NORTH LIBERTY — Iowa City Liberty’s wrestling program is in its infancy.
But, the Lightning have already begun to take some baby steps toward becoming a fully-grown program.
In a little more than a week into the inaugural season, Liberty already has two victories and had a decent showing in its first tournament Saturday. The Lightning will continue to build on early successes, trying to establish the culture throughout the year.
Liberty is led by co-head coaches Tom Van Dyke and Joe Williams. Van Dyke was a recent assistant coach at Iowa City West after head coaching stints at Red Oak and Griswold. Williams, a four-time All-American and three-time NCAA champion for Iowa, was a youth coach.
“I think there is some big excitement,” Van Dyke said. “We’d like to have more numbers. We’re going to build.”
The campaign to increase the 21-wrestler roster is an ongoing process. Just because the season started doesn’t mean the recruiting has ended. They keep promoting the program in hopes of bringing in more athletes.
“We’re still in the hallways and lunch room talking to kids,” Van Dyke said. “We’re still in some ears. We just got a new guy out last week.”
The Lightning are young, which isn’t unexpected with the school’s recent opening. The team consists of 19 freshmen and sophomores, but many of them have wrestled a lot of matches in youth circuits.
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“We have some quality young kids,” Van Dyke said. “They have to mature.”
Liberty opened the season with a 42-38 victory over Cedar Rapids Washington and added a 45-21 win over Mediapolis Tuesday night. Van Dyke said forfeits played a part, but it doesn’t take away from the milestone. Sandwiched between the dual victories was a fifth-place showing at the Tipton Invitational, earning two runner-up and three third-place finishes.
Ashton Barker (152) is 5-2, 138-pounder Kaleb Williams, Joe’s son, is 6-2 with two pins and Klein Thoensen is 4-2 with two falls to lead the Lightning.
Van Dyke said he and Williams have emphasized giving their best each day, putting everything on the line to be competitive. The goal is to work hard, compete and see where it takes them in February.
“Coach Williams and I have high expectations of them,” Van Dyke said. “Our guys have taken the challenge. They’ve done a super job.
“We are super proud of their effort.”
Unfortunately, many teams were locked into a schedule. Liberty was not able to add a home event this season, but the Lightning have a competition date available, if someone has an event canceled.
Liberty was built from scratch, presenting more obstacles than rebuilding a running program. The staff embraced it, having to start a youth program, order mats, uniforms and help with the room layout for the team. Everything is starting to fall into place and they have the resources to create something special.
“It’s not an overnight process,” Van Dyke said. “We have a great community. We have great coaches. We have a good club. We’re lucky to have that for our foundation.”
HAWKS TAKING OFF
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West Delaware appears to be turning things around from being grounded the last few years. The Hawks are off to a strong start, beating Class 3A power Waverly-Shell Rock, 36-31, in the season-opening dual last week and winning the Bob Murphy Invitational at home Saturday.
The program won the 2013 2A state traditional tournament champion and was the state dual runner-up in 2012 and 2013. West Delaware dipped the last three seasons, finishing outside the top 30 in the 2A state meet.
The Hawks learned from some growing pains.
“It started with our sophomore and junior classes,” West Delaware Coach Jeff Voss said. “Our upside started a couple years ago. Now, they have enough varsity experience to show what they can do.”
Young talent has meshed with established leaders like state qualifiers Mitchel Mangold (3rd at 145) and Harrison Goebel. The Hawks started seven freshmen and sophomores in the first two events, which climbed to eight after a freshman won a recent heavyweight wrestle-off.
West Delaware placed 13 wrestlers Saturday, receiving titles from Cael Meyer (145), Mangold (152), 170-pounder Jack Neuhaus and Goebel at 195. The Hawks beat third-ranked Davenport Assumption, by 31 points.
“Our upperclassmen set a good example,” Voss said. “The younger guys are following.”
Solon sophomore Zeb Gnida defeated Williamsburg’s top-ranked and defending state champion Grayson Kesterson, 3-1, at 113 pounds. The victory helped the Spartans to a 32-31 victory.
Gnida, who won 30 matches as a freshman, followed it with a sixth-place finish at the 31-team Cliff Keen Independence Invitational on Saturday. Gnida is 5-3 this season.
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