Prep Wrestling

Championship reflections: Lisbon's Brad Smith shares stories of past champions

Hall of Fame coach has spent time during pandemic posting about wrestlers' feats on social media

Lisbon's Robert Avila, Jr., celebrates with head coach Brad Smith after defeating Logan-Magnolia's Briar Reisz in the 12
Lisbon’s Robert Avila, Jr., celebrates with head coach Brad Smith after defeating Logan-Magnolia’s Briar Reisz in the 126-pound Class 1A championship bout at the state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Avila Jr won 3-1. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

LISBON — Some memories remain vivid. Others need the cobwebs brushed off with a scrapbook or phone call.

Lisbon wrestling coach Brad Smith has found a way to compile them all for a stroll down memory lane, inviting many of his social media followers along for the trip that revisits golden moments throughout his Hall of Fame career.

Smith has highlighted the feats of state champion wrestlers and teams on his personal Facebook page, sharing stories and behind-the-scene details of their title treks. The labor of love began as a way to pass the extra time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been fun and it keeps me busy,” Smith said. “It’s something I like to do because it pertains to wrestling.

“A lot of people have replied to my posts and said ‘keep them coming.’ They must be liking them.”

The anecdotes have been well received by fans, wrestlers and their families.

“It was nice to be recognized after so many years but to be honest I have enjoyed the pieces he has done on my teammates and now his champs at City High far more,” said Dan Burgess, one of four Lisbon state champions in 1983. “I did not know a lot about all of his champs after I left Lisbon so for me these stories have been delightful.”

Smith’s vast experience and knowledge of the sport has produced plenty of content. The 66-year-old started coaching Lisbon in 1978, replacing another Hall of Famer in Al Baxter. He moved to Iowa City High in 1991, then returned to Lisbon in 2012.

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The all-time leader in dual victories owns a 651-211 mark over 42 years. His 12 traditional team titles is most in Iowa history and seven state duals crowns is tied for first overall. He has coached 35 wrestlers to 83 individual titles. Smith has coached five four-timers, including Lisbon’s Scott Morningstar and City High’s Jeff McGinness for two years. He guided Lisbon’s Shane Light, Carter Happel and Cael Happel for all four.

He saved scrapbooks from each year during his first stint at Lisbon. He only saved specific articles during his stretch at City High and second tenure with the Lions. The latter two are still very fresh in his mind. He also reaches out to others if he needs more information or insight.

Smith has posted 21 stories, beginning with one about his sons — Jacob, Cody and Colton — who wrestled for him at City High. Jacob and Cody were members of a Little Hawks team that swept state team titles. Jacob was a state finalist, while Cody was fourth. Colton, the youngest, was the only one to be a four-time state qualifier.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” Smith said. “When I read something in a scrapbook I’ve saved it enlightens you a little bit. Just little stuff you forget that kids say about the program, their teammates and what wrestling has done for them. That’s what it’s all about.

“The kids see it and send a message back to me or give me a call. It’s good to keep in touch with guys you coached 35 to 40 years ago. It’s been neat getting posts and replies from people I haven’t seen or talked to in years.”

Among the gems are storied careers like Royce Alger, who was a three-time state champion, two-time NCAA champion at Iowa and a World medalist, and four-timer Shane Light, one of three brothers and four total family members included.

“I had to do two posts on Royce,” Smith said. “He had so many accomplishments in high school and even more collegiately. That’s what I’ll probably do with Jeff (McGinness), too.”

Don’t forget the inspirational underdog tales, including Burgess, Lisbon’s Brian Hall and City High’s Louis Pelsang.

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Hall trailed 14-2 before throwing his opponent to his back and winning his 1980 championship by pin. Burgess was probably one the more unlikely titlists, admitting he might have had a losing career record. Work ethic and determination helped him overcome a serious elbow injury and shoot to the top of the podium. Pelsang started the postseason unranked and almost wasn’t around for his final run.

Both Hall and Pelsang clinched team titles with their finals victories.

“I remember that match like it was yesterday,” Smith said of Hall. “It was unbelievable. He tossed the guy. The guy tried to get off the mat and Hallsy pulled him back on and it was 2 feet from me when he got the fall.”

Pelsang was the most recent, kicking off the City High chapter.

“He went through a lot of adversity,” Smith said. “He was ready to quit his senior year. He ends up winning a state title and clinching the state championship for the team. He just turned it on and peaked at the right time.”

Many takes rest among the interesting and entertaining. Brian Stewart quit wrestling after seventh grade and played basketball the following year. He didn’t return to the program until whipping a wrestler during the wrestling unit in Smith’s physical education class. Stewart won the 130-pound state title as a senior and went on to win an NCAA Division III crown for Baxter at Buena Vista.

Dean Happel, a current assistant and Carter’s and Cael’s father, was a three-time champ for Smith. Dean and his twin brother weren’t wrestlers when they transferred to Lisbon in junior high. Smith told how he wasted little time getting them involved.

“The second day I got them out for wrestling,” Smith said. “I knew they had moved in and they had never wrestled a day in their lives. Dean’s story is unbelievable. He started wrestling in seventh grade. The guy was so natural and became a three-time state champ.”

Smith is genuine when he says each of his wrestlers have earned his respect and that he has an affection for each competitor he has coached, regardless of accomplishments. The stories are an example of that.

“He is genuine in his love of the sport and how he feels about his athletes,” said Burgess, receiving a reminder of Smith’s lessons during a recent leadership program experience. “That shows through in his leadership style and I think that has so much to do with his success. I don’t ever recall hearing Brad ever brag about any of his accomplishments. When you have his track record, you don’t need to. I talk with Brad often and every once in awhile we may discuss a match from 35 to 40 years ago. I am always amazed how he can recall not only who won but how it was scored. When I think of all the kids he has coached in his career, which is truly amazing.”

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Of course, he has done this with a familiar fan by his side. His wife, Connie, has been there for the duration, which he appreciates as much as anything. They have been held up together throughout the pandemic.

“She’s like, ‘Are you working on another one?’“ Smith said with a laugh. “She’s real supportive. We do our own thing. We spend a lot of time together.”

Picking a favorite is impossible for Smith. He takes pride in each of their achievements, especially those performances no one outside himself and the competitor expected it to happen. Smith plans to continue with the stories, finishing his City High experiences and touching on the Lisbon champions before he took over the program.

“Right now, I’d be going to Lisbon three times a week to open the room and doing freestyle,” Smith said. “The good thing about this pandemic is that I’ve got time to reflect back on my career. I’m going to add a few more years and stay at it a few more years.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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