Both Blue Raiders emerged from the grueling two-day tournament as wrestling All-Americans.
“It’s the toughest folk-style tournament in the nation,” said Cleveland athletic director Eric Phillips who traveled with DeBien and West. “They beat an absolute Who’s Who of wrestlers throughout the country. It’s a two-day grind. Chris had 10 matches and went 9-1, Ethan had nine matches and went 7-2.”
Folkstyle is a style of wrestling used at the collegiate level and with some modifications used at the high school level.
“The magnitude of the tournament is unbelieveable,” said Phillips. “You have Olympic coaches walking around, and college national champions. It was that kind of hoopla,” said Phillips. “You might wrestle the Wisconsin state champ then wrestle the Minnesota state champ then wrestle the Iowa state champ. Going to those national tournaments and feeling that grind and coming up a little short helped them to focus and go do what they do. If Ethan had really thought about it he might have been in real trouble. But he just focused one match at a time and got hot. That grind of going through long tournaments like that, you have to do it in order to be able to go through it. To their credit they have been to enough big tournaments and gone through the grinds to set their goals high enough and go do it.”
DeBien opened the tournament — consisting of 2,600 wrestlers from across the United States in a 40,000-seat arena packed with 27 mats on the floor — with a first-round bye and returned in the second round to pin a high-ranking wrestler from Iowa. DeBien won over a wrestler from South Dakota before falling to eventual tournament champion and the Utah state champion. The loss put the Blue Raider one loss away from elimination.
“It was kind of scary because if you lose in the beginning round all it takes is one good guy to beat you and you are out of the tournament,” said the reigning Tennessee state champion.
The 113-pounder returned to the mat to pin the Wisconsin state champion before reaching the All-American round with a win over a Minnesota state tournament qualifier. DeBien faced Indiana state champion Chad Red — ranked No. 6 in the country — in his first match of the AA round and won 4-2 to earn All-American status.
“That was the best feeling of the whole tournament, knowing I accomplished placing in the top eight in the country. Last year I got fifth and I should have placed higher. I knew I could push myself harder and I was able to do much better than I did last year,” he said.
On Day 2, DeBien took on a wrestler from Oklahoma and earned a 4-0 win. A tough match with a California wrestler followed with an overtime win for DeBien. The next bout, with the Iowa state champion for third place, turned into a 5-1 win. Again, the group figured their appearance at the tournament had come to an end. Again the group had a surprise coming when the expected champion lost, leaving DeBien and the Fargo champion Mitchell McKee with one loss.
“McKee only had one loss and Chris only had one loss. This is the USA Folkstyle Championships so the top two get to go to the U.S. training center so the (tournament officials) had Chris and McKee wrestle for true second,” explained Phillips.
The move paid off for the exhausted DeBien who beat McKee to earn a true second-place finish. West ended the tournament with a seventh-place finish.
West, who wrestles for the Raiders at 182 pounds, drew a tough opening match and lost 12-7 to the Fargo (S.D.) Nationals runner up. The loss forced West to battle his way through the loser’s bracket where he wrestled six back-to-back matches.
“It was more a type of shock. It really set in the reality of what I had to do to be able to do well,” West said of the loss. “I went to the Super 32 which is a preseason national tournament. It was pretty similar to this one. I knew what to expect but still I felt a few nerves, especially in the first match. But, once I lost I made up my mind I was going to get through it.”
At the end of the day, West earned victories in five straight matches. After what the group figures was the last match of the day for West, Phillips was told there was one more match to go before West could claim All-American.
“Ethan’s dad sent us a text while we were at Pizza Hut and said he didn’t think Ethan was All-American, that he had one more match. We looked at the bracket and figured out he had another match. Because it was too late to go back, we didn’t know if he was going to be disqualified because we left too early,” explained Phillips.
The group returned the next morning to find West had a match scheduled against the Iowa state champion, University of Northern Iowa signee and returning All-American. West pulled off a 4-2 victory to finally earn his papers as All-American. It was a tired West who lost to another Iowa wrestler to end his run in the tournament in seventh place.
“The two guys he lost to finished in first and third place,” said a proud Phillips. “To finish seventh out there is unbelieveable. Even more amazing is we were on spring break the week before and all Ethan’s training partners were gone so he didn’t even train. He just ran.”
The end of the tournament did not signal the end of training for the pair, however. Both are eager to continue training for local, state and national competition.
“I look for competition wherever I can get it because I plan on wrestling in college. The only way college people are going to see me is by making a statement out of state. Our state isn’t very rich in wrestling and Iowa is very rich in wrestling. Going there and placing high will get your name out and about in the country,” said DeBien. “I’ll take on any challenge head on that comes at me. I love challenges. I love facing new things and growing from them. Like the Utah match, it wasn’t my best match and there are areas I need to fix. I can’t wait to wrestle him again and beat him.”
West, who only trained with some running and was out of shape, said it was a matter of getting his mind in shape.
“I did a little running whenever I could which really didn’t help because I was still pretty out of shape when I went out there. I just had to get my mind right. Once I was able to do that ... once I got over that first loss, I was able to get my confidence back and get a pin and went on a pin streak for a little bit,” he said.
West earned five pins and a technical fall during the streak.
He went on to say the tournaments help him not look beyond any competition.
“I don’t ever take anyone too lightly, and try to always perform my best when I am on the mat. After this season’s loss in the state finals I am not going to make another mistake. I look forward to the challenges coming up and welcome them,” said the state champion hopeful. “This tournament taught me I have to wrestle a lot tougher in my matches. I think it helped me to physically and mentally grow and made me stronger as a whole.”