Bobcat grapplers look to climb CIML’s steep ladder

Even though Pedro Gomez graduated and moved on to college, the former Bobcats’ climb to the top of the Class 3A 285-pound state wrestling podium lives on.

Current Bobcat seniors Derek Mann and Justus Bjelland, and the rest of the Marshalltown wrestling team, enjoyed watching their teammate win a state title last year. And they are using Gomez’s success to fuel their own fires this season.

“There is more intensity this year,” said Mann, who begins the season ranked No. 8 at 170 pounds. “Now that there has been a recent state champion, it pushes everyone a little harder. Anyone can do it. You just have to push yourself to be the best you can be and good things can happen.”

Mann and Bjelland lead another young and somewhat inexperienced group of Bobcats this season. But a large and talented sophomore class should give an assist in helping Marshalltown take a few steps up the ladder in the Central Iowa Metropolitan League.

The Bobcats won just one match against a CIML foe last year. MHS coach Mike Mann hopes to improve upon that number this season.

“My goal this year would be to get more than one CIML victory. We beat Urbandale last year. We didn’t fare very well against the league though,” Mann said. “We are at the bottom of the rung in the CIML and have been for a few years. Let’s just start climbing. The guys we have back with experience need to win big. And the guys that are getting their feet wet need to just not get pinned. We got pinned way too much last year.”

Gomez was the only state qualifier last year, but Derek Mann finished third at districts and Ben Rebik was fourth. Josh Edel and Justus Bjelland were both fifth. The top two finishers at each weight class at districts advances to state.

The good news for the Bobcats is that all four wrestlers return to the mats this season.

Mann should lead the way as his preseason ranking of No. 8 comes as both good and bad news for his uncle and coach.

“It’s twofold. You would have liked to see him go to state last year. He was capable,” said Coach Mann. “It can be good and bad. It should let him know that there are people out there that believe he can do it. And he just needs to get into his head that he is going to be one of those guys this year.”

Bjelland went unbeaten at the junior varsity level two seasons ago. He had high expectations last year but was moved around in the lineup more than expected. This year, he settles in nicely at 195.

“It was time for him to step up last year, but we bounced him around at different weights,” Coach Mann said. “Putting him at 195 and keeping him there for the most part should help him immensely. I am expecting him to be vastly improved this year.”

Rebik, a junior, is expected to be the starter at 182, while Edel, a sophomore, is the front-runner at 160. An illness forced sophomore Peyton Williams to miss out on districts last year, but he is expected to hold down a starting position at 152. The other returning starters are sophomore Doston Harrelson at 113 and junior Josh Sowers at 138. Sophomores Ryan Bitker, Paden Himes and Mitch O’Hare and junior Jordan Paone all gained valuable experience last year and figure to be in the mix for starting roles this season. O’Hare, though, will miss the first eight dual meets after violating the school’s code of conduct policy. Also out for the first eight dual meets will be sophomore Seth Heinrichs.

“They had barely .500 records last year,” Coach Mann said of his sophomore class. “I would hope that they are well over .500 this year. They have figured out what the plan is and how to approach the matches. They know what a season is like and they are ready to go.”

Either Bitker or Luis Chavez is expected to start at 106, while sophomore Oswaldo Rodriguez is the favorite at 120. Freshmen Reese Hageman (130) and Carlos Gomez (132) as well as sophomore Anthony Fleck (145) also are expected to help fill out the varsity lineup. Ray McDonald is the favorite at 220 and three Bobcats are currently battling to replace Pedro Gomez at heavyweight. Those three include freshmen Jose Zaragoza and Chase Luethje and senior Jonathan Yepez. Zaragoza will be in the lineup tonight against Ankeny and Yepez could wind up at 220.

“The strong sophomore class has really matured,” said Derek Mann. “They got in the weight room and got bigger, faster and stronger. They are a pretty strong class. We realize that this group can do some special things in the future. It’s our job to push them to be their best.”

Moving up the CIML ladder won’t be easy for the Bobcats. Southeast Polk begins the season ranked No. 2 behind Bettendorf and will start the year with nine state-ranked wrestlers. The Rams are ranked 25th nationally by InterMat. Bettendorf is No. 28 and Linn-Mar is preseason nationally ranked 42nd.

Also appearing the rankings are Central Iowa Conference Northern Division foes Mason City and Fort Dodge, which start the year at six and 10, respectively.

“We lost Pedro and Matt (Vandegrift), which are big losses. But I think not having Pedro could help us,” said Bjelland. “We relied on Pedro a lot last year. This year, we’ll have to do more on our own, and I think the team as a whole will be better.”

Relying on Pedro Gomez wasn’t a bad thing. The former Bobcat turned in one of the best seasons in school history and should give teammates who practiced with him every day a little bit of motivation that they to can walk to the top of a state wrestling tournament podium.

“It was fun to watch him in practice and watch him improve,” Bjelland said. “Pedro was focused every single time he stepped on to the mat. I hope we learned from that. He tought me how to stay focused and push myself. It was really fun watching him last year.”

Coach Mann has not talked about Pedro Gomez’s season a lot in the practice room yet. He did, however, invite the former Bobcat to speak to the team during a practice over Thanksgiving break.

“The guys know that there was a state champ on their team last year,” Coach Mann said. “They experienced that whole thing, and it was great for them to see that happen. They can see what it takes and what Pedro did and didn’t do to get there. It’s just a good model for them.

“He came in over Thanksgiving break and talked to the team. His brother (Carlos Gomez) is on the team. We have used him to our advantage, and the kids got to hear what he had to say. The kids just need to know that (winning state titles) doesn’t happen every day.”

The Bobcats begin the dual season tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Ankeny. Coach Mann will have open weights at 120 and 220 but does not expect the meet to get out of hand like it did a season ago.

“We are going to have to wrestle really well (today) to beat Ankeny, but I am not expecting a blow out like last year,” Coach Mann said. “I would be disappointed if something like that happens.”

There will only be two home dual meets this season. The first one will take place a week from today when the Bobcats host Urbandale and Ankeny Centennial. Marshalltown’s lone CIML win a season ago came against the J-Hawks.

“That’s just the way it fell because of the realignment of the conference,” Coach Mann said of only having two home meets. “Ankeny Centennial came in and that moved everything around.

“We’re young but we will try to keep building momentum.”