116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Don’t view Drake Ayala as a college freshman.
Lose the qualifiers like redshirt, first-year starter or even young. Forget that about this time last year, he pinned East Marshall/GMG’s Dom Ridout to win a high school tournament at Benton Community a month before his third state title for Fort Dodge.
Ayala is an Iowa Hawkeye. He is simply a college wrestler, contending for an NCAA title on a team looking for its second straight national team title. So, when Iowa Coach Tom Brands called on him to take on the 125-pound spot to replace three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee last weekend against two ranked wrestlers, he was ready to roll.
“It’s big here that we always need to stay ready, no matter if we’re a freshman, sophomore, senior (or) not in the lineup,” said Ayala, who is 11-3 this season and 1-1 as a starter. “We always have to stay ready. I thought that’s what I did. I stayed ready, so now my time is here.”
Ayala is expected to face his third straight top-10 opponent when top-ranked Iowa opens a weekend road trip Friday night at Northwestern. The Hawkeyes (8-0, 2-0) cap the weekend at Illinois on Sunday.
Ayala embraces the tough schedule, facing Minnesota’s No. 8 Patrick McKee and Purdue’s Devin Schroder, who was ranked fifth before dropping to 14th. The Wildcats’ seventh-ranked Michael DeAugustino (2-0) awaits.
“I wouldn’t say I was really thrown in the fire,” Ayala said about his first starts. “I was just preparing like I always do for each match.
“Nothing really changes. Just another match and I have to get ready for Friday.”
Coaches, Ayala and his family were all on the same page about the decision to enter the lineup. Brands didn’t have to mince words or ease Ayala into the move. It was full speed or no speed.
“If we’re going to go, let’s go,” Brands said. “Those were his words and my words and his family’s words. That is a really good partnership with the philosophy of the program, whether you’re a true freshman or not.
“We embrace him. He embraces us without even talking about it. There’s just so much upside to having a relationship like that.”
Brands and his staff recognized his hustle in matches and his effort in practice. He demonstrated the drive to record bonus-point victories and dominate foes. Brands and staff realized Ayala was primed to start.
“We know that his capability is there,” Brands said. “Just based on the energy in his approach, his training, his attitude, what kind of teammate he is (and) his reputation.”
All-America teammate Max Murin referred to Ayala as one of the “coolest guys on the team,” nicknaming him after the rapper Drake. Murin said he and Ayala built a friendship around wrestling and faith, attending church together when Ayala arrived on campus. Murin said Ayala is just as good of a person as a wrestler.
Murin said he is glad Ayala is a teammate and not on the opposition.
“Drake Ayala is so good at wrestling,” Murin said. “That single (leg attack) he hits is so fast. He could be one of the top guys in the country as a true freshman.
“His maturity as a 19-year-old, you really don’t see that a lot. He’s able to scrap with anyone.”
Ayala is the third Iowa wrestler to start less than a year removed from high school, joining Lee and Abe Assad. All have occurred in the last four years of Brands’ 16 seasons with the Hawkeyes. Brands said he isn’t sure his approach has changed, but admits it has become more frequent. He provided various scenarios like more prepared wrestlers, better recruiting, the right personality in recruits or lineup needs.
“The No. 1 decision has always been, and always will be, what’s best for the athletes first and we’re not going to do something that is a gamble,” Brands said. “In this case with Drake Ayala, it’s not a gamble. We know his approach. We know his attitude. We had dialogue with him, really, throughout the year.”
Wrestlers don’t get to this level without skill. The biggest transition hasn’t been as much physical as it is mental. Ayala has adapted to the different partners, feels and battles in the room.
“It’s so tough,” Ayala said. “Nothing’s really given in the college room. It’s like you’re learning so much each and every day. You have to be a sponge and soak it all up.”
Ayala closed a stellar career at Fort Dodge as a four-time state finalist. He posted a 171-3 career record. Ayala was also a Cadet freestyle and two-time Junior freestyle national champion. Brands called him a priority recruit and a competitor he wanted in black-and-gold.
“He’s someone that was top tier for us,” Brands said. “Just take care of your business, stud, and go do what you do best. That’s the bottom line.”