setback as Tony Parks, fifth last year at 160, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
West Delware could be the favorite in this year’s title chase. Sorenson, joining Marlin at Iowa next year, won at 132 pounds last year and is ranked No. 7 nationally at 145 this season. (Marlin is ranked 20th in the nation at 145, but figures to return at 138 by the tournament season.)
All eight point-scorers are back for West Delaware, including seven medalists.
Two third-place finishers head a young up-and-coming Mediapolis team that could join Creston/O-M as a leading contender. Mediapolis was 24-3 in duals last year.
Creston/O-M was 17-2, and 9-0 in the Hawkeye 10 as both the conference dual and tournament champion for the first time since 1986. Lewis Central could be the biggest obstacle to repeat as Hawkeye 10 champion, as the Panthers and Atlantic both suffered some key graduation losses.
Last year, the Panthers were undefeated in duals until the state dual meet, where eventual champion Assumption squeezed out a 36-32 semifinal victory. Some key varsity wrestlers were then rested for the next day’s traditional state tourney in a 43-25 consolation loss to Atlantic, a team the Panthers had defeated earlier.
The deep Panther lineup earned team titles at Nodaway Valley, Central Decatur, their own Panther Invitational, Centerville, John Harris Tournament in Corning, Hawkeye 10, sectional and district tournaments.
At the Kansas City Classic, Creston/O-M was 11th among 37 highly-rated teams from several states. Bevins won the heavyweight title there. Marlin and Keaton Hulett, a state finalist at 195 last season, each placed third. An 8-7 loss to Jack Bass of Allen, Texas, was the only defeat for Marlin in 54 matches all season.
Quest for No. 4
Marlin enters his senior season with a 148-5 record, with the school career leaders’ victory totals of 181 (Kalab Evans) and 180 (Andrew Long) well within range as he also chases Iowa’s all-time pin record of 146 held by Austin Blythe of Williamsburg.
Frain said Marlin cleared his mind for his fourth and final prep season by signing with the Hawkeyes on Nov. 14.
“It will be interesting to see how it goes with the pressure as the year goes, but I think he’ll do fine,” Frain said. “(Signing) helped him. That was a big relief for him.”
Hulett (51-3 last year) gives the Panthers another title threat. Ending the football season at about 220 pounds, he’s made rapid progress toward a return to 195 this season. West Delware’s Rath figures to wrestle at a higher weight this year.
“Keaton was one point away last year,” Frain said, referring to a 3-2 loss to Rath in the finals after a 1-0 semifinal win.
“He has to be considered one of the top two at that weight again,” Frain said. “He will wrestle a little at 220. But I don’t think the cut was too bad for him, actually.”
Without Bevins, the Panthers are no longer “guaranteed” nine or 12 points from two of the three upper weights, Frain said, but it’s still a formidable top end.
From 182 on up, the Panthers could have promising freshman Seth Maitlen — “He will surprise some people this year,” Frain said — followed by Hulett at 195, returnee Cole Tanner (27-23) at 220 and senior letterman Nate Robinson (5-4) at heavyweight.
Right below that, things are a little more unsettled. Above Marlin in the 138-145 range are varsity returnees Jacob Johnston (15-8) and Gavin Leith (18-16) along with junior Jesse Rathe (8-4) who wants to challenge for a varsity spot somewhere.
So, the 145, 152, 160 and 170 spots could change quite a bit during the course of the season.
Junior Adam Baker (22-19), like Leith, wrestled up a weight class or two most of last season with some success. Junior Trevor Frain (47-10) is the likely 160-pounder at sectional time, but will help the team by wrestling up a lot during the dual season. Sophomore Tayler Pettit can help in the 160-182 range, as well.
“Cole Tanner’s knee is bothering him so we won’t push him early,” Frain said. “Keaton and Seth can bump up, then we have a lot of different guys who can shuffle in below them,” Frain said.
There’s also a scramble for varsity time in the spots right below Marlin, as Spencer Wray (30-16), Garret Taylor, senior Gage Cheers (33-26), junior Zack Peppmeier, sophomore Bryce Briley and freshman Joey Huntington are all competing in the 126-132 range.
Eventually, Wray and Cheers may land at 126 and 132, respectively, Frain said, but he expects numerous challenge matches for the times Marlin opens another spot by moving up to 145.
Two former 106-pounders, lettermen Kruz Adamson and Alex Fargo, are up to 120 now as the Panthers are inexperienced at 106 and 113 for a change. But, Frain is hopeful about the prospects of freshman Wyatt Thompson and sophomore Stone Hammons, who is coming back from arm surgeries.
“Those four seniors from last year were big-time point winners for us,” Frain said. “We have to make up for it somewhere. We know there are going to be a few holes in there, and some young kids are going to have to step up. I know there are guys shifting around and trying to find a spot.”
A good opening test comes Saturday in the team’s first visit to the Dallas Center-Grimes tournament, which will include Grinnell from the team’s district assignment at Knoxville, as well as a strong Webster City squad and the host Mustangs with some talented wrestlers. Creston/O-M participates in sectional action this year at Winterset.
(* — Letterman)
Seniors — Katie Stevens (106), *Gage Cheers (132), *Jake Marlin (138), *Jacob Johnston (145), *Keaton Hulett (195), *Cole Tanner (220), *Nate Robinson (285).
Juniors — *Kruz Adamson (120), Garret Taylor (126), Zack Peppmeier (132), Skylar Cook (138), *Gavin Leith (145), *Jesse Rathe (152), *Adam Baker (160), *Trevor Frain (160).
Sophomores — Stone Hammons (106), *Alex Fargo (120), *Spencer Wray (126), *Bryce Briley (132), Conner Kinkade (132), Austin Nichols (132), Tyler Helm (138), *Tayler Pettit (160), Jake Burk (195).
Freshmen — Wyatt Thompson (113), Jake Routh (126), Joey Huntington (132), Cameron Leith (138), Seth Maitlen (182), Zach Hoffman (220).
Nov. 27 — At I-35 (Truro) vs. I-35, Nodaway Valley
Dec. 1 — at Dallas Center-Grimes Tournament (Grimes)
Dec. 1 — JV at Winterset JV Tournament
Dec. 6 — at Atlantic vs. Clarinda, Atlantic
Dec. 7 — at Central Decatur (Leon) Tournament
Dec. 8 — JV at Lenox Tournament
Dec. 11 — vs. Denison-Schleswig and Clarinda
Dec. 14-15 — at Kansas City Wrestling Classic
Jan. 3 — at Harlan
Jan. 5 — Panther Invitational
Jan. 8 — at Lewis Central vs. Kuemper, Lewis Central
Jan. 10 — vs. Perry, Winterset
Jan. 12 — at Centerville Tournament
Jan. 15 — at Shenandoah vs. Shenandoah, Red Oak
Jan. 18-19 — at John Harris Invitational, Corning
Jan. 24 — vs. Chariton, C.B. St. Albert
Jan. 26 — Hawkeye 10 Tournament at Creston
Jan. 31 — JV at Atlantic Tournament
Feb. 2 – Class 2A sectional at Winterset, noon
Feb. 5 — Regional dual, TBA
Feb. 9 — Class 2A district at Knoxville, noon
Feb. 13 — State Dual Tournament, 9 a.m., Des Moines
Feb. 14-16 — State Tournament, Des Moines