BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
BETTENDORF – Fort Madison’s Will Larson has battled influenza since Thursday and took the mat at the Class 3A district wrestling tournament in Bettendorf Saturday exhausted.
But after three matches that went the distance, Larson seemed to always find a little left in the tank and advanced, along with Diego Lozano and Owen Kruse, to the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament starting Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Wrestling at 138 lbs, Larson went 3-4 on the day. He advanced with an 11-4 decison over Burlington’s River Belger, who had beaten Larson two times this year, and then lost in the semis to eventual champion Grifen Molle of West Burlington-Notre Dame-Danville 12-0.
The loss to Molle sent Larson into the wrestleback bracket where he faced Bettendorf’s Kohler Ruggles. The junior Bloodhound trailed 4-2 at the end of two periods and couldn’t seem to get anything going in the third until about 10 seconds left, when Larson dug deep again and slipped around Ruggles pulling him to the mat right into a near fall for 3 points with :03 left on the clock to eek out the 5-3 win.
That set up the 2nd place match with Muscatine’s Carson Harder, who lost in the title match to Molle. Larson and Molle went a full three periods and then into overtime in a gutcheck of a match where neither wrestler scored a point.
In double overtime, Larson won the final flip of the start coin and chose the top. Harder just needed an escape in the 30-second extended period, but couldn’t shake Larson off giving the Hound the 1-0 sudden victory and a ticket to the state tournament.
Larson said he just kept trying to work on his ties and stay on offense.
“I knew he was tough on top, and I knew I was tough, too. At the end, I knew I could hold him down for 30 seconds so I just told myself, ‘Why not’,” Larson said.
“I’ve had influenza since Wednesday, but I guess I got it out tonight.”
Head Coach Ryan Smith said Larson’s day was phenomenal considering his illness this week.
“It’s just a matter of gutting things out and finding a way to win when things are stacked against you. It’s a great testament to Will’s will power,” said Head Coach Ryan Smith.
Lozano had a bit of an easier road getting to the tourney, but found himself in a buzzsaw for the district title at 220 lbs.
Lozano got a bye in the first round and then scored a quick 33 second pin over Pleasant Valley’s Aiden Kilstrom. That sent the senior to the title match against Clinton senior Hunter Randall.
Lozano executed one shot in the match but Randall scored a reversal on the miss and then got another takedown in the 3rd period to seal the win.
Kilstrom worked his way back to the 2nd place match, but since Lozano had beaten him previously in the semifinals, he was given the 2nd place win.
“I’ve never been there before, but I worked pretty hard for it so it feels pretty good,” Lozano said.
The senior said going a full three periods is difficult for him because he often records quick pins. But he said that may be something he has to plan for next week in Des Moines.
“I just try to have the mindset when I get out there that I’m the baddest dude there and you don’t want to be on the mat with me,” he said.
Owen Kruse is the second Kruse to make it to the state tournament. His brother Elton made it last year at 126 lbs as a senior.
Kruse recorded a pin over Clinton freshman Luke Jennings in the first period and advanced to the semifinals, but lost to eventual champion Austin Kegley of Cedar Rapids Prairie in :42. Kruse then scored a 17-8 major decision of Pleasant Valley’s Jackson Miller which vaulted him into the 2nd place match.
Bettendorf’s Elijah Mendoza lost to Kegley in the finals and, since he and Kruse hadn’t tangled yet on Saturday, the wrestleback was on.
Mendoza scored a takedown in front of the Fort Madison coaches, but Kruse wiggled his way through the hold and flipped Mendoza, who’d gotten out of position, over to the mat on a reversal and stuck the pin 59 seconds into the match to punch his ticket to Wells-Fargo.
“It means a lot to me and with all the hard work. It feels good. It’s good to go as a junior. My brother went as a senior so I’m happy about this,” Kruse said.
He said he utilized a move that Smith has been working on with the team in the past few weeks to roll Mendoza over in the final match.
Senior Danen Settles, who’s qualified for state the last two years, has been hobbled by an MCL tear in his right knee, captured a 3rd place at 285 lbs. Nathan Steffensmeier (160) and Mason Schau (152) also finished 3rd on the day.
Schau lost in his bid for second place in the wrestleback with a 2nd-round pin to Bettendorf’s Damian Peterson. Steffensmeier won with a last second 6-5 win to try and advance to the 2nd place match, but he had lost previously to Muscatines’s Cedric Cordero so Cordero got the runner up qualifier spot.
“I’m really proud of being a part of two conference championships. I wrestle because my last name’s Steffensmeier. I don’t know if I lived up to that or not, but I gave it everything,” Steffensmeier said.
Settles earned the 3rd place medal with a pin over Cedar Rapids Prairie’s Jordan Jacobus. The two battled to a 1-1 tie through two, but Settles was able to escape from the down position and then throw Jacobus to the mat for a pin with :36 left in the match for the win.
Settles wouldn’t get a shot to wrestle back for second because Muscatine’s Togeh Deseh lost in the finals to Bettendorf’s Grifin Liddle by pin. Deseh downed Settles 3-2 in a semifinals match mired by a bit of controversy as Deseh was credited with a takedown at the outer circle. The call was contested by Smith but to no avail.
Settles recorded a couple escapes, one in the first and one in the second to tie it up, but Deseh would get an escape in the third off a restart and Settles couldn’t manage a point in the final 30 seconds to send him to the third place match.
“It’s not the way I wanted to finish my career here. I wasn’t much as a freshman, but I owe a lot to Coach Smith for getting me as far as I did,” Settles said.
The senior, known as “Cowboy” to the Fort Madison faithful, said he hopes the MCL tear he suffered at the Fairfield Invitational heals up and he can play sports in college at some point.
“I cried a few tears for him in the locker room after that. He’s just the poster child for this program. He’s worked so hard and has so much fun,” Smith said.
Smith said he couldn’t question the effort the Hounds gave overall on the day.
“That was our message, you’re gonna have to find ways to overcome it. Nathan came darn close and Mason came close. You just can’t fault the effort,” he said.
“We’re a solid team, but sometimes a solid kid doesn’t get through because there are so many good kids here and being solid might not be good enough.”
Emmett Kruse (106) and Gavin Wiseman (132) both earned 4th place finishes after both started the day 1-0 moving to the semifinals. Matthew Steffensmeier finished 5th at 113.