Prep Wrestling

Lisbon's Cael Happel eyes fourth state wrestling title to add to family legacy

Senior 138-pounder could join older brother, Carter, as four-time state wrestling champion

Lisbon's Cael Happel gets up after beating Alburnett's Noah Mackey in their 138-weight semifinal bout of the Class 1A se
Lisbon's Cael Happel gets up after beating Alburnett's Noah Mackey in their 138-weight semifinal bout of the Class 1A sectional at Lisbon High School in Lisbon on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Cael Happel has envisioned the moment 100 times.

The match. The outcome. The emotion. The crowd.

All of it has been a dream since he was an eighth-grader, witnessing his older brother, Carter, receive the customary standing ovation reserved for four-time state champions.

“We were sitting in the nose bleed seats that year,” Happel said. “There was a lot of emotion to it.

“Right then, I was thinking 'this is awesome. I want to do this.' It started that next day. That’s my goal. I’m going to achieve that.”

The Lisbon senior finds himself on the brink of turning that aspiration into a realization. Happel will attempt to enter Iowa’s elite group of four-timers this week at the Class 1A state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The three-day event begins Thursday at 9 a.m. with the first round of 3A.

Happel and Adam Allard, of West Sioux, have the opportunity to become the 28th and 29th preps to win four titles. Happel, the top-ranked 138-pounder, has won previous crowns at 113, 120 and 132.

“It’s just one match at a time,” said Happel, who opens with Oakland Riverside’s Nolan Moore (40-10). “I don’t know who I have first round. I couldn’t tell you his name, but I’ve been wrestling that match in my head a lot, visualizing scores, visualizing beating him and moving on. Then three more after that.”

Not only did the image of Carter’s fourth title resonate with Cael, but so did the gesture that followed. Carter offered his black-and-red Nike Kolat wrestling shoes that he wore for each finals match.


Those shoes were for the first three championship victories and returned to his closet where they remained until he packed for Des Moines. Even though they are tight now, he plans to don them again Saturday night.

“It’s kind of weird to go out of your comfort zone to put a pair of shoes on but it’s been working the last three years,” Cael Happel said. “Nothing real special about them. He wore them all four years, gave them to me and told me go win some titles in them.”

Lisbon Hall of Famer Brad Smith has coached four members of the four-timers club, including Carter Happel. Smith said Cael’s work ethic and relentless attacks to score set him apart.

“One thing, for sure, is his work ethic,” Smith said. “He has a lot of mental toughness. He’s usually the last guy to walk off the mat in practice and he’s put a lot of time in during the offseason. He’s developed and conditioned himself to be where he is, right now.”

The University of Northern Iowa signee already ranks third all-time in victories, owning a 210-5 career record including a 46-0 mark this season. Interestingly, he wasn’t the most successful at the start. Quincy and Carter won more titles as youths, forcing Cael to develop that work ethic that propelled him to third in’s 138 national rankings.

“In eighth grade, I think I really turned the corner,” Cael Happel said. “I said I’m done being this (steppingstone) almost, living in these guys’ shadow. I’m going to make a name for myself.

“Other than that, I just shut up and put in the work. I strap my shoes on every day and try to get better than I was yesterday.”

As tenacious as he has been on the mat, a stranger wouldn’t be able to single him out as one of the all-time bests by his actions. He remains grounded, jumping in as one of the first to roll up mats after the Lions’ sectional meet at home.


Even during the meet, Smith said he walked over to his wife, Connie, who was standing to see if she needed a seat. Smith said he was also the first to say “Thank you” at the team’s spaghetti dinner she prepared.

“That is the type of kid he is,” Smith said. “He cares about other people. He’s a class act and a good kid.”

Happel has been as dominant as anyone on the list of legends he will try to join. During his run to be one of 93 three-time titlists, he has scored bonus points against every state opponent, recording three pins, seven technical falls, an injury default and a 23-9 major decision over Underwood’s Logan James in last year’s finals.

In those 12 matches, Happel has outscored foes, 220-70. He hasn’t been taken down, allowing just two reversals and 66 escapes.

“He’s always wanted to dominate every single match,” Dean Happel said. “He’s said he’s going to put four more matches together. He’s going to treat it like any other match and he’s going to go out and dominate. That’s what he’s been doing his whole high school career.

“It’s amazing. He’s dominating that much with pinning or tech (falling) guys, so there are no worries.”

If he can complete the feat, he will add another brick in the wall of the family legacy. It would be the eighth straight year a Happel won a state championship and the 11th overall, including three won by their dad, Dean. The number could grow to 12 if younger brother and Lisbon’s top-seeded 106-pound Quincy Happel earns his first gold.

If Cael can complete the feat, the Happels can be the second brother tandem in the group, joining Don Bosco’s Mack and Bart Reiter. The Happels can supplant the Gibbons family with the most state titles among an immediate family.


“It’s just a record, but it is fun,” Dean Happel said. “It is cool. If Quincy continues it on, it is what it is.”

Family is important to Cael Happel, growing up as one of nine siblings. They were home-schooled by their mother, Dawn. He recalled the time spent with them and being his first friends.

The family also has a competitive dynamic, including backyard Wiffle ball games that turned a little physical. He might be alone on the mat and Dean, a Lisbon assistant, might be in his corner, but the whole family is with him.

“It was kind of the competitive nature I grew up in,” Cael Happel said. “Seeing them succeed in sports and wanting to succeed in sports myself — almost to make them proud of me.

“I take pride in representing the name of Happel. Hopefully, I’ve come a long way and I’m going to succeed on Saturday night and make them proud.”

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