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HE’S A HAWK

Fort Dodge state champion Ayala commits to Iowa wrestling program

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala reacts after winning his second consecutive title at the state wrestling tournament in Des Moines last month.

Fort Dodge’s Drake Ayala was being courted by wrestling programs from all over the country.

The race was heated. The emotions were mixed. The decision didn’t necessarily come easy.

In the end, a commitment to the University of Iowa made the most sense to Ayala — because of what head coach Tom Brands’ Hawkeyes represent of course, but also, the program both literally and figuratively feels like home to the Dodger state champion moving forward.

Ayala gave his word to Iowa on Wednesday afternoon, as the consensus Top-15 national junior recruit further solidified the Hawkeyes’ future for the Class of 2021 and beyond.

Ayala picked Iowa over Iowa State, Ohio State, North Carolina, Michigan and Minnesota. A top-ranked 120-pounder, Ayala gave each school careful consideration and due respect before coming to a conclusion.

“Had I known for a while? To be honest, yes and no,” said Ayala, an academic all-stater who carries a 3.94 overall grade point average. “I was just taking it all in with each visit. Weighing the options. Trying to plan ahead as much as I could. I wouldn’t say I was a die-hard Hawkeye fan growing up necessarily, which I think helped me (remain objective) through the process.

“I just really clicked with the guys on the team, and of course, the coaches. Their approach (both on and off the mat) is similar to what I’m used to and how I feel like I am as a wrestler. There was just something about the Iowa program, the school, and the environment (around Iowa City) that made me want to be a part of it all. And being close to home, where I know my grandma and grandpa, for instance, can come and see me in person — that was a big factor. I won’t downplay that at all. My family means so much to me.”

Ayala won his second consecutive state championship last month in undefeated fashion. A perfect 48-0 record earned him Dan Gable Mr. Wrestler of the Year honors in Iowa and stretched his high school win streak to 91 matches.

Ayala is now 136-2 overall as a Dodger in three seasons, with his only two losses coming to future Hawkeye teammate and nationally-ranked 126-pounder Cullan Schriever of Mason City as a freshman.

“Cullan, Caleb (Rathjen of Ankeny) and Colby (Schriever) — guys I’m friends with from Sebolt (Wrestling Academy who are going to Iowa as well), would joke with me about (the importance of) coming to Iowa,” said Ayala, who is just the eighth repeat state champion ever at FDSH. “But in all seriousness, they gave me my space to make a decision I’d be comfortable with. I knew they’d support me no matter what I decided. They never put any pressure on me.

“There’s a familiarity there, so I’m looking forward to them being teammates, but this is also about meeting new people and embracing a different phase in my life. At Iowa, I can do both.”

Ayala was hosted by star 125-pounder Spencer Lee, a two-time national champ at Iowa, on his recruiting visit. He added, “of course that was beneficial to talk to him and we’ve been in touch,” but didn’t want to elaborate on their conversations beyond that.

Ayala confirmed he’d made up his mind last month, but wanted to wait until after state and his match at “War at the West Gym” to make things official.

“The idea was to get it done after (the high school season) settled down,” said Ayala, a two-time Fargo Nationals champion, a USA Wrestling folkstyle gold medalist, and a Super 32 Challenge national runner-up. “My match got cancelled (last Saturday in Cedar Falls), but I just stuck to my gameplan and timeline to (announce this week).”

Ayala added that contacting each individual coach was “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do” after he broke the good news to Brands.

“It was so tough,” Ayala said. “I’ve developed a relationship with each (school) in their own, unique way, and I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me and the respect they always showed my family.

“I texted my mom afterward that it was really difficult to get through that. I felt close to all of them.”

Ayala is the sixth Div. I wrestling recruit to come out of Fort Dodge since 2016, joining Sam Cook (Iowa), Triston Lara (Northern Iowa), Brody Teske (Penn State/Northern Iowa), Drew Bennett (Northern Iowa) and Cayd Lara (Northern Iowa). The latter three were teammates of Ayala’s on the Dodgers’ 2018 state championship squad.

Fort Dodge has placed third or higher at state in six consecutive seasons. Cook, Teske, Bennett, the Laras and Ayala have accumulated 11 titles and 17 finals berths between the six of them.

“I’m really lucky to be a Dodger,” Ayala said. “It’s been so great. I talk to guys from other communities and they tell me wrestling’s just not a big deal in their hometowns. I can’t even imagine it any other way than what we know here.

“We make it a priority. There’s nothing like it.”

Ayala thanked his parents, Sam and Angie; his coaches, Bobby Thompson and Tanner Utley at FDSH, and T.J. Sebolt and Adam Fellers at Sebolt Academy; and the rest of his support system for reaching this point.

“They do so much for me,” Ayala said. “I’m very lucky and very thankful. They keep me grounded; all of the hype from the rankings and everything else doesn’t mean anything to them. I am who I am today because of my family, coaches, friends, and the community that supports me.”

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