COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Primed for the NJCAA national tournament, the Labette Cardinals wrestling program is sending a full lineup of 10 wrestlers to compete on Wednesday and Thursday.
Labette got the opportunity send 10 guys due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented a traditional district tournament from taking place.
“That’s the approach every year, to take 10 guys,” Labette head coach Jeff Vesta said. “It happened this year with everything going on. So it’s the same motions for us.”
Prior to leaving for Iowa on Tuesday, the Labette lineup all tested negative for COVID-19 — some members of the team had been vaccinated. Teams will also undergo typical screening procedures in Iowa during the tournament.
“We made it through step one,” Vesta said. “Now we’ll get there, do temperature scans and screening then wrestle. We’ve been doing the same things all year with the procedures. Getting through the COVID-19 testing was big. We were all holding our breath.”
Two wrestlers from Labette — Cade Wathke and Andrew Leitold — will be competing in their second national tournament.
Riley Weir at 125 pounds opens the bracket with a match against Clarence Lee-Green of North Iowa Area.
“I want him to be on the podium,” Vesta said. “We’ve got momentum from the mock regional tournament. He beat the defending national champion. So we want to keep that same mindset and wrestle one match at a time.”
In the 133-pound bracket, Karden Lee will open up against Zach Ash of Niagara County.
“He didn’t start off the year as our starter but made it here,” Vesta said. “We’ll see what he can do on the mat. He’s been working hard.”
Wathke starts off the 141-pound division with a showdown against Brody Kemper of Mott.
“We made it to the quarterfinals last year after he came out with two pins,” Vesta said. “He’s got the national tournament jitters out of the way. So hopefully he’s ready to go.”
Alex Young will be the lone Labette wrestler forced to earn his way into the bracket through a wrestle-in. He’ll get two chances to earn one win and enter the bracket, with the first match coming against Archer Bergeron of Umpqua.
“It’ll be a long day for him,” Vesta said. “If anybody was going to have a prelim, I’m glad it’s him. We wrestled our last duals on April 1 and had to get him three exhibitions that day. His cardio and conditioning is there. An extra match is not going to phase him.”
Traylon Jackson, competing at 157 pounds, starts his stay at nationals against Cole Watkins of Triton.
“He’s a freshman and he’ll come out ready to go,” Vesta said. “He’s been doing well this season. He’s had a lot of close matches with All-Americans.”
Donnie Hurd, who dropped down a weight class recently to 165 pounds, will face Jake Richardson of Clackamas to start the tournament.
“He’s only got two losses at 165,” Vesta said. “He got fourth at our regional tournament. It was the plan to shift some guys down and time it right.”
Jeremiah Voliva, another wrestler for Labette that recently cut weight to 174 pounds, opens against Joseph Tequila from Camden.
“He’s been at 184 all year and now he’s 5-1 at 174,” Vesta said. “Hopefully we keep that going and keep the streak alive.”
Darin Neal was the beneficiary of the drops in weight as he’ll compete at 184 pounds. Declan McCann of Garrett is first up for Neal.
“He’s been behind Jeremiah all year,” Vesta said. “He comes to practice every day and works hard, so the opportunity paid off for him.”
Leitold, the other returner for Labette, starts off the 197-pound bracket against Taylan Zafis of Sussex.
“We’ve been waiting all year for him to put it all together,” Vesta said. “He finally beat one of the better guys in his class against Pratt at regionals. He’s got momentum on his side.”
Micah Lieberman, Labette’s heavyweight competitor, has high hopes for his national tournament bid as he opens competition against Scot Edwards of Minnesota West.
“As good as he’s going to do, it’s all up to him,” Vesta said. “He’s only lost twice this year, and both guys are ranked. He’s pinned or majored every other kid. I think he can get to the championship rounds and duke it out from there.”
A year ago, Labette left nationals with two All-Americans and a top 20 finish. Vesta aims to improve both marks at the Mid-America Center this year.
“A successful trip to Iowa is to do better than the previous year,” Vesta said. “We were top 20 last year with two All-Americans. So we want to do improve upon that. We’re fortunate enough to bring 10 guys. There’s a lot of teams without full lineups. That goes to show we have enough depth to make it happen.”
No matter Labette’s performance, Vesta believes the shortened campaign slogged by the pandemic has reinforced the program.
“We’re solid,” Vesta said. “We’re a young team. We can look at the pandemic in a lot of ways. But going into next year, this season will help us. Nine out of our 10 qualifiers will be back next year. We’ll come back with experience and hope for a normal regular season next year.”