Going for broke: Three Minnesota West wrestlers prepare for the national tournament
Minnesota West wrestlers Damon Ashworth, Jacob Vogel and Kyler Grems will represent the Bluejays at the national NJCAA tournament in Council Bluffs, Iowa
WORTHINGTON -- On some levels, it’s been a rough year of wrestling at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. But now, with three Bluejay freshmen ready to rumble in the national NJCAA tournament Friday and Saturday in Council Bluffs, Iowa, it’s all worth it.
Damon Ashworth, a state high school champion from Missouri, won a regional championship last week in Willmar at 165 pounds and brings a 19-8 record to the year’s biggest tournament. Jacob Vogel, another state prep champ from Dell Rapids, S.D., placed second in the region at 141 pounds and sports a 16-11 record. Kyler Grems, from northwest Iowa’s West Lyon High School, is the regional runner-up at 149 pounds. He’s 3-11 on the season, but his struggles to get to where he is today is as inspiring as any of them.
Grems, who is a National Guardsman, took a year off from wrestling a season ago. He worked hard to get back into wrestling shape, then suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss about a month of college wrestling. His high school career did not result in a state tournament berth, let alone a title like Ashworth and Vogel have accomplished. But through hard work and a growing confidence, he’ll be in Council Bluffs like his teammates.
“Not being a state qualifier all the way through high school, it’s pretty awesome to go to the national tournament,” Grems said Monday afternoon. “Getting second in the qualifier, and then when coach said I was going to the national tournament, it was probably the proudest I’ve ever been.”
During this 2021-22 campaign, head coach Randy Baker and his matmen have been dealt several bad hands. What was expected to be a full lineup was seriously hit with defections, and that meant the loss of several meet opportunities for the ones who remained.
“We’ve wrestled a lot of opens. We lost a number of events to Covid or storms. We had 11 events. I think we were scheduled to have 17,” Baker said.
So it’s been frustrating at times.
But not everything has been frustrating.
“It hasn’t been frustrating working with these guys, because they work hard and they’ve got talent,” said the veteran coach.
Of the three national qualifiers, Ashworth may have the best opportunity to win a championship, if only because his only loss to a junior college wrestler this winter was to the defending national titleist. The score was 5-3.
“I hope I get him again. It’ll be a good match,” said Ashworth, who counts his quickness and his conditioning among his natural advantages.
“I feel ready,” he continued. “I’ve been waiting for a while for this. The wait’s almost over. I just gotta do it. I feel the best I’ve felt all season. I just gotta get right after my stuff, wrestle smart, get to my attacks.”
Vogel admitted he would have liked to have more quality matches heading into last week’s qualifier, but he was able to wrestle well in Willmar.
“I beat the guys I needed to beat to go (to nationals). I did what I needed to do. I was able to take the guys down and ride ‘em out. I got a pin up there.”
He said he’s got all the confidence he needs, and he knows exactly what to do.
“I need to get takedowns on my feet. I tend to ride guys pretty well. I’m really good on top,” he said.
As for Grems, both he and Baker say his record doesn’t show what he’s capable of, or of how much he’s improved. At Minnesota West, said the Iowan, he has learned how to wrestle hard all of the time and has effectively eliminated some of the bad habits he had after taking that year off. Vogel, his practice partner, has been a big help to him, he added.
“Kyler has had some close matches, but he hasn’t come out on top,” said Baker, who warned all three of his recruits that they’ll have to go all out in Council Bluffs.
“It’s going to be tough,” he summed up. “There’s a lot of good wrestlers out there, and they’re coming from all over the country.”