By BRANDON HURLEY
Redemption tastes sweeter chased with a gold medal.
A simple clasp of his hands quietly defined McKinley Robbins’ historic achievement. It’s why the Greene County wrestler’s emotions were rather subdued once the final whistle had sounded.
He’d been painstakingly close before, only to be shutout on the brightest stage. The sophomore was back and more powerful, chiseled but with even greater expectations.
Failure was not an option and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Robbins captured Greene County’s first state championship in 27 years Saturday, Feb. 20, completing an undefeated season with his Class 2A victory over Notre Dame-West Burlington-Danville’s Blaine Frazier.
Even if the youngster hardly lets loose a smile or even elicits any type of excitement, he was in a reflective mood in Des Moines as the school district treasured his triumph. He’d achieved something special after escaping with a 7-5 victory, grinding out four victories in three days.
“When that final whistle whistle blew, (there were) so many emotions going on at once,” Robbins said. “The fact that I came up short last year and I got it done this year and just knowing that, no matter what, your family has your back and your coaches have your back and partners have your back. Just all those emotions go into one little moment and it feels amazing.”
A sigh of relief is perhaps the best way to describe how Robbins felt last week after winning 34 consecutive matches. His last loss came in last winter’s championship match at 106 pounds as a freshman – redemption was certainly on his mind.
Robbins controlled the 2021 championship bout, sprinting out to an early lead with a takedown, then recovering after a brief moment of uncertainty. He rode out the match, using a late reversal and strong defensive tactics en route to victory.
“I love it. I haven’t felt anything like (this) until today and it feels awesome,” Robbins said. “Just knowing that you gave it your all and you came out on top.”
Robbins became the first underclassmen in program history to win a wrestling title while he is the only athlete to do so for the consolidated school district of Greene County, which also draws students from the Paton-Churdan school district and the now defunct East Greene High School.
The Rams’ three other titles were secured by seniors - Dave Hagedorn in 1979, Eric Strawn in 1982 and Will Thomsen in 1994.
Robbins and Strawn are the only wrestlers in school history to reach two state finals matches - a gap which spanned 39 years.
Robbins’ loss to Webster City’s Cam Phetxoumphone, a disappointing 5-0 defeat in championship a year ago, motivated him to not only strive for greatness, but it also pushed him to bump up two weight classes to 120 pounds.
Neither Phetxoumphone nor Robbins have lost since that meeting in 2020.
The Webster City junior is now a two-time champ after winning the 113-pound title while Robbins got his first title this past weekend. With a career record of 71-2 in tow, Robbins’ only two losses are to Phetxoumphone.
The rookie year disappointment was all Robbins needed to push him to the top.
He spent the past 12 months learning how to finish while he also bulked up in an effort to deflect his opponents’ toughest shots.
The final period in the Feb. 20 title match was a tense, back-and-forth tilt, but Robbins never lost control despite clinging to a narrow lead. He executed and stayed calm. He credits his work in the AAU circuit in the offseason, a schedule that has often taken him all over the country, places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, seeking out the most elite high school wrestlers.
“I had to figure out how to put guys away in tough matches,” Robbins said. “I learned how to win over the summer. Those kind of matches helped me a lot.”
Frazier was a runner-up in 2019 and entered Saturday’s contest with a 46-3 record. The first period was tight - Robbins secured a reversal with 10 seconds left to grab a 2-0 lead. A takedown gave the sophomore a 4-2 lead early in the second, but Frazier wouldn’t back down. The junior eventually took a 5-4 lead thanks to an escape and a reversal, but another takedown pushed Robbins back on top with one period remaining.An early escape provided Robbins with the eventual two-point cushion, but it surely didn’t come without a few nervous moments. The sophomore essentially rode out the match by keeping Frazier on the mat, not allowing him to twist into any reversals or takedowns.
As the final seconds ticked away, even Beekman was worried how the match would turn out. He knew the slightest slip up meant the difference between gold and silver.
“I’m (hoping he) stays in position,” the coach said. “Things can happen in those last seconds. We were only up two. We stayed in position and there is no reason not to and give something silly up.”
Robbins was dealt a much-needed jolt in a surprisingly tough quarterfinal match a day prior to his title win.
The champion’s defense was stellar throughout his entire state tournament run, but it was never more evident than in his battle with Spirit Lake Park’s Jonathan Burnette, who’d eventually place fifth.
The pair grappled to a 1-all tie in regulation with Robbins’ overtime escape the anticlimactic difference. Though Burnette was the taller athlete, Robbins’ immense strength kept him from gaining an edge.
His superiority was a constant throughout.
Even though Robbins struggled to score points at times, he used his power to hold off any real threat.
That overtime bout in the quarterfinals put quite the scare in the Greene County coaching staff as well as Robbins himself. Changes were necessary if he was going to snag two more wins and come away with gold. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not Robbins was executing his technique well or if he was getting out-wrestled, but his body was sending out a number of distressing warnings.
“We had to get some nutrition in him. His weight was a little low. So we got him some food, got him a nap and just made him relax a little bit,” Beekman said. “Then we came back hard, did a real nice, hard 25-minute warm up. Really got him going. Then he was amped. He went out and executed the way he needed to and got things done.”
The journey to perfection wasn’t easy by any means. The 2021 state tournament tested all of Robbins’ years of handwork and dedication - touring the country, compiling notable AAU wins at an alarming rate - culminating with a 34-match winning streak.
Robbins opened his second consecutive state tournament appearance with a rather tense - yet comfortable - win over Davis’ County’s Dawson Townsend, 9-4 then followed that with a victory over Burnette.
The Class 2A semifinal match against Central Dewitt’s Keaton Zeimet was perhaps Robbins’ most well-executed of the tournament, coming out victorious, 4-2. He was nearly flawless with his technique and seemed motivated to snatch a return trip to the championship. He pushed the pace and controlled it throughout. Zeimet hardly stood a chance. Robbins was locked in.
“I just kept attacking and wearing him out,” Robbins said after his semifinal win. “I was tough on top and I could feel him break in my hands. It’s awesome to know that I can put pressure on a guy for that long and he can’t hold up.” Even Beekman acknowledged the change, and he credits it to a focused mentally. The coach pushed Robbins to really give it his all, there was no room to sit around and wait. If he loosened up and allowed an opportunity for Zeimet to score, the end could arrive with an alarming quickness. Robbins held serve most of the match and cruised to victory.
Robbins will enter rare air next winter.
No wrestler in Greene County or Jefferson-Scranton history has ever won two state titles, nor has an athlete made three consecutive trips to the state finals. With two years remaining in his high school career and just two losses in two years, it’s likely Robbins breaks that drought. The sophomore will continue to work, he’ll adapt his game and become even tougher.
The champ is here to stay.