DES MOINES — Isaac Judge was not burdened by state title expectations a year ago.
This season started with some ordaining him a repeat finalist. The South Tama senior and 2017 state champion attempted to put a stop to the chatter.
The topic is no longer in question or up for debate.
Judge earned a chance to defend his 152-pound title at the Class 2A state wrestling tournament Friday at Wells Fargo Arena. He returned to the finals with a 4-1 victory over West Liberty’s third-ranked Joe Kelly.
“This year, people were talking ‘Oh, you’re going to make it to the finals’ “ Judge said. “I said let’s just talk making it to state first. I know things can happen.
“I just want to be grateful for the opportunity and to be there is great. One more match in my high school career.”
Top-ranked Judge (47-2) faces Spirit Lake Park’s Kyler Rieck (46-3) with a chance to win South Tama’s 12th individual crown. He could become the first Trojan to repeat.
“It’s a great feeling,” Judge said. “I could be the first two-timer ever in South Tama history, which means a lot to the tradition.”
For the second straight season, Judge advanced at the expense of Kelly. Last year, they tangled in the quarterfinals with Judge winning by major decision. This time points were a little scarce.
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The first period was scoreless and Judge pulled away with four in the second period. He earned a penalty point for two stalling calls on Kelly and escaped. Judge added a takedown before the third, giving up an escape in the final frame.
“Really smart match from Isaac,” South Tama Coach Nathan Van Dyke said. “The more you wrestle an opponent the closer it can get and you get a little familiar with each other. I thought he wrestled really smart. He was super confident going in and he’s really confident right now.”
Judge stepped on the mat immediately after teammate Brady Fritz stepped off, punching his own ticket to the finals. Teammates Colton Vest and Tanner Probasco were also competing at the time, adding a little adrenaline.
“We all feed off each other,” said Judge, noting they push and pick up each other in practice. “We’re a very close unit.”
Fifth-ranked Fritz scored takedowns in the first and third for a 5-1 decision over Winterset’s Jack West at 132.
Fritz ignited the Trojans’ big second day, beating West Liberty’s top-ranked Will Esmoil, 5-1, to claim his third state medal, placing seventh last year after a sixth-place finish in 2016.
“He’s wrestling his best,” Van Dyke said. “He’s wrestling outstanding. With that being said, we knew he had that capability and those were his goals.”
South Tama built momentum, winning 7 of 10 matches including all three quarterfinals. The Trojans moved into second place with 60 points, trailing leader Dubuque Wahlert by 19. New Hampton/Turkey Valley is third with 59.
The Trojans are just focused on individual performances and a team trophy would be gravy.
“I think the team stuff will take care of itself,” Van Dyke said. “I told them I don’t need that but I want you to be successful and it would be awesome to do that for our school.”
West Liberty’s Bryce Esmoil has a chance to repeat. The Comets four-time state medalist won his ninth straight state tournament bout, topping DeWitt Central’s Nick Smith, 9-3, in the 195-pound final.
Esmoil, a University of Northern Iowa signee, will take on Woodward-Granger’s Cody Fisher (54-2), attempting to be the school’s first back-to-back titlist and the second two-time champ since Nick Marin won in 1994 and 1996.
“I have the same kid, so it’s going to be a mirror of last year,” Esmoil said. “Hopefully, it is the same outcome, too.
“I just like going out and having fun. My senior year, win or lose, I’m going to go out and fight my hardest and let the chips fall where they may.”
North Fayette Valley’s second-ranked Jordan Baumler capped his prep career with a second straight state title match berth. He used a pair of first-period takedowns to beat Ida Grove OA-BCIG’s Tyler Anderson, 6-3, at 220.
The early scores were crucial.
“It’s important,” said Baumler, who pinned is way to the semifinals. “You have to build on that. You don’t want to be wrestling in close matches, because anything can happen.”
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Baumler (38-2) has wrestled with a target on his back after winning the 220-pound title last year. He knew the road will be tougher. Baumler will wrestle Dubuque Wahlert’s top-ranked Boone McDermott (44-1) in the final, trying to be the program’s first two-time champ since Jim Guyer won his second crown for North Fayette in 1987.
“This year, there are no excuses,” Baumler said. “You have to go out there and get the job done. It’s a damn good feeling.”
Dyersville Beckman’s Luke Hageman struggled to reach state, starting the last two regular seasons ranked but finishing third at districts. Last year, he was denied by the eventual state champion and bronze medalist.
In his first state appearance, Hageman will be wrestling for a title. Hageman (43-3) beat Osage’s Zach Williams, 6-1, in the 160 semifinals, becoming the Blazers’ first state finalist since Brian Milbert in 2001.
He was dominant in his last two matches, outscoring his last two opponents by a 15-1 margin, after rallying for his opening-round victory.
“Getting that first match out of the way helped,” Hageman said. “Just getting used to the environment and awesome atmosphere.”
Hageman will have a familiar foe in the finals. He has wrestled Wahlert’s top-ranked Josh Ramirez (12-2) each of the last three weekends, losing in the sectional and district final.
“I just have to keep working myself and get to my moves and setups,” Hageman said. “I think I’ll be fine.”
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