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A leader of champions

May 24—There's no doubt the class of 2024 was historic in its athletic abilities. The football team boasted a record-high 25 seniors and made it to the UNI-Dome for the second time in program history.

The wrestling team had 11 seniors, nine of whom were in the starting lineup. They went on to win a state dual title for the Panthers and send a record-breaking 11 individuals to the state tournament.

The boys track and field team had their first meet win since 2007, winning two in one week. They sent five events to state, brought home the first boys medal since 2014 and broke a tough distance medley relay school record.

From the classroom to the field, mat and track, this group of athletes has proven they are champions. At the forefront of each of these teams is a leader — someone who leads by example, but can also get a message through to his teammates.

He was instrumental in the Panthers' defense. He was someone the team counts on to get the pin. He was on all three state-qualifying relays.

A state qualifier in three sports his senior year and a leader among his very talented peers, Austin Evans channeled his competitive spirit into finding success for himself and his teammates.

It was for this reason, and many others, Evans was selected as one of two Male Outstanding Athletes for the class of 2024.

Austin Evans

"If you look at what he's accomplished not only his senior year, but throughout his career at Creston, he's done it right in three different sports," Creston football coach Brian Morrison said. "That's not easy to do. You have to be a special person athletically, character-wise, leadership-wise. He checks all the boxes in the classroom, in the community and on the field. It's just how he handles his business."

Football

While Evans ended his career in football as a First Team All-District linebacker, it all started with flag football in elementary school.

In flag football and padded league, he played some running back, fullback and even quarterback. But his talents and heart lay on the other side of the football.

"I've always loved being on defense," Evans said. "That was my thing; it's what I was best at, so I felt it was the best way I could contribute to the team."

From freshman year, Morrison could see the talent blossoming. "We knew the class was special," he said. "Even as a freshman, he was a tremendous football player on that team that went 8-1. He was one of the really good ones in that group and a tremendous leader for that class."

The senior class when he was a freshman helped shape him into who he is today.

"My freshman year we had a great senior class, so I looked up to Kolby Hulett, Keaton Street, Jackson Kinsella, just because I was in there with them in the wrestling room my whole life," Evans said. "But growing up, the Hulett boys — Keaton, Kadon and Kolby were my bigger cousins, my biggest fans and I was their biggest fan. They have my back today and I have theirs and always will."

Evans developed his abilities over his high school career.

"Watching him grow as an athlete who put in the time and the work, then just watching him grow as a leader and really being a captain his senior year voted on by his peers," Morrison said. "The kids looked up to him when things got tough. He was a vocal leader too. Some kids just lead by example, but he did both which was a tremendous asset for us."

This season the Panthers used a platooning method where players would play on either offense or defense, not both. This helped keep the players fresh and give them breaks as well as lowering the chance of injury.

There was no question where Evans would go.

Austin Evans makes a tackle against Harlan

"Our defense, we need an anchor at an outside backer position and he fit that role just based off the two years of previous experience at the varsity level," Morrison said. "He was the guy. Our defense, we had to have some sort of niches to make it successful. He had all the traits and characteristics of that type of player."

Through the course of the season, the Panthers faced players who were tough to take down. Running back Jaxon Cherry of Webster City and quarterback Quinn Olson of Bishop Heelan were just two of many strong opponents.

The Panthers defense followed the mantra "11 hats to the football."

"Nobody can take a play off — it's every play," Evans explained. "We weren't the biggest guys out there, so sometimes it took all 11 guys out there to get someone down. It just shows how much we wanted it. Everybody went hard every play. If someone couldn't get that tackle, there was always a guy there to back him up."

Austin Evans gets in on a tackle against Nevada.

Evans led the team with 74 total tackles. He logged 34 individual tackles, recovered two fumbles, caught three interceptions and had a defensive touchdown.

"This says a lot about how good he is, because the position he plays typically is not going to be the leader in tackles because he has a huge responsibility as far as what he needs to do to make the other players around him successful," Morrison said. "It's just his efforts and his resiliency to get to the football, his hustle. If he's not making the assisted tackle or the solo tackle, he's always around the football. He's probably one of the best competitors I've coached. He wants to do well and that obviously shows."

The most memorable games for Evans were defeating Lewis Central and Harlan as a senior.

"Because of how much they've succeeded over the last four, five years, for us to come in after being successful, but not having the years they've had, to take those three victories and shut them out to go to the Dome later on," he said.

Going into the Lewis Central game, Evans said he knew it was winnable. But he had his doubt as the game went on.

"I thought we were probably out if it there at the end of the game when they came back," Evans said. "With how much heart our team had, we found a way."

Evans was first-team all-conference and first team all-district as a linebacker, but missed the all-state title.

Austin Evans chases down the ball carrier against Knoxville

"If you're first team anything in our district, you're an all-state caliber player," Morrison said. "There are a lot of good football players in 3A, especially at that linebacker position. The position he played, his numbers probably weren't as good as the others because of what we asked him to do. He's a deserving all-state kid."

Though the season ended in a heartbreaking 16-13 loss to Bishop Heelan, Evans looks back on his time in football fondly.

"I know it's not what we wanted. We gave it our all and fell a little short, but that's what happens," he said. "It's life, and the sun came up the next day and we were able to come back in the winter sport and come out on top in that one."

Wrestling

Even though Evans ended up being a three-time state qualifier, a two-time state medalist and a dual team champion, he didn't want to wrestle when he started in kindergarten.

"I didn't want to do it. My dad made me; my parents made me," Evans said. "The Hulett boys, they wanted me to be just like them, but I remember it was a battle the first few years. I was not a fan. My parents were probably about to give up on me, but I stuck it out and it was worth it."

It wasn't until third grade he decided he wanted to keep wrestling.

"I went to Super PeeWee state. I went out there and got beat first round," Evans said. "I was way too competitive to give in, so I came back and got third. From there it's just been my thing."

His self-proclaimed stubbornness and competitiveness have helped him hone his losses over the years.

In youth wrestling he won an AAU state title and placed several other years. As a fourth grader, he and Will Bolinger were in the high school wrestling room as youth team managers.

"The thought was if they're in the room, they can kind of pass that along to their teammates — how we train and what to expect as they get older," Creston wrestling coach Cody Downing said.

Evans remembers Kadon Hulett, Seth Maitlen, Wyatt Thompson, Cam Leith and Chase Shiltz all on the team that year.

"I could just watch that, and I knew that one day I wanted to be like those boys because of how hard they worked and how grateful they were to be in here and be able to compete," Evans said. "It showed out there. You have to love it, or at least enjoy it, to have the success those guys did, so I always looked up to them."

By middle school, Evans had caught Downing's attention.

"I mean I knew who he was even at an early age, but he kind of got my attention in that fifth-sixth grade area," Downing said. "I paid close attention to that class in general just because they had good numbers and some good wrestling families. He got on my radar and I started paying closer attention as he got into middle school."

As a freshman, Evans was on the varsity lineup at 120. That season, the team made it to dual team state after a regionals upset.

"Bondurant was coming. We were the underdog," Evans said. "I know it's not easy for another team to wrestle in Creston gym because the atmosphere the Panthers bring is just unmatched. Regionals that night was one of the best nights of my life. I wouldn't have wanted to do it with any other group because that senior group really shaped me and taught me how to work hard in the wrestling room."

The team placed eighth at state duals. Evans finished third at districts to narrowly miss his chance at going to state.

"I give a lot of credit to him buying into what we were doing with the seniors that year," Downing said. "We've got one in college this year — Jackson Kinsella. We had Kaden Bolton, Keaton Street. We just had a good group for him to really look up to. The freshman class then, that are seniors now, had some good leaders."

Sophomore year the team lost only one dual — the regional dual to Atlantic to go to dual state. While Evans qualified for state at 138 this season, he went two and out at the Wells Fargo Arena.

Austin Evans controls his opponent

"It was kind of rough from beginning to end, but I did qualify that year," Evans said. "I cut way too much weight my freshman year. I didn't end up cutting weight sophomore year, so I was undersized, but I was just happy to be there."

As juniors, the team made it back to the state duals after an extremely close dual with Glenwood in regionals.

"We got back on the team thing, qualified and had a little more success than we did freshman year; we got fifth," Evans said. "So that was a huge jump from freshman to junior year."

And as an individual, still at 138, Evans placed seventh, earning his first state medal. He was also given the Hardest Worker award and voted the Mike Abel Outstanding Wrestler with teammate Christian Ahrens.

When it comes to his senior year, Evans said it was a heck of a ride.

Over his four years, many wrestlers came and went, not wanting to put in the work it takes to make it in the Panthers wrestling room.

Austin Evans works a pin

"I think sometimes it's hard to see past what it takes to be a good wrestler, what it takes to be as disciplined as we expect our kids to be," Downing said. "I don't think Austin ever even wavered at any of that."

Though there are no official team captains on the wrestling team, Downing said Evans was the guy he went to.

"A lot of coaches have that guy they can go to to get a point across," Downing explained. "It sounds better coming from one of them rather than a coach all the time. Austin's definitely that guy. It was more lead by example. If he's not complaining about something we're doing, it's hard for someone else to."

At the state duals senior year, Evans came in with one of the toughest lineup of matches a Panther had ever seen.

"It wasn't an easy day with No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the rankings all there that weekend," Evans explained.

Despite nearly winning his first bout, he ended up going 0-2 to start the day. But he stayed ready for his final match.

Austin Evans works on top at home

"I think you've got to have a short memory in wrestling; you've got to have a short memory in sports in general," Downing said. "That's just him summed up. He really wanted to be a part of a state championship after being a little big short in football — we were right there. We knew we had a chance. He had the toughest day, we knew what kind of day he was going to have. When you have a state championship within grasp, it's easier to refocus."

When it came time to face Sergeant Bluff-Luton in the finals, the dual was as close as it could get — a tie going into the final match. While senior Jagger Luther was the one with the final win to claim the title for the Panthers, Downing gives a lot of credit to Evans as well.

"Even though he went 1-2 that day, we don't win without him," Downing said. If you put someone else in there, they could have got pinned. He had a big pin in the Sergeant Bluff dual. That's probably a 12-point swing if it's not Austin. He's there when he needed to be."

Though Evans said the win didn't completely take away his disappointment from his losses, he knew it wasn't about him that day.

"Being a leader, you've got to be here and lead by example," he explained. "When those kids are down, you have to be able to pick them up and get them right back on the right track because at state duals we can't have someone holding their head down because that's contagious. It just wears on the whole team and if one guy is down, then all the guys are down. It's just important to be there. When they need someone to talk to, you've got to be there to talk to them. It's a brotherhood, and that's how we formed it in Creston."

He came back at districts and qualified again for the state tournament, once again placing seventh.

As a senior, he was again voted the Mike Abel Outstanding Wrestler.

Track and Field

Though track may never have been his passion, Evans said he always gave it his all.

"If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. I'm not just going to be out there. I'm too competitive and stubborn. So if I'm out there, I'm going to win and do what I can," he said. "It was a goal to make it to the blue oval. We did that [junior year] and we didn't have the outcome we wanted, but we had to regroup. It got us back to where we wanted to be this year."

Since seventh grade, Evans has been running the 400 and 800m races. As a sophomore, he was an alternate on the state-qualifying distance medley relay. His junior and senior years he was on the team.

It's taken a lot of work behind the scenes to get Evans to where he is today, and it's all been side-by-side with teammate Brandon Briley.

"The big story behind this state meet and those two guys' senior careers is just how hard they had to work," Creston track and field coach Maggie Arnold said. "Their sophomore and junior years we worked a lot on speed. Their feet were not very quick. This year, they were significantly faster in their foot speed."

Briley and Evans have been pushing each other in three sports for four years.

"Me and Brandon have pushed each other from the first day of football camp out there on the football field," Evans said. "As soon as football is over, three days later we're in the wrestling room going at it with us being so close in weight. In the morning runs, we're pushing each other in the hallways. It just helps to have someone that close to you that we can build off each other and keep pushing. To finish off at track practice. We're so competitive, it's a grind every day. Neither of us wants to lose to each other."

Austin Evans runs at state track

After four years of work, Evans was able to run the fastest times of his career.

"It takes time and people don't want to be patient and take as long as it takes," Arnold said. "They were willing to do that for their coaches, their teammates and their school. They didn't have loads of natural talent — they developed that. They are extraordinary athletes."

Evans capped his career qualifying for state in all three events. At the state track and field meet, they ran a school-record in the distance medley relay, placing ninth — one spot out of placing.

With some younger classmen in his relays, Evans served as a leader for them as they navigated wins and losses.

"Having a freshman and a junior in there, they don't want to let us down, so they're going to do whatever they can do to get the baton around as fast as they can," Evans said. "If they do it to the best of their ability and it's not good enough, then it's whatever because they tried and that's all they can ask of them."

Up Next

After 13 long years of competing, Evans has stepped off the field, mat and track for the final time.

"I wouldn't say I'm burnt out, but I'm ready for something different," he said. "I've been competing for so long and it's time to close the book and move on and start the adulting thing."

Evans is attending Iowa State University where he will study animal science.

He doesn't have any specific plans for the future, but says coaching isn't out of the question.

"We'll see where the road takes me, but I for sure would love to be back in here even if it's not a legit coaching job. I'll for sure be volunteering and giving back to the kids like I got," he said. "There are so many people that came in and helped me, wrestled me and pushed me. I've got to give back what I got given."

Downing said there's always a spot for Austin in the wrestling room.

And though he is now a Cyclone, he'll never stop being a Panther.

"I'll be back in Panther gym, out at Panther stadium watching football games," he said. "I'll be watching wrestling meets on the internet all year."