It felt like beginnings of a State wrestling tourament anyway: Weigh-ins done, eight mats laid out across the arena floor, scoreboards lit up, and while the fans had yet to admitted, the teams were filtering out from the locker rooms to begin warming-up. And the 10-members of the Vinton-Shellsburg's team, their managers and one assistant coach -- after all the selfies and team pictures were taken -- circled up begin getting loose. As they began, I turned to V-S head wrestling coach Brian Sheston.
"Not to going lie," I said. "Sixty years in this sport, I never thought I'd see us warm-up at State by playing a game of 'Duck, Duck, Goose'."
Nodding, Sheston smiled.
"Me either," he said. "I'll give them about 10 minutes...they're having fun."
Of course, then several Vikettes jumped up to join a mass volleyball-passing circle, before finally warming-up for wrestling stuff...they're having fun.
Welcome to the third annual Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association's Girls' High School State wrestling tournament. The tournament has grown from around 90 competitors in 2019, to over 300 last year, to 466 wrestlers from over 120 schools this year. It had outgrown Waverly-Shell Rock High School and moved into the shiny new Xtream Arena in Coralville.
The growth of the tournament mirrors the expolsion of growth in girls' wrestling in Iowa, and at Vinton-Shellsburg High School.
Sheston took two girls to the 2020 tourament, senior Amelia Birker and sophomore Bailey Weeks. Birker won a couple of matches along, while Weeks finished eighth at 145. Another senior, Lillie Lamont, was unable to compete at State. But like the new arena and huge growth of the field, Vikette wrestling came of age.
This past November well over a dozen Vinton-Shellsburg girls showed up for practice the first day, and through a long learning curve, some bloody noses, some injuries and a lot of laughter and tears, this room of wrestling novices collested into a real-live wrestling team, a team that got show off what it grew into on the biggest stage in Iowa.
With Weeks as the only returnee from last season and most of her teammates having never been on a mat in their lives before last fall, the Vikettes scored 59.5 points which was good for 18th-place out of over 120 teams. Six of the 10 Vikettes won matches, four of those six -- 106-pounder Bree Swenson, 138-pounder Rachel Bane and 145-pounders Weeks and Geordyn Webster -- made it through Friday's marathon seven-hour session to Saturday, One placed, as Bailey Weeks returned to her same spot as last year, 8th at 145.But while only one made it to the podium, everyone in the black and gold gave a strong accounting of themselves.
Of the six girls who won matches, all of them at least one pin, and the team totalled 16 pins, which is a staggering number. Webster, who'd never been on a mat in her life before November, scored five of those. Swenson had four, Weeks three, Bane two (plus a technical fall) and 120-pound senior Carly Williams and 160-pounder Emma McDaniel each had one, and even the girls who weren't able to win a match looked solid.
Anabelle Hernandez lost her first round match on some questionable stalling non-calls, while Maci Goodell lost a consolation match in overtime, and Emma Gillen fought hard against two experienced foes before dropped two bouts. And Alexis Rummelhart appeared on her way to first-round win before an injury forced her out of the tournament. But they all fought hard, and there we so many moments to look back at with a smile.
- After freshman Bree Swenson had split her first two matches of the tournament, she had to win one more Friday to stay alive against Alix Oliver of Dubuque Wahlert, who'd beaten Bree last week at the Independence Invitational. But Bree extracted her revenge, pinning the Golden Eagle in 1:09. As Bree headed off the mat, she ran right the hockey boards where she greeted by hugs from her big brother, Viking senior 126-pounder Damon Swenson, and her buddy and boys' team 106-pound counterpart Aldin Swanson -- and I missed the picture!
- Carly Williams, in her first year on the mat, did not want her one season to end, and she fought to the end. After dropping a back-and-forth bout in the first round, Carly came back to score a fall in the first round of the consolation rounds, and she might have been the happiest person in Xtream Arena -- with the possible exception of her teammates who were overjoyed for her.
- Things didn't always go well for Rachel Bane this season, but her Friday was unforgettable. After a first round technical fall, Rachel wrestled top-ranked Abby McIntryre of Glenwood in the second round. McIntyre got an early takedown, then let Rachel go...except she didn't right away. McIntyre -- who appeared to be pretty strong -- shoved Rachel's face into the mat for a bit before finally backing away. She scored another takedown, then did the same thing again. Except this time Rachel -- who's pretty strong in her own right -- reached out and snaggled McIntyre's ankle, and came within an eyelash of dropping the top-seed with a heel-pick. McIntyre got the hint from there, took Rachel down and pinned her, but that situation fired Rachel up. Before Friday was over, she scored two pins, and advanced to Saturday with dominating 6-2 decision over a previously unbeaten girl from Davenport West. Rachel didn't end up placing, but she matured as a wrestler at that moment and was something to see.
- If there were ever a person who deserved an extra year of eligibility it's Geordyn Webster. Geordyn is one of the scrappiest, most competive atheltes I've ever seen. On the softball field and in the pool, she does everything at 100 miles an hour and when I heard she was going out for the team, I figured she'd be good, and it turned out I was right. Even battling a ton of injures all season, she was always at that same speed. After splitting her first two matches, Geordyn rolled through her next four opponents seemingly pinning them at will, including the last one in just 26 seconds. The ending wasn't what a competitor like Geordyn wanted, but watching her Friday was an inspiration to her teammates and to me...if you're going to do it, do at 100 miles an hour.
- I've known Bailey Weeks -- primarily -- as my son's cross-country teammate for the last three seasons. Like the rest of her teammates, Bailey is intense, fun-loving, athletic and unique in her own way. Not a lot of girls combine cross-country, wrestling and rodeo into their athletic resume. Bailey had three pins, and brought home another medal Saturday, but it was her leadership that shined the brightest; she's the consumate teammate. Just like in cross-country, she's everyone's biggest supporter, everyone's favorite voice, and everyone's best friend. Any success Bailey has in competition is usually overshadowed in her eyes by her excitement for her teammates' successes. That's unique and above anything else, it's also pretty cool.
Girls' high school wrestling is here to stay in Iowa and at Vinton-Shellsburg. In both cases, it's only going to grow. There's big pool of talent coming back, we have a great coaching staff and I suspect there will be a lot athletes who will look at this weekend and decide to give it a try.
I can't wait until next year, but I'm grateful I got to be within the orbit of this year. The best is yet to come!