GUTHRIE CENTER, Iowa — The idea seemed ridiculous a few months ago. Then it was off-limits to discuss.
But the possibility became reality Tuesday night for the Audubon wrestling team. It celebrated its first berth in next week’s Iowa state dual meet following easy victories against Panorama (51-24) and Riverside (53-24) at Guthrie Center High School.
“Words can’t even describe it,” senior 182-pounder Jesse Svoboda said. “Everybody’s excited. I can’t wait to go to state duals. I haven’t even watched state duals, so this is going to be a great experience.”
The Class 1-A eighth-rated and seventh-seeded Wheelers (25-2) open against second-rated and second-seeded Woodbury Central (27-4) Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Making program dual history was far from the minds of Audubon wrestlers in November. They were just trying to replace three state qualifiers, along with other reliable starters. But with 11 underclassmen in their starting lineup, they began picking up wins at a rapid rate.
“At the beginning of the year it wasn’t a goal at all,” Audubon coach Blane Kerkhoff said. “But we started getting into the season and started to roll over teams. Everybody started looking around and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a shot at this.’”
The Wheelers left no doubt at a regional dual that included three sectional champions. Against Panorama, they opened up a 42-0 lead and gave their opponent 18 free points on forfeits after the outcome was decided.
Fellow Western Iowa Conference member Riverside (31-11) was next after the Bulldogs downed No. 12 Guthrie Center 42-34 in their semifinal. With the team score tied at six in the final, 126-pounder Heath Irlmeier built a 20-11 lead on Riverside’s Tucker Bluml. But the Audubon senior found himself on his back with 30 seconds left. As the bipartisan crowd roared, Irlmeier held on to preserve a 20-14 decision.
“I told him before he went out there to act like somebody’s got an electric prod on you if you’re on your back,” Kerkhoff said. “You better not stay there.”
At 132, Audubon sophomore Andrew Malloy stuck Riverside’s Clay Harris to make it 15-6 and the Wheelers cruised the rest of the way.
The WIC dual champions won 10 of the 14 matches overall, including five by pin. They had beaten Riverside 49-27 and 41-27 in previous meetings this winter.
After Tuesday’s win, they also earned the right to talk about the state duals, which began in 1987. Audubon lost to Underwood in a regional final last year.
“We didn’t want to try and talk about (state duals) too much,” Irlmeier said. “Every time we did, we had to go knock on wood three times to avoid getting jinxed.”
Riverside came up one win short in its bid to reach state for the first time since 1998 and second time ever. Coach Casey Conover shuffled multiple grapplers around at the heavier weights, but it wasn’t enough to pull off an upset.
“We got a little tight,” Conover said. “Some of the kids put a little more pressure on themselves to, instead of just winning, win big. That cost us at a couple matches.”
But the Bulldogs still orchestrated big overall turnarounds collectively and individually from a season ago. And with only two seniors departing and a big incoming class, the program is optimistic about its future.
For Audubon, the future is now. It qualified six wrestlers for Saturday’s district meet in Corning. And the Wheelers will finish their season as a team in Des Moines for the first time.
“We weren’t expecting to do anything,” Svoboda said. “This year has been a lot of fun and the team is doing better and better than anyone expected.”