COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — A top 15 finish with two All-Americans is what the Labette Cardinals wrestling program brought back from the NJCAA national tournament, held on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Cardinals finished in 14th place as a team with 44 points, an improvement over last year’s finish. Alex Young at 149 pounds and Riley Weir at 125 pounds both earned All-American status for Labette.
“I wanted to place higher with more All-Americans this year compared to last year,” Labette head coach Jeff Vesta said. “We didn’t get more All-Americans, but we got a lot more wins with bonus points to get there. Everybody contributed to the team finishing 14th place.”
Clackamas won the national title with 152.5 points, followed by second place Western Wyoming with 147 points.
Young was forced to scrap his way from losing his first match in a wrestle-in bracket to earn his fourth place finish. In his first bout, Young was pinned by Archer Bergeron of Umpqua before earning his place in the full bracket with a win over Josh Barretta of North Iowa Area.
“We got to the tournament and I was glad he was doing the wrestle-in,” Vesta said. “We just kept telling him one more match. Out of all the guys, we knew he had the right mentality.”
Including the wrestle-in win, Young rattled off seven straight victories in the bracket to earn his spot.
He started with a pin of Luther McGee of Northwest Kansas Tech before beating Morgan Potts of Neosho County. Young then pinned Tanner Higgins of Iowa Western before grabbing two decisions over Elijah Kidder of Henry Ford and Nathan Lendt of Ellsworth.
Young’s final victory came over Malik Johnson of Cowley.
“He does the right things which a lot of college wrestlers can’t do,” Vesta said. “After every single match, he’d do his sprints and focus on his next match. He’s the definition of doing things right. He’s like a machine.”
In the third place match, Young was pinned by Deville Dentis of Clackamas.
“It was a great match,” Vesta said. “We were down a few points and had to try and make something happen. It was a tough match for sure.”
As for Weir, he finished in eighth place at 125 pounds. Like Young he was also forced to battle back from a loss in his first match, a fall to Clarence Lee-Green of North Iowa Area.
“We had to get mentally reset,” Vesta said. “He wanted to be a national champion. He had his eyes set on bigger goals instead of match-by-match. After that first loss, we revisited and got him to the podium.”
Weir rebounded with a pin of Cael Bartels of Rochester, a win over Izzy Tubera of North Idaho and two more pins over Marco Herrera of Colby and Kody Evans of Lackawanna. Weir lost his final two matches by fall to Aidan Harris of Iowa Central and Andres Russi of Joliet.
Vesta was also impressed with the performance of Jeremiah Voliva at 174 pounds, who finished one win shy of All-American status.
“He came up one match short of being All-American, so he’ll be fired up next year,” Vesta said.
Labette took 10 wrestlers, a full lineup, in total to the national tournament — a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic which prevented a district tournament from taking place.
Karden Lee (133 pounds), Cade Wathke (141), Traylon Jackson (157), Donnie Hurd (165), Darin Neal (184), Andrew Leitold (197) and Micah Lieberman (285) all competed for Labette but did not place.
“We’re never satisfied, but I’m definitely proud of our team and what we’ve overcome,” Vesta said. “I’m proud of everybody on the team and everybody that got us to that point.”
Competing in nationals much later than usual during a season relegated entirely to the spring semester certainly provided unusual optics.
“It was a weird year and a weird tournament, but we did what we needed to do as wrestlers,” Vesta said. “We followed all the protocols and changes to get us to that point. We got to have our national tournament. Yes, it was different, but the same goals were still there.”
Nevertheless, Vesta is optimistic about the direction of the program.
“I’m excited for all those guys to get to come back,” Vesta said. “Nine of our 10 national qualifiers should be back on top of the freshmen we have signed coming in. It’ll be a very dynamic team next year.”