CORALVILLE — The star-studded Panthers are filled with decorated wrestlers. From tournament champions to conference champions, from district champions to state place-winners, the team features some of the best Creston wrestlers in history.
Senior Jagger Luther doesn’t have any of those accolades on his resume. In fact, he didn’t even wrestle the beginning of season as he was sidelined with a high ankle sprain. But when the Class 2A state duals title fell into his hands Saturday, his teammates knew it came down to the right person.
“I wasn’t worried at all. I had no doubts,” senior Austin Evans said. “Jagger’s one of the most mentally tough kids, and he’ll go out there and put his heart on the line.”
Coach Cody Downing said Luther has persevered through a lot. “He wanted to finish his career with his teammates,” Downing said. “He wanted to finish it strong. He was 3-0 for us yesterday; he was a crucial part of our success.”
As Sergeant Bluff-Luton edged closer to the Panthers’ score, winning four consecutive bouts, senior Quinten Fuller said he was nervous, but that Luther has been getting better every week. “I could barely move,” Fuller said. “I was shaking; my fingers were numb.”
On the sidelines, the Panthers were doing the math of who needed how many points to walk away with the title.
Finally, the dual was tied at 33 when Luther stepped up for the final, deciding match of the day. The moment came full circle — Luther was unable to finish the state football semifinals in the fall, but he was now the finish for the Panthers’ wrestling state championship.
“There were just a million thoughts running through my head,” Luther said. “I try to drown them out, do my thing and work my hardest.”
It started with a takedown, Luther up 2-0. Then another takedown gave him a 4-0 lead.
“It was just running through my head, keeping working through all six minutes – go the distance,” Luther said. “It paid off.” Luther’s 7-1 decision over Will Ryan of Sergeant Bluff-Luton gave the Panthers a 36-33 state duals title.
“It just felt crazy, standing up, looking at the crowd, seeing my team run at me,” he said. “It was just a great feeling.”
Creston activities director Scott Driskell was watching in the stands as the dual came to a close. “It couldn’t have happened to a better young man than to be tied at 33-33 and step onto the mat,” Driskell said at the public reception Sunday. “He was injured in the state semifinal... I know that ankle still isn’t 100%, but his match and the way he handled that is really the epitome of Creston wrestling.”
The day at the Xtream Arena in Coralville featured three duals — each one significant for a different reason. In the morning dual, the Panthers looked to set the tone for the day. They looked to rebound from last year where they fell flat in the morning and had to wrestle for fifth. With a morning win against Independence, they would guarantee a better place than last year.
In the semifinals, they faced Mount Vernon. This was a redemption match for the Panthers as the Mustangs won their last dual by more than 30 points. Eight of the returning wrestlers were looking for wins after losing the previous year to their Mount Vernon opponents.
Then in the finals, the Panthers would look for something really special — Creston’s second ever team title at the state duals, the first being in 2007.
Throughout the day, Creston won 24 matches, had 13 pins and five undefeated wrestlers — Luther, Max Chapman, Lincoln Keeler, Fuller and Christian Ahrens.
During the entire dual tournament, the Panthers were only down in team scoring for one match — the very first of the day after sophomore Gunner Martwick (175) fell in a 6-0 decision to Braylen Bieber of Independence.
Luther (190) came back with a 6-4 decision over Landon Duffy to tie the score for the Panthers. From there, the Panthers got rolling.
Fuller (215) and Chapman (285) wrestled back-to-back at the beginning of every dual and combined for six pins in six matches, scoring 36 total team points as a duo.
“Those guys are easy guys to root for and get behind,” Downing said. “They were toward the beginning of the lineup, and they feed off that energy. They’re pretty dang good too. I like where we started. We have a pretty balanced lineup, but that was a neat spot to start.”
Against Independence, Fuller pinned Gable Eddy in 30 seconds and Chapman pinned Brady McDonald in 1:41.
“That was pretty nice to go out there and score a bunch of points really fast. I think it kind of set the tone for the rest of the tournament, honestly,” Chapman said. “You don’t see that a lot, but you do see it from Creston.”
Sophomore Kylen Parsons (106) faced Adam Fish, a wrestler who had previously been on the state-ranked list at 106. Fish won the bout in a 15-5 major decision.
“Every match we were looking for them to win, pin or stay off their back,” Downing said. “A couple guys went 0-3, but were still contributing to what we did.” With the Panthers only winning by nine in the first dual, Parsons not letting Fish get the pin saved the team precious points.
Making up the rest of those nine points were two toss-up matches, Lane Travis vs. Zach Homan at 113 and Lincoln Keeler vs. Kameron Kremer at 132. Travis worked for the pin for six minutes, and while he was unable to get Homan stuck, he won in an 11-0 major decision, scoring four points for the team.
Keeler won his in a 12-8 decision, earning three team points.
Ahrens (120) won his match with a second-period pin, Milo Staver (157) took a 9-3 decision and Will Bolinger (165) came away with a 13-1 major decision.
The Mustangs took wins at 126, 138, 144 and 150 — three of the four being state-ranked wrestlers.
Though Evans is ranked No. 5 at 144, he had one of the toughest schedules of the day with the potential to see the top three wrestlers in his weight class. Against Independence, he faced Tyler Wieland, a junior ranked No. 2.
For two full periods, Evans had control of the match, leading 4-0 going into the final period. With the success he was having on top, Evans opted for the top position. With less than a minute left, Wieland caught Evans out of place, flipping him into a near fall. With the reversal and back points, Wieland came back to win 5-4.
“I looked forward to the opportunity,” Evans said of his tough matches. “Things didn’t go my way this morning, but it’s not about me today, it’s about the team.”
With a 35-26 win over Independence, the Panthers advanced to rematch Mount Vernon in the semifinals.
Feeling motivated after their first victory and ready for redemption from last year, the Panthers came prepared for the second dual.
“We wrestled loose. Last year, we let the emotion out in the regional dual and were just happy to be there,” Downing said. “Now we came in knowing we had one job to do, and take nothing for granted. We wanted to get the first win under the belt and go from there.”
Luther was the lead wrestler for the Mount Vernon dual, and he was one of only three wrestlers to get a win last season against the Mustangs. It wasn’t an easy victory; the match was determined in overtime when Luther found a takedown for the sudden death victory.
Fuller and Chapman came in with consecutive pins, Chapman taking down Ethan Wood, the No. 7 ranked heavyweight. Chapman is seeded at No. 6.
The victories gave the Panthers a 15-0 cushion before Parsons was pinned by Klayten Perreault, the No. 1 ranked 106 wrestler.
The Panthers won the next four bouts, Travis pinning CJ Martin; Ahrens majoring Jake Haugse; Phelps (126) winning in a decision over Drew Thurn and Keeler pinning Caleb Keegan.
At this point, the Panthers were rolling 34-6 over the team that had crushed them a year ago.
“It was fun,” Bolinger said. “You’ve obviously got the thought in the back of your mind. It was probably one of the more fun duals besides the finals.”
The Jaspers brothers are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 at 138 and 144, so Brandon Briley and Evans had a tough task ahead of them. Both wrestlers stayed off their backs, preventing the dynamic wrestlers from scoring 12 on the Panthers.
“My first two matches, I wasn’t really going in expecting to win, just trying to prevent as many team points for them as possible,” Briley said. “I came out, got majored twice, but four is better than six. I did my job. I thought I could’ve had a closer first match.”
Another ranked wrestler, Mikey Ryan, found a win for the Mustangs at 150, but at 157, Staver was determined to get a win after an unfortunate situation the previous year.
“It felt really good,” Staver said. “Last year we came out in the first round pretty flat. I pinned myself in a tilt. It felt pretty good to get that win back.”
Staver won with a 16-5 major decision over Jackson Hird. Bolinger followed it up with a pin on Cooper Hird.
The Panthers won the semifinals bout by 20 points, 44-24, sending the two seed to wrestle for third.
While Creston was fighting for their chance to go to the finals, they were also watching mat four where Sergeant Bluff-Luton, the five seed, was coming back against the reigning state champions, Osage.
The dual was tied at 33 before the final bout, a foreshadowing of what would happen again in the finals. The Warriors came away with the win, sending Osage to wrestle Mount Vernon for bronze.
Downing said he’s known Creston had a shot for the title. “I believed it all year,” he said. “Until someone beats Osage or Mount Vernon, people don’t believe it. There’s a lot of parity in 2A. Each team had some holes. Each team was beatable, and I believed it all year.”
“I was talking to Downing before the [Mount Vernon] dual and he said, ‘I don’t think you realize, 2A’s wide open. We can actually win this,’” Keeler said. “After we beat Mount Vernon, I said OK this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
Before the team headed out to wrestle the final dual, Downing told them not to be satisfied with just making it to the finals.
“Last year, we were just happy to be in this,” Downing said. “I didn’t want them to have any second thoughts or regrets. We had to see it through. It’s not very often you have a chance to see a state title.”
Fuller was happy to be the one kicking it off. “I felt no pressure. I was ready to go,” he said. “Me and Max had a good warm up, we had good warm ups all day. We both wrestled well all day.”
The Creston crowd was loud as Fuller pinned Ayden Dather in the second period followed by Chapman pinning Mario Rangel in 30 seconds.
The Warriors took wins at 106 and 113, but Travis was able to keep himself off his back, only allowing Sergeant Bluff-Luton to score three points. The Panthers were still up 12-9.
Ahrens came out and got a pin to open the lead 18-9. “There was really no pressure. I feel like the team expected me to score those points,” Ahrens said of his undefeated day. “The whole team, everybody was locked in this week. The atmosphere was different in the room. We felt like state champs practicing all week, and we wrestled like it on the mat.”
Another pin by the Warriors closed the gap to three points, but the Panthers hammered in three consecutive wins, two by seniors ready for their first of the day.
“I look at 132 and 138 in the Sergeant Bluff dual,” Downing said. “Those were toss ups.” Keeler won the 132-bout with a second-period pin against Cassidy Craig. At 138, Briley took down Dalton VanWyhe in a 9-6 decision, celebrating when he was declared the victor.
“I was really impressed with the whole team,” Keeler said. “Everyone wrestled really well, top to bottom. The whole team was amazing, even guys that haven’t been wrestling the best, they stepped up. Today was amazing, definitely the best day of my life.”
After wrestling two of the best kids in the state, Evans was ready for a win. He pinned Elijah Johnson in 3:27 to put the Panthers up 33-15, but the Mustangs were favored in the next three bouts.
Downing said it’s nice to have educated fans who understand a loss can be a win if the wrestler minimizes the point damage. Phelps and Bolinger were each raucously cheered for after losing because neither of them gave up a pin.
“It’s just a group that likes to compete, to fight for each other,” Downing said. “It’s all just one kind of big family that trusts and believes in each other.”
Bolinger was down by eight points, a major decision, as time ticked down in the third period. If he could escape, the loss would only be a decision, putting the Panthers up by six points with two bouts to go.
Bolinger made it to his feet and broke the grip with seconds to spare, saving a team point.
In the penultimate match, Martwick fought to keep his shoulders off the mat, even making one of the first shots. But with only 12 seconds left in the bout, Kaleb Pendergast found the pin to tie it up.
From there, Luther took it to the house, and the Panthers became state champions.
KEELER — I’ve been with these dudes since I was able to walk. We had 25 seniors in football, a bunch in wrestling. It’s just unheard of for that many guys to stick it out that long. Especially in a room where we train hard all the time.
CHAPMAN — It feels amazing. It doesn’t feel real. It needs a second to soak in because it’s truly incredible.
EVANS — It’s awesome. We fell short in football, so to come back and get one, it means the world. This team stuck it out through everything. We’ve been through a lot, but we’re here. That’s all that matters.
FULLER — It feels great. Our sophomore year, me and Max both lost to kids we should have won against and that kicked us out of the state duals. Junior year, we both lost again. It feels good to actually win.
BRILEY — It feels amazing. Last year, I had a tough kid for my wrestle-off. I lost it. I decided to wrestle the rest of the year JV. I knew my place would come eventually. I’d been varsity the two previous years before that. I knew my time would come, and I made it happen. Now we’re state champions.
AHRENS — After freshman year, I never thought we’d be back here and now we’re state champs. It’s a surreal feeling, and I can’t believe it.
DRISKELL — Thank you guys for everything you’ve brought this school and this community. We appreciate it so much and we know great things are in the future, not just for Creston wrestling but also our seniors as they venture on to their next sport. We have to finish the school year and we have to finish the wrestling season. We have two more weeks left.
The Panthers will have senior night Thursday at home.