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KINGPIN

Ayala cements his legacy with grand finale

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Drake Ayala of Fort Dodge points to the crowd and celebrates his third state championship on Saturday night in Des Moines. For more photos, please visit CU.messengernews.net

DES MOINES — Wrestling fans from across the country tuned in to watch Drake Ayala’s championship showdown with Ryder Block here on Saturday.

The Fort Dodge senior gave a performance for the ages, exacting revenge on Block with a dominant 11-3 major decision victory to capture the 132-pound state title in Class 3A.

The match was the talk of the tournament, only to be topped by Ayala’s performance itself. His third gold medal was the perfect finishing touch on an illustrious high school career.

This was an unforgettable night for the program and the entire Dodger community. For Ayala, though, the goal is to make it nothing more than a distant memory when all is said and done.

Securing his place among the all-time greats in Iowa high school wrestling history wasn’t intended to be the conclusion or the culmination of anything for Ayala. He’d rather consider this moment in time to be just the beginning.

“Hopefully, people won’t even remember what I did in high school someday,” said Ayala, a University of Iowa recruit. “I don’t mean this isn’t important or big to me. Obviously this means a ton. But I’m not going to stop and think about how this goes down (in the history books) or anything like that, and I don’t plan to anytime soon.

“I want this chapter to be just the first, with a lot more to come.”

Ayala was surgeon-like in his precise dissection of Block, a previously-unbeaten sophomore who had snapped the 109-match win streak of the nation’s top-ranked 126-pounder last month in Waverly with a 9-7 victory. Ayala was competing at 132 at that point, with a plan to eventually go back to 126 for the postseason.

The loss — just the third of his prep career and first since his freshman season — pushed the narrative in a different direction. Instead of overwhelming the 126 field, Ayala turned his attention to 132. And if that meant a rematch with Block in the state finals, so be it.

“I had been bouncing back and forth at that point anyway, so (what happened at the W-SR Invitational) kind of made up my mind for me,” Ayala said. “It motivated me, of course. Put me in my place. Reminded me that there was still a lot of work to be done.

“I would’ve never felt right with myself if I’d stayed at 26. I would’ve always wondered, ‘what if.’ And that’s not me. That’s not who I am.”

Instead of a back-and-forth power struggle, or a late Ayala surge as the first showdown featured, Saturday night belonged to the Dodger from the start. Ayala quickly established the pace with a first-period takedown less than 20 seconds in, his trademark controlled aggressiveness leaving Block — a defending state champ himself and undefeated in 68 career matches — on his heels and searching for answers.

“I’m just really thankful for the opportunity,” Ayala said. “I didn’t change a whole lot (strategy-wise) from the first time, honestly. Just some things I needed to clean up. I obviously could have been better that day. So I wanted to make sure I was by (Saturday night).”

It was 7-2 Ayala by the end of the second period. As the match’s final seconds began to tick away, Block found himself in a precarious position: trailing 7-3 and in need of something big, he had to go for broke. In doing so, it dramatically increased the likelihood of getting pinned by Ayala.

That almost happened, with Ayala planting Block on his back for near-fall points as the match mercifully came to an end.

The Wells Fargo Arena crowd gave Ayala — just the second-ever three-time Fort Dodge state champion, joining four-timer and fellow program icon Brody Teske — a standing ovation.

“(The result) didn’t surprise me at all. I know there were some things Drake took away from that first match, both physically and mentally, that would fuel him this time around,” FDSH head coach Bobby Thompson said. “It’s really hard to put Drake’s mentality into words. This wasn’t about revenge for him. It was about the challenge. That’s all Drake wants: to keep pushing himself.

“There was motivation to (beat Block), but it wasn’t about that specifically. He wasn’t going after Ryder. I know he respects him. He was chasing the idea of making himself even better.”

Thompson was actually pushing Ayala to extend his lead in the third period, but trusted Ayala’s “incredible mat sense.”

“It was easy for me as a coach to sit back and want him to stay aggressive and keep pushing (late),” said Thompson, Ayala’s uncle. “But Drake was picking his spots and wrestling smart. He knows when to go and how to feel out and read his opponent.

“It’s funny — I think he could’ve widened the gap even more in that third period. But he did the right thing. That just speaks to the ceiling Drake has. He’s just getting started. I know that sounds crazy given we just witnessed one of the greatest high school wrestling careers in state history, but he’s moving on to bigger and better things.”

Thompson marveled at Ayala’s ability to handle an incredibly complicated situation with relative ease.

“If you stop and think about it, Drake’s giving up at least 10 pounds to a nationally-ranked, undefeated kid, with all of the pressure, the media attention and everything else…to be able to tune out all the noise and perform like that is remarkable,” Thompson said. “We’ve just been so blessed to have him around our program, our kids, our school and our community.”

With 171 career wins, four trips to the finals, three titles, three team trophies — including traditional and state duals crowns in 2018 — two Fargo Nationals championships, a Super 32 Challenge gold medal, a victory over the country’s pound-for-pound No. 1 and a scholarship to the University of Iowa in tow, Ayala just wanted to crystalize the moment in his final time wearing a Dodger singlet before the future beckoned.

“In a word: Dodger wrestling is ‘family,'” Ayala said. We’re home-grown. I love all of these guys like brothers. For as great as all of this is, I’ll always remember sharing the season with my brother (freshman Dru Ayala, who finished fifth at 106 pounds) and my other teammates (above the individual achievements). That’s what it’s all about.

“It’s all bittersweet. (Winning a third straight title in this fashion) is something I’ll always be proud of. But knowing I’m a senior and this is over, there are definitely some mixed emotions. I do know that I’ll always call myself a Dodger, though. It’s been a great four years. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

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