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Cheyenne Roche: Defying the odds

Feb. 8—Covering the wrestling state duals is a big task, but it's even bigger when the team you're covering defies the odds and wins it all. I came home depleted, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.

I covered this event last season as well, and that gave me a lot of perspective coming into what would become a historic day for the Panthers.

Here's how state duals works — the eight teams who won the regional duals advance to state where they are seeded in a bracket. Eight wrestles one, seven wrestles two, and so on.

Each team wrestles three duals. If your team wins the first dual, you're guaranteed a top-four finish. Likewise, if you lose the first dual, the best you can finish is fifth.

Last season, we didn't lose in the first round. We were crushed. We were the four seed wrestling Mount Vernon, the five seed. In the entire dual, we had three wins. I still remember, it was Jagger Luther, Christian Ahrens and Will Bolinger.

Milo Staver had his opponent in a tilt, but the ref called him for pinning himself. Any gusto that could have been left was drained. After what was, I'm sure, a rousing speech from coach Cody Downing, the boys got it together and battled back for fifth. It was fun for them to end on two wins and just going to the duals was a good time, but it turns out, it's way more fun when you win it all.

This season, the Panthers came in ranked third behind Osage (1) and Mount Vernon (2). Osage came in as the reigning state champions. Downing told me he knew all year these two teams could be beat. He had faith in the parity of Class 2A.

I fell for what a lot of people did, the thought that Osage was untouchable and Mount Vernon would show us to the door like they did the previous year. I was hoping for third. I really was. Now, I didn't do 1% the research Downing did in making these assumptions, but I felt if we won the first bout, we would lose the second and then battle back for third.

Last year at the duals, I was yelled at for taking pictures on the mat where you'll usually find me at a tournament or dual. So the guys offered me a seat with them. That's where I was again this year. It can be a stinky seat, but it's the best place for photos and to listen to the team get excited, nervous and pumped up.

I began to hope early as Max Chapman pointed out Algona, the seven-seed, was close enough to Mount Vernon to win the dual. Mount Vernon ended up with the win, but it showed one of two things — either Algona was way underrated or Mount Vernon was beatable.

We topped Independence fairly easily. Getting that win under their belt did great things for the guys' confidence. They had already guaranteed a top-four finish, a better place than last year and were ready to take on Mount Vernon.

The semifinals against the Mustangs was the most fun dual of the day. Yes, obviously winning the last dual was fun, but the dual itself was a stress fest.

In the first bout, Luther went into overtime. It seemed to foreshadow a tough dual between two great teams. He got the sudden death win followed by rapid pins by Quinten Fuller and Chapman. We were up 15-0 on Mount Vernon. Three matches in, we already tied the number we won the year before. I began to believe.

As the bout went on and we pulled farther and farther away, the boys' attention was drawn to the other mat where Sergeant Bluff-Luton, the five seed) was neck-and-neck with Osage. Again I wondered — Is Sergeant Bluff underrated or is Osage really beatable?

We beat the Mustangs by 20 points. It was the greatest redemption imaginable. Everyone expected Osage and Mount Vernon to face off at 6 p.m. and they would, but they would be wrestling for third.

I was a little sad for the guys as we waited for the finals to commence. If the duals had been spread out over days or weeks instead of hours, there would have been a big pep rally. Places around town would chalk their businesses just like during football season. There would probably have been double the Panthers fans in the stands for our wrestlers. But it's not how wrestling works. And I know the title (and the hats) mattered more to them than any of the fanfare.

I took a few pictures before the finals. The employees were tearing down the mats in the practice room as the event came to a close. Here were the Creston wrestlers, preparing to fight for a state championship, stopping what they were doing to help the employees tear down the mats.

Wrestlers help employees tear down the mats before the finals.

Being a champion doesn't just come down to how well you can lock in a cradle or how many pins you earn in a season. It's also about character, discipline, mental toughness and a whole host of things not on a stat sheet.

It was a complete team effort to win that championship, but we give Luther a lot of credit for stepping up and winning it in the final match. One of the most special things I experienced sitting with the kids was the way they talked about each other. While Luther was warming up, all his teammates were reassuring each other. They knew he would win it.

And they made sure he was the one to accept the trophy. He held the trophy in the photos. Here's a kid who isn't the star wrestler, but they all treated him like he won that trophy on his own. It just showed how selfless they all were with that win.

It was a full circle moment for me. I told Will Bolinger after they won, this was a much different conversation than the one we had after the state football semifinals. My heart broke for the kids that day. There's nothing worse than interviewing students who just had their dream taken away. I still feel for the football boys who aren't on the wrestling team because they don't have this to soothe that ache.

But I think that fire really paid off for the wrestlers this season. I can't thank them and the coaches enough for letting me into their bubble to capture every special moment.