PITTSBURGH — Over the years, the Walsh Jesuit Ironman has had eventual Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder and world champions wrestle at its tournament.
The pinnacle of high school wrestling has had four-time NCAA champions compete on the mats inside “The Dome” as well.
On Saturday, the NCAA Division I Championships proved once again just how much the Ironman is the precursor for future gains.
“Any situations you can put yourself in that require immense focus over a long period of time that includes toughness and grit is good for you,” said Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, who has been to his share of Ironmans. “The Ironman does that. You’ve got to be focused and ready and on it match after match after match. There’s a lot of learning that occurs, and the Ironman does that.”
Ironmans of the past led to future titles at PPG Paints Arena over the weekend as 330 wrestlers invaded Pittsburgh hoping to grab one of the coveted 10 spots at the top and one of the 80 All-American slots available.
Of the 80, 22 cut their teeth on the Ironman. Of those 22, Jack Mueller (Virginia, 125), Spencer Lee (Iowa, 125), Joey McKenna (Ohio State, 141), Micah Jordan (Ohio State, 149), Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State, 149), Zahid Valencia (Arizona State, 174), Bo Nickal (Penn State, 197) and Derek White (Oklahoma State, 285) were finalists.
That’s eight of a possible 20 finalists from the invitation-only event in Ohio and 28 percent of the top eight wrestlers who made their way to Cuyahoga Falls in high school.
“Wrestling at a high level right at the beginning of the season was always a fun thing,” said McKenna, who won Ironman in 2013 and was runner-up in 2011. “It was good to wrestle all the top Ohio guys and guys around the country. It’s the toughest high school tournament out there. Back at Blair [Academy in Blairstown, N.J.], we always have a championship mindset for what it would be like to wrestle in college.”
That mindset played out over and over again among the 640 matches fans took in.
Determination wasn’t hard to find. Neither was the reserve coaches and wrestlers alike found in some of the hairiest of situations.
Nick Heflin, who was a three-time All-American for Ohio State and national runner-up, remembers his days at Perry where the former two-time state finalist opened his season by competing against the best of the best in high school.
Now an assistant coach at Oklahoma, the 2009 state champion sees similarities between the Ironman and the national championships.
“This is a three-day grind. The Ironman is a two-day grind, but you have the best of the best across the country,” said Heflin, who placed fourth and seventh at the Ironman. “I think the highest I ever placed at Ironman was fourth. I remember the first time I placed was for seventh and eighth and I had a three-time state champ [Zac Cibula of Luxemburg-Casco, Wisconsin]. It’s a good prep for this tournament.”
It's not the wrestling either as the atmosphere mirrors that of nationals on a smaller scale.
“Being on the big stage, especially with the crowd being on top of you just like it is here with the atmosphere, it goes hand in hand,” said Ironman Director of Wrestling Corey Haddad. “It’s the NCAAs of high school wrestling because of the elite level of competition. You have 150 of the nationally ranked wrestlers from the consensus polls there.”
A select few of those 150 go on to be No. 1 at the next level.
They never forget how they reached the pinnacle.
Lee was a three-time Ironman champion for Franklin Regional (Pennsylvania).
Now, the sophomore is a two-time national champion for the Hawkeyes.
“I think having that tough high school schedule helped me the best high school can,” he said. “It prepares you for that grind of the college season.”