Challenging, but possible.
That was the mantra circulating at the Newton wrestling team's practice Thursday afternoon in preparation for the district meet at Ankeny High School on Saturday.
The Cardinals will face the top team in Class 3A, as well as countless ranked wrestlers, in a challenging bracket. However, the confidence from a second-place finish in the Little Hawkeye Conference tournament hasn't worn off the team in its two weeks off from competition.
"We're carrying all of that confidence over, and we need to just keep bringing it in," said Newton junior 195-pounder Ray Scroder. "We've done a lot of good things this season, and we just need to keep that up."
In the quest to redeem last season, which was the first time in coach Bill Reed’s 15-year tenure that Newton didn’t have a state qualifier, no Cardinals are expected to have a top seed this weekend. That’s also a first for Reed in his career, especially when Newton has multiple grapplers with 30-plus wins.
Reed opted to keep the Cards out of competition between conference and districts to help them rest up. While much of Saturday's field competed in either dualsor tournaments over the past two weeks, Newton has been biding its time in the room.
“It’s good to rest and just relax the body, but you also have the problem of not wrestling an actual match in a while,” Newton senior Derrick Hurt (285 pounds) said. “But we go here really well with a lot of wrestling in the room, so we don’t lose too much in that aspect of not having meets.”
“I’m feeling really good, and we’ve wrestled really well all week,” Schroder added. “I’ve watched a lot of film getting ready and I’m probably the best prepared I’ll be. Even the freshmen have worked their butts off, so I think the whole team will be prepared.”
Among the field is Southeast Polk, which has been atop Class 3A all year and ranks 17th in the nation. The Cards will also have to contend with Ankeny, Dallas Center-Grimes, Des Moines North/Hoover, Johnston, Pella and Urbandale.
“For the most part, for the guys to make it to state, they’ll have to make it past one Southeast Polk wrestler and either an Ankeny or Urbandale wrestler, or both,” Reed said. “They can’t afford to give any easy points to those guys. They have to take advantage of scoring opportunities when they’re there, wrestle a full six-minute match. These good wrestlers don’t give back easy points.”
Joining the Cards in practice in that stretch have been the four district qualifiers for Colfax-Mingo. The teams did something similar last season, and it resulted in state berths for the Tigerhawks’ Jimmy Abell and Dylan Albright.
“It gives our guys a different workout partner and I know Coach Bryan Poulter likes bringing them in because it gives his guys a different workout partner,” Reed said. “It’s good at this time of the year to wrestle some new people. I think it works out well for both sides.”
Although the Cardinals were largely considered a young team over the season, they will bring plenty of district experiences with them on Saturday. Only four of the 13 competitors will be wrestling in their first district meet. For example, it will be the fourth for senior Tanner Hull (120) and the third for junior Koby Hull (106), among the rest of the experience for the team.
“A lot of the guys wrestled at districts last year, but they didn’t come in with the records they’ll have this year,” Reed said. “Most of them weren’t seeded where they’re going to be either, so that will be a new experience. But they know who they have to get through to get a state berth, so I think they’re ready to go.”
Of course, the district meet always offers the harsh reality of the end of the season if wrestlers aren’t able to advance to state. While juniors and underclassmen just have to focus on pushing through to state, seniors have to face the challenge of advancing or seeing their high school career come to an end.
“I don’t want it to be my last meet,” Hurt said. “I’m going in with the mindset that it won’t be, but I also realize that it very well could be, so I’m just going out there with that motivation.”
All of these questions will be answered on Saturday when the action kicks off at noon. Joining the Cardinals in action across the state will be four members of Prairie City-Monroe at Ballard of Huxley, as well as five Lynnville-Sully and four Colfax-Mingo wrestlers at Pleasantville.