The bumps and bruises still remain, and some of the initial rush of excitement may have worn off, but the pride in what they had achieved remained evident when Perry’s three state tournament medalists were interviewed Tuesday.
“There is a just a deep satisfaction in knowing I did something I have wanted to do my whole life,” senior Kade VanKirk said. “It is not really excitement, it is more of a ‘yeah, I did it’ feeling, a feeling of pride about having something you worked so hard for actually happen.”
VanKirk placed seventh at 132 pounds, with senior Gisaveri Niyibizi third at 126 and sophomore Zach Thompson sixth at 120 in the Class 2A tourney Saturday.
Perry head coach Trevor Kittleson said the honors were well-deserved.
“These guys went out and worked their butts off and then, when it had to happen, they beat some great wrestlers,” he said. “Gisaveri gave a three-time champion (Center Point-Urbana’s Brock Rathbun) all he could handle before losing 2-0 in the semifinals, and Zach took the defending champ (Michael Millage of Crestwood) to the edge before losing 5-4 in his semifinal, so they were both that close to being in the finals.”
“Kade came up with a huge win in the consolation round to earn a spot on the podium and then made sure he won his last high school match to place seventh,” Kittleson said. “Considering that he was basically wrestling on one leg was just very impressive.”
Senior Eli Saemisch (170 pounds) and freshman Kaleb Olejniczak (106) also competed for Perry at the state tourney, but both were stopped short of the medal stand.
“So much of the focus has been on the three medalists and it should be, but people need to remember Eli and Kaleb had outstanding seasons as well,” Kittleson said. “Eli didn’t finish his freshman or sophomore years because of injury, then to come back after sitting out a year and make it to state really says something.”
“Kaleb’s story is just beginning — he is going to be back at state and is going to be on the podium next year, no doubt about it,” he added. “He has a ton of talent and the right worth ethic, and if he learns from this year he will be even more difficult to handle next season.”
Thompson, Niyibizi and VanKirk all had to overcome various challenges this season. VanKirk missed all of December while recovering from a back injury sustained in football, then dislocated his left knee cap late in the season. Niyibizi missed a month after just two matches for personal reasons before returning to the mat, with Thompson missing time for appendix surgery and later for a concussion. Worries that the concussion injury may have been re-aggravated forced the sophomore to injury default twice Saturday, dropping him from a possible contention for third place into sixth place — the same spot he occupied last year at 106 pounds.
“I wanted to wrestle the Sergeant Bluff-Luton kid (third-ranked sophomore Rhyker Sims, in the consolation semifinals) but they said I could not go,” a disappointed Thompson said. “I am proud to have another medal, but I want to get a better one next year.”
Niyibizi said he felt no pressure in his second trip to the state tourney.
“I knew I would place if I wrestled smart and stayed focused,” he said.
The loss to Rathbun, while disappointing, always raised his confidence level, Niyibizi said.
“After that I knew I was going to get third,” he said. “No way was I letting someone beat me again and they didn’t.”
VanKirk was competing for the fourth time at Wells Fargo Arena. He was 0-and-2 and out on the first day each of his first three trips, and, with a first round loss Thursday, was in danger of a frustrating 0-8 mark. A clutch come-from-behind win in the consolation round kept the senior alive, with a win in his first match Friday securing a medal.
“I just wanted to be on that podium so bad,” he smiled. “It came down to being seventh or eighth, and there was no way I was going to lose my final match. I said to myself ‘You have six minutes left (in your prep career) so don’t regret it — go out and go as hard as you ever have’ and I did.”
“I could not be prouder of our team,” Kittleson said. “Jacob Thompson (145) is down here (at state) if he is in any other district, and Adan Medina (182) and Zach Stewart (138) had great seasons by making it to districts, too. I will miss Jacob and all the other seniors, but if the guys put in the off-season work this year like they did last year we will have another great season and maybe get even more guys on the podium.”