WEBSTER CITY — High noon Saturday. The moment eight wrestlers from Perry have been waiting for since the end of last season.
At 12 p.m. the “Bluejay Eight” will begin competing in their Class 2A District Tournament, hoping to be one of two grapplers at each weight division to secure a spot on the mats at the Wells Fargo Arena Feb. 18.
“We are not approaching this weekend any different than we would any other tournament,” Perry head coach Trevor Kittleson said. “We look it as just another set of matches. If we go out and wrestle they way we are capable of everything will go fine.
“Some of our guys have ranked kids in their brackets, but so what?” he asked. “At this point in the season rankings and records mean diddly … whoever shows up and is ready to go is going to be the one who wins. We intend for that to be us.”
The format at the district tourney is a simple one. The 14 weight classes will feature semifinals pitting the Perry Sectional champion against the Garner-Hayfield-Ventura Sectional runner-up, with the GHV titleist to battle the Perry runner-up.
Winners advance, with the winner of the finals advancing to state. The loser of the finals also advances, but only if the wrestler he defeated in the semis wins in the consolation bracket. If the consolation winner and finals loser have not yet met, a wrestle-back match is held, with that winner declared the district runner-up and also advancing to the state tourney.
Perry senior Kade VanKirk (132 pounds) is seeking his fourth trip to the state tournament — with the added inducement of earning his first win on the floor of the Wells Fargo Arena. Sophomore Zach Thompson (120) was sixth at the state tourney as a freshman at 113 last year and is seeking to not only return to the final podium but to secure a higher perch, while senior Gisaveri Niyibizi (126) is looking to return after earning a spot last season. Like VanKirk, he, too, will be seeking his first win on the big stage.
Freshman Kaleb Olejniczak (28-5) will be the first Perry grappler to step onto the mat when he faces Algona junior Cameron Peterson (22-17) in the semifinals at 106 pounds. Connor Johnson (20-12, So.) from Clarion-Goldfield-Dows will battle Stephen Shuka (32-3, Jr.) of Gilbert in the other semifinal.
“Kaleb is not real flashy — he just goes out and does what he needs to do,” Kittleson stated. “He has a real shot to make it to state as a freshman, and that could be the start to a really great prep career. If he wrestles the way he is capable of we will see him in Des Moines.”
Zach Thompson (26-3) opens against Webster City sophomore Carson Hartnett (29-16) at 113 pounds, with top-ranked Josh Portillo (36-1, Sr.) of CGD to face Sinjin Briggs (34-6, Jr.) of Gilbert in the top half of the bracket.
“I am so proud of Zach,” Kittleson said. “He has overcome so much adversity, which some people might not know about. First, he missed three weeks because of an appendectomy and then had to come back and regain his strength. Then he missed a week-and-a-half because of a concussion.
“He came into this year with a whole new attitude and has wrestled with a great deal of confidence,” the coach added. “He deserves to be considered a real threat for the podium (at state) and he believes it, as he should, because he has earned it.”
At 126 10th ranked Bluejay senior Niyibizi (20-2) faces CGD senior Lucas Lienemann (23-19) while Cole Nokes (31-6, Sr.) of Webster City will duel Garrisson [sic] Holck (20-20, So.) of Gilbert.
“Gisaveri is very hard to score against, but, at the same time, he is going to score on just about anybody,” Kittleson said. “He lost, 1-0, to the number three ranked kid and lost a tough 5-4 match at conference he knows he should have won. If we can get him aggressive in the first minute of a match he can handle just about anybody. If he gets after it, he can go a long way.”
VanKirk (25-4) is ranked eighth as he begins his quest for a fourth consecutive state tourney appearance against Calen Rosenbaum (32-10), a CGD senior. The other half of the 132-pound bracket features Humboldt frosh Joey Busse (40-6) against Southeast Valley sophomore Trey Lawrence (40-7).
“Kade has overcome so much that to just be able to go out and wrestle is an achievement by itself,” Kittleson explained. “He missed the entire first half of the season with a back injury he suffered in football and is now dealing with a knee injury. Kade has really impressed me — his guts and his toughness are off the charts.
“It will all be in his mind,” he continued. “He is unbelievably driven and I would love to see him make it back down there (to state) and I believe he will.”
At 138 Perry sophomore Zach Stewart (21-16) squares off with fourth-ranked CGD sophomore Tanner Abbas (35-5) while junior Tim Sibbel (37-6) of Kuemper Catholic will battle senior Gage Sadler (13-16) of Webster City.
“If you would have told me after last year that Zach was going to make districts ….” Kittleson smiled, shaking his head. “Then he goes out, works his butt off over the summer and off-season and comes in ready to learn and improve. He has a tough draw, but he is wrestling well right now and he has a chance, which is all anyone wants.”
Bluejay senior Jacob Thompson (31-9) is scheduled to meet fifth-ranked CGD senior Brady Brott (40-4) in one semifinal at 145, with Forest City senior Pierce Gelhaus (43-3), rated eighth, to battle Kuemper Catholic sophomore Zak Hulsing (24-23).
“It stinks for Jacob to get this kind of a draw, but like I said before, rankings and records mean nothing now,” Kittleson said. “Jacob has been getting after it really well lately. He is the kind of kid who does what we tell him and works as hard as anybody.
“He reminds me, in many ways, of Jackson VanKirk,” Kittleson said, referring to Kade’s older brother, who finished as a state runner-up in 2013 at 152 as a senior. “Jackson was unranked and no one was paying attention to him, but he worked hard, wrestled hard and smart and surprised a lot of people. I am not saying Jacob will do the same, but he certainly has a chance if he is on his game.”
Perry senior Eli Saemisch takes his 45-8 record into the 170-pound semis, where he will tangle with CGD sophomore Mason Carpenter (36-13). The other side of the bracket has fifth-ranked GHV junior Conner Shaw (38-2) facing Southeast Valley junior Kaelen Lundberg (34-11).
“Eli didn’t wrestle last year and injuries kept him from finishing his freshman and sophomore year, so I am grateful to see him healthy and showing everyone what he can do,” Kittleson said. “He is another guy who does not have all the flash but is just very solid, and he will make you pay every time if you make a mistake.
“He is coming to come after you — and come after you hard — for a full six minutes,” he added. “There is no slack in his approach — he goes hard and has the skills to use, and that combination is going to work in his favor.”
The final Bluejay in action will be junior Adan Medina (24-24), who draws sixth-ranked GHV senior Cade Baker (37-2), with Woodward-Granger junior Tanner Vermaas (49-5) opening against Humboldt senior Nate Kollmorgen (10-15).
Medina has done the improbable by not wrestling until his junior year and then earning a spot at districts at 182, a weight which requires a great amount of strength and endurance.
“Adan is a strong, athletic kid who has the heart of a fighter,” Kittleson said. “Anyone who saw his sectional semifinal saw what Adan in all about — he was almost pinned twice, but turned around and pinned his man instead. That is the kind of fight I love to see — he is not going to give in. It will be a tough draw, but he is there for a reason and he is going to have his shot.”
Kittleson said he was proud of all eight, who, he said, typified what the coaching staff has been preaching all season.
“We wanted the guys to be dedicated to hustling at all times and to set their own personal goals, never mind what we as coaches wanted,” he concluded. “We wanted them to own it for themselves, and it has gotten them where they are. Now they just need to take the next step.”