Walden Grove's wrestling team captured the Division III state championship last month, the first in school history, but the road to the title actually started at last year's state tournament.
In 2018, the Red Wolves were a half-point away from victory only to see it snatched away in a match that didn't even feature a Walden Grove wrestler.
"That was the most heartbreaking moment I’ve ever been a part of in terms of sports," assistant coach Corey Noble said.
One of the top wrestlers on the team, senior Diego Guerrero, said “There definitely were some tears.”
"Seeing that Yuma kid pin the kid from Moon Valley, all of our hearts dropped," he said.
The pain of that loss fueled the team to train harder, become faster, stronger, whatever it took to get better and earn the top spot that had been tantalizingly close.
This season, the team didn’t leave their fate to anyone but themselves. After a dominating first day of competition, the Red Wolves couldn’t be caught.
“We just had to win any two matches on Day Two and the title was ours,” Noble said.
From there, it wasn’t a matter of if they would be state champs, but by what margin and how many individuals would bring home gold.
One individual title that was never really in doubt was Guerrero’s. Coming in as the three-time champion in the 132-pound weight class, he continued his streak with a fourth individual state title and Wrestler of the Year honors.
Two other seniors, Evan Killgore, and Jackson Edwards, also brought home individual titles, and head coach Victor Gonzalez was named Coach of the Year.
Of the 14 wrestlers on the Walden Grove varsity squad, half are graduating after years working with coaches like Gonzalez and Noble.
Many have competed together since middle school, which has created a strong bond.
"They motivate each other, hold each other accountable, because they feel comfortable around each other," Noble said. "They all want the other guys to succeed, and they help each other reach those goals.”
Although the team was packed with seniors, Guerrero said everyone took on leadership roles and pushed each other.
"One guy might help you with footwork while another might be stronger on the mat," he said. "Everybody learns from each other."
Of course, improving starts with the coaches, which Guerrero said are "phenomenal."
"Everyone pushes you in that room," he said. "The coaching staff is very involved, from wrestling with us to showing us individual techniques to taking guys aside and working on whatever they need to get better."
Noble said that good coaching starts even before the athletes enter the high school program.
"Our middle school coach, he does an outstanding job with these guys, and he has for a long time and he's part of our high school staff as well," he said. "So there's a lot of continuity with the things he's teaching and with what we teach all the way through."
Even then, Noble said it's "a big step up" from middle school to high school wrestling, and the athletes always show marked improvement.
"With a guy like Diego, who's a four-time state champ, he obviously came in at a very high level, but even he has grown exponentially as a wrestler from the time he was a freshman until he was a senior," he said.
Guerrero also has enjoyed watching his teammates develop alongside him.
"It's cool seeing everybody growing up," he said. "We all started not even knowing how to wrestle, and seeing everybody progress through the years, and this year having three individual state championships, was amazing for us, along with the team title."
None of that success would have been possible without dedication, Noble said.
"It's pretty awesome to see what this group of guys has done," he said. "Wrestling is the hardest sport there is. There's no harder sport anywhere, it's a grind every single day. There's nowhere to hide. It's you against one other person, and you're either going to win or lose."
The skills required to find success in the sport, like hard work, discipline and accountability, translates to meeting their goals in other areas of life as well.
"If they can take those same attributes to the classroom, to college, and more importantly to life, and they're going to be successful," Noble said. "The things they've done and the work they've put in, if they can do this, they can be successful anywhere in life, take the lessons they've learned to the real important stuff.”
Guerrero agreed with Noble "100 percent."
"That's one thing I love about wrestling," he said. "It teaches you a lot more than just a sport. It's full of life lessons, and a lot of those lessons you carry with you, to your job or to college."
"Wrestling has definitely helped me out with grades," he added. "Starting off, I wasn't the best student, and knowing that I have to keep my grades up in order to wrestle was a real incentive for me, and helped me become the student I am today."
Several of the young men from the squad will continue in the sport they have been dedicated to for years, as they prepare to wrestle in college.
"All six of our seniors that have been here the longest are going to have the opportunity to get some of their education paid for and wrestle at the next level, and that's incredible to see the work they've put in, and to see it lead to the point where they can go get an education at the college level," Noble said. "Because of the hard work they have put in, in the classroom, and on the wrestling mat — that's incredibly rewarding."
He added that it's "an amazing example for anybody, but especially for the younger wrestlers in the room, to see that hard work pays off, not just with an individual or a state title, or a lot of wins, or even a team state title, but being able to say you get to go to college, and someone is going to pay for your education. That's a big deal."
Guerrero is excited to continue his wrestling career at Western Iowa.
"Being able to see that these last four years, making sure my grades are right, checking with my teachers every day, has really paid off, in order to not have to pay for my school," he said.
But what comes next for Walden Grove's wrestling program, now that so many top seniors are leaving?
"I think the future is bright, the guys who have been there the last four years have laid an amazing foundation for success and hard work," Noble said.
"We're not just gonna have a class like what we're graduating every year, where we have six or seven monsters," he added. "But we have a lot of solid kids coming up, two juniors who were in the state finals, another junior who placed third this year, and a good crop of quality young kids coming up, so I think we're gonna continue to have success."
No matter what comes next, Noble will be looking forward to the experience, while keeping this class in a special place.
"My favorite thing about coaching wrestling is the personal relationships that you develop with these guys," he said. "It's a smaller group, it's not like football where you have 125 kids in the program. The core varsity group is 14 wrestlers, so you really develop a relationship with those guys, get to know them really well."
"Especially a group like this, with these seniors, where we have been with them since they were freshman, knowing about them and working with them for 5-6 years, to see where they are now, it's incredibly rewarding and humbling."
Andrew Paxton 520-547-9747