MOUNT VERNON — The drop ceiling in the Mount Vernon wrestling room measures around 8 feet from mat to someone’s head going through the drop ceiling.
Or their feet scraping that poor, poor drop ceiling.
Tristan Wirfs is 6-foot-5. That math was never going to work.
Aaron Truitt is the assistant wrestling coach at Mount Vernon, under head coach Vance Light. Light won two state titles for Lisbon in the 1980s. He won those at 112 and 119 pounds. Truitt weighs in around 230.
So, guess who got to wrestle with Tristan Wirfs on a regular basis?
“My wife wasn’t real excited,” Truitt said. “We had an 8-foot drop ceiling in the wrestling room. Twice, he threw my head through the ceiling tiles. He was so tall and he’d lift me so high.
“Once my head hit the tiles and another time my feet hit them when he threw me.”
This also happened to Matt Kroul.
Let’s try that again. This also happened to Matt Kroul. You remember Matt. He was a four-year starter at defensive tackle for the Hawkeyes. He played three seasons with the New York Jets, playing in six games in 2010.
Wirfs put Kroul’s feet through the drop ceiling.
“I had a similar experience,” Kroul said with a laugh.
Football always was going to find Wirfs. He’s 6-5, 320 pounds. That was just going to happen.
Wrestling was something very different. He jumped into it to be with his friends, but wrestling does things to big bodies, especially if that big body is relatively new to the sport.
“He didn’t have the confidence when he was young,” Light said. “He would always look at how big the other heavyweights were. He thought they were huge. When he was a freshman, he was 6-1 and around 245 pounds, so it wasn’t like he was little. He didn’t see himself as measuring up to their size.”
With anything Wirfs and sports and the early years, you already know what stood in front of him.
“There’s a reason he struggled as a freshman,” Light said. “Growing up, he was so much bigger than everyone else. Everyone always told him be careful, don’t hurt anybody. When you get to freshman wrestling, it’s ‘Why are you playing paddycake?’ He had to retrain his thought process on his physicality when he got to high school.”
You could make an argument that is exactly what happened during Wirfs’ four years as a Mount Vernon wrestler.
Wirfs was a freshman asked to wrestle heavyweight. Of course, he struggled. Coaches wanted him to wrestle varsity for duals so Mount Vernon didn’t have to forfeit heavyweight.
Wirfs was given the option to wrestle weekend tournaments with the varsity or JV.
“He came out and worked hard and decided he wanted to wrestle varsity, but he really struggled,” Truitt said. “He was 7-25 as a freshman, and I think he got pinned in 23 of those losses. Physically, he hadn’t caught up to his body.”
Maybe the best thing to happen to Wirfs the athlete is making the varsity baseball team as a freshman. He got used to being in the competitive realm. Football was going to be fine. This experience really showed up in wrestling and almost right away, with his sophomore record basically flipping from a rough freshman year.
His freshman year, by the way, Wirfs describes this way: “I think if you look at pictures of me during my freshman wrestling season, I looked funny. If you look at this picture compared to one from my freshman year wrestling? Oh my gosh.”
Josh Cannon, who wrestled 220 pounds as a senior when Wirfs was a freshman, can verify this.
“As a freshman, he still had a little of ... I don’t want to say pudge, but he had a little bit of pudge on him,” Cannon said.
Truitt kept wrestling fun and that kept Wirfs in it. Truitt kind of saw maybe where this was going.
So, for Wirfs’ senior year, Truitt found a couple of practice partners for Wirfs.
“I recruited a couple old Mount Vernon guys — Matt Kroul, obviously you know Matt, and Justin Dix (a former Mount Vernon assistant wrestling coach),” Truitt said. “They traded off Mondays and Tuesdays. One of them would be in there on Monday and Tuesday to work out with Tristan. I had him Wednesdays and Fridays.”
Friday was more match prep, but Wednesday ...
“He would throw me around,” Truitt said. “The head coach would laugh and ask ‘Why are you tied up chest to chest with him?’ I said, ‘I want him to feel those situations, to be able to score.’ I’ll sacrifice my body for him to be able to get the right feel, to be able to know when to attack and when to push and when to pull.
“I got to roll with him a couple of times a week.”
‘Justin from the bank ...’
In a discussion on Tristan Wirfs’ wrestling partners, his mom, Sarah, was quick to mention “Justin from the bank.”
Here’s Justin Dix from the Mount Vernon Bank and Trust Company. He turns 40 in early August. He’s a former Mount Vernon wrestler and Cornell College graduate.
“I got a job working here with the stipulation that I could coach some wrestling,” Dix said. “Dave (Ryan, the bank president and, well, you have to keep reading) was on board with that.”
Dix’s first rounds in the MV wrestling room as a coach were with ... Matt Kroul.
“It was a natural fit to just jump in there with the big guys,” Dix said.
How old were you when you were wrestling with Tristan?
“This would’ve been three years ago and I’ll be 40 next week, so 37,” Dix said. “Yup, yup, 37.”
What makes a 37-year-old man want to do that?
“I’ve just been a lifelong wrestling guy,” he said. “I love wrestling and he was an easy guy to want to help. Great attitude. He’d get done with a practice that he didn’t enjoy and he’d come up and say thank you and shake your hand. You know he didn’t want you to be there, but deep down he knew it would be the best for him.”
Dix wasn’t the “teacher,” that was Truitt. Dix was a big body that got Wirfs’ attention the way only a few of his teammates could.
“Our biggest challenge was to get him to be mean. He was just such a good guy,” Dix said. “I could just feel, ‘Oh my god, here comes this guy in here. I don’t want to hurt him.’ The only way to figure it out — and it’s the same way it worked with Matt Kroul — you just had to start brawling with them and before you knew it, they got the idea.”
Still doing it?
Dix’s son, Andrew, is 10 and just starting out.
“I’m helping out with the little kids,” Dix said. “I really enjoy the sport and enjoy the guys. I don’t go all day everyday, but I pop in once a week usually.”
Kroul, along with the aforementioned athletics resume, won a state heavyweight title for Mount Vernon in 2004.
He was around 30 when Truitt gave him a call to come in and wrestle with Wirfs. Kroul had a clear mission: Agitate.
“My job was to try to get him to flip the trigger every once in awhile,” Kroul said on the cellphone during a nice stretch of July weather at Kroul Farms. “So, I wouldn’t dirty wrestle, but I’d do a little thing in a front headlock or, you know, do a thing to the clavicle if he wasn’t moving on the bottom.”
“It triggered one day,” Kroul said. “He shot a double and lifted me up and my feet hit the top of the ceiling. I said, ‘OK, you need to do that every time you’re wrestling and every minute that you’re out here. There’s no reason why that can’t happen every time.’”
Kroul had seen a few things in athletics. Tristan was open to the guidance. You don’t hang out in a wrestling room if you aren’t.
“I was like, ‘Tristan, I was 235 my senior year wrestling guys who were 275 or 285. I was the more athletic one because I was 235 and was in better shape.’ I wrestled that way,” Kroul said. “I go, ‘In your world, Tristan, you’re the most athletic one AND you’re the one who weighs 285. Stop hesitating and shoot and get after them and go.’
“He was timid. I said, ‘You don’t have to be timid.’ I tried to put that in his head. ‘In your world, you’re the biggest and most athletic, so go get it.’ That was my mantra with him.”
Kroul’s athletic ego took a bruising in July. His Solon Beef Days hay bale toss record was broken. Keegan Tritle, a thrower for the Northern Iowa track team, cleared 13-6 with the 60-pound hay-and-twine ball.
“All we’re doing is shot putting a hay bale,” Kroul said. “If some big shot putter comes in, he’s going to go take it. Keegan launched that sucker pretty good.”
(So, right now, you’re probably wondering, “Has Tristan Wirfs competed in the hay bale toss?” The answer is yes. He cleared 12 feet for the 2017 title, just before he went to his first Iowa football camp. “It’s tough. I wasn’t expecting it to be so heavy,” Wirfs said. “I’ve bailed hay before and stuff, but tossing them up there, it was something different. It kind of takes it out of you. It’s a marathon, you just have to keep going. It’s a lot of fun.”)
So, maybe Kroul’s hay bale days are over. Wrestling? Are you kidding?
“Everyone asks if I miss football,” Kroul said. “Yeah, but you really tend to miss wrestling more if you’re any good at it or had any success. You almost miss that sport more. I rolled around with the older (Logan, a wrestler at Minnesota State) Linderbaum before Tristan and with Tyler (Linderbaum, headed into his first season as center at Iowa).
“If Mount Vernon or Solon has a good heavyweight, I try to get in there.”
‘I really had to watch out for that blast double leg of his’
Cannon had the “pudge” thought from above. You should know how he finished that thought.
“It is true, but he grew into that body and he is lean and mean and a fighting machine,” Cannon said. “You could tell he had the raw talent. We had to form that talent and get him to be able to use it.”
Cannon put the hurting on Wirfs in the wrestling room that first year. Cannon always left room for teaching and motivation.
“I understand, you can have a guy who beats up on you every single day,” Cannon said. “He was making me better by wrestling with me, even though I was the better wrestler. I always was thankful. ‘Hey, I’m making you better and you’re making me better. This is a partnership.
“‘I’m not here just to beat the crap out of you everyday. That’s no fun for either of us. Neither of us gets anything out of that.’ I always tried to be encouraging. ‘You need to work on things, I need to work on things. Let’s work on these things together.’”
Wirfs got bigger. Wirfs got better.
“By the time he was a senior, I still think I could beat him in a wrestling match, but I really had to watch out for that blast double of his,” Cannon said.
Basically, that’s a tackle. It’s a double-leg takedown straight to the opponent’s back.
“He just had a killer double leg and he could blast it off at any moment,” Cannon said. “I think he knocked the wind out of me a couple of times.”
Reflecting on the Mount Vernon wrestling culture and what it did for him, Cannon called it all a blessing.
“I’m really glad I got to grow up with that,” Cannon said.
“It’s a really big family. That’s really the only way you can say it. Even this summer, I’ll go in and wrestle with the guys. The 220-pounder’s last name is Kamerling and I’ve been trying to get him going. It’s a love for the sport, but more importantly, it’s a love for Mount Vernon wrestling. The coaches are so good at staying in contact with the former wrestlers and keeping them up to date, what’s happening and what we can do to help. I just think that’s really important.”
So, yes, Wirfs did eventually knock the wind out of Cannon, but for Cannon, that was a feeling of success (we are talking about Mount Vernon wrestlers).
“Everything was there from the beginning,” Cannon said of Wirfs. “Whatever he set his mind to, he could do it. We just had to inform him that he is capable of this. You can be a state champion in wrestling, a sport in which you can’t rely on anyone else but yourself, which I think is the main lesson in wrestling.
“It teaches you to be mentally tough and that’s the thing that can transfer into so many other things. You’re the only one on the mat. You have a coach in the corner who can yell at you as much as he wants, but you’re the one who has to believe in yourself and want to win.”
Cannon went on to wrestle for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He finished his eligibility and has one semester remaining. He’ll finish his industrial engineering and drafting degrees this fall before heading to Delhi for a job with Stanley Infrastructure.
With his eligibility exhausted, Cannon still is helping out with wrestling. You probably saw that coming.
‘Like a big teddy bear ...’
During his years as a Mount Vernon wrestler, Matt Wenzel gave the Mustangs a 220-pounder who liked to mix it up.
“He’s a little deceiving,” said Light said after Wenzel delivered a pin for a double dual victory over South Tama and Center Point-Urbana. “He’s a 220-pounder but he likes to roll around like a little guy.”
This worked when Wenzel started running into Wirfs in the room.
“He was a super fun kid and a really big guy,” Wenzel said. “He got better and better the more he grew into his body. He was a big teddy bear. He was uncomfortable with it at first, but he started figuring it out his sophomore year.
“He was getting closer to 285 and he wasn’t scared out there.”
Did Wenzel meet the drop ceiling?
“There was a cushion up there, I kept hitting that,” said Wenzel, who lives in the Quad Cities and is studying to become a nurse. “I was around 220 pounds. He was 285 in the room or more. I couldn’t do much about it.”
This is the story of the toughest kid in Mount Vernon’s 2017 graduating class.
“Oh for sure,” Dix said. “I don’t think Tristan would even argue that.”
So, remember “Dave” from above, with Dix’s story?
That’s Dave Ryan. He is the president at Mount Vernon Bank and Trust Company. Ryan also guided Mount Vernon’s kids wrestling program (first through sixth grade) for the better part of 20 years.
Tristan Wirfs went through the program in grades first through third.
“He was all smiles and very coachable,” Ryan said. “He was also very tall, and big all over. Big feet. And he was always wearing basketball clothing, which drove me nuts.”
Dave’s daughter, Libby, also was in there. Something about rambunctiousness, Dave Ryan said.
Wirfs trampled everyone.
“It wasn’t necessarily because of his wrestling prowess, but due to his sheer size, strength and quickness,” Dave Ryan said. “I recall he was quick for his size. Things finally got to the point where we couldn’t find him a consistent partner. Kids started shying away from him. I didn’t want him to get discouraged. Kids sports are supposed to be fun.”
“Enter Libby,” Dave said.
It was on.
“As memory serves me, she may have got the best of him a few times, but I think he may have also returned the favor,” Dave Ryan said.
Kids wrestling is supposed to be fun. Well, Libby Ryan took over the room.
“She also got the best of most every boy in the room,” Dave Ryan said, “so much so that other kids shied away from her also. So, Tristan and Libby were kind of stuck with each other from time to time in the wrestling room.”
This didn’t last long. Libby was so dominant that participation started to slide.
“Libby terrorized everyone and he told her she couldn’t come in anymore,” Dix said. “Not for Libby’s sake, but for participation.”
Libby Ryan finished her sophomore softball season at Drake this year. She hit .338 with 34 RBIs. The Bulldogs won the Missouri Valley Conference, and Libby was all-MVC.
Guess what she’s doing this summer?
She is coaching Mount Vernon varsity softball and helping run the summer strength and conditioning program for the high school. Libby grew up with five brothers (Jacob, Trey, Paul, Henry and Michael) and three sisters (Emily, Lauren and Sarah).
Those first-graders in that wrestling room never stood a chance.