State Wrestling: TITLE RUN, TAKE 2
By BRANDON HURLEY
The frustration quietly boils with a burning intensity.
A post-match meal at Olive Garden was indeed not a joyous occasion. Anger festered last February as teammates and family members reflected on a tremendous tournament run.
Not McKinley Robbins. He knew he left something to be desired.
After coming so close to a state title as a freshman last winter, the Greene County wrestler didn’t necessarily cherish the feeling of falling a hair short.
Anything less than a state championship is a disappointment.
That’s how the No. 1 rated Ram wrestler prefers it.
He strives for historic greatness. It’s visible in the way he navigates the mat with meticulous preparation and how he handles success - coupled with little expression of emotion, merely expectancy for triumph.
Class 2A’s top-ranked wrestler at 120 pounds has not lost since the bitter end to his rookie year at Wells Fargo Arena in the 106 pound title match. He’s ripped off an undefeated string of 30 straight victories following that runner-up finish, compiling quite the bounce-back journey.
Robbins is on a mission to erase the bad memories of last winter, continually using the defeat as fuel. He didn’t score a point in last year’s bout with Webster City’s Cam Phetxoumphone, losing 5-0. Memories of each of the now junior’s victory-sealing moves inflict lingering reflexive pain with knife-like precision.
The summoning of the 2021 state tournament initiates another chance. A promise for a different outcome. And though Robbins has jumped two classes from his freshman weight, he’s ready to put Iowa on notice and wipe away images of last year’s frustration once the 2A state tournament first round begins Thursday (Feb. 18).
“I keep it in the back of my mind, knowing what that felt like,” Robbins said. “I don’t want to have to go through that again. I’m taking all the right steps to be on top.”
A loss like the one Robbins endured a season ago can derail some athletes, messing with their minds, but the sophomore isn’t like most. He’s trained a good chunk of his life to obtain a state championship. He studied his loss at the Well (one of only two defeats in his varsity career so far, tallying a 67-2 record), picking up valuable lessons as he prepared for his second attempt. He’s zeroed in on his mentality, realizing anxiety can lose a match before he even steps foot on the mat.
“I can’t let the nerves get to me,” Robbins said. “I can use those nerves as positive energy rather than letting it scare me.”
One of the state’s best wrestlers has also honed in on perfecting his craft. He knew a state championship requires a little more than what he gave last winter. He had to get better and not allow himself to get complacent. Simply being an above-average wrestler is not what he desired. He’s ready to be great, and so he went to work, hoping to find new ways to score points.
“My offense is a lot stronger,” Robbins said. “I know I’ve gotten a lot stronger, too, but my offense in general is a lot faster and a lot more effective.”
Unfortunately, Robbins has a brutal trek in front of him. His Class 2A state tournament bracket may the toughest of the entire field.
The 120 pound division is loaded with talent and experience. Six of the 32 wrestlers this week qualified for last year’s state tournament, with five of those six winning at least one match.
Third-ranked Keaton Zeimet of Central DeWitt (who Robbins could meet in Friday’s semifinal round) finished third at 113 pounds a year ago, defeating current No. 4 Rylie Anderson of Bondurant-Farrar in the bronze medal match.
Spirt Lake Park’s Jonathon Burnette (Currently ranked seventh thanks to a 37-1 record and possibly Robbins’ second round opponent) finished fifth at state a year ago as a 113-pounder. Sixth-ranked Cole Whithead of Center Point-Urbana finished runner-up at 113 pounds in the 2020 state tournament. Donovan Morales of CL-GL also qualified for state last year.
That marinating talent is all before Robbins’ run to the state title match is even mentioned. There’s a lot to love in this bracket for wrestling fans. It will truly test the sophomore’s greatness.
Thankfully, Robbins persevered through a handful of highly-competitive matches over the final month of the regular season to help ready the sophomore. He narrowly defeated eight-ranked Cole Nelson of Perry, 4-3 in the sectional championship then secured a riveting comeback in the district championship, pinning fourth-ranked Rylie Anderson of Bondurant-Farrar in the third period Feb. 13. Those tense matches will certainly help prepare Robbins for another shot at the big stage. Greene County head coach Zach Beekman was appreciative of how Robbins had to claw for wins prior to his second state tournament appearance. The sophomore has rarely trailed during his 30-match win streak - most of his wins have come by pinfall - so last week’s grind-it-out victory allowed the grappler to put his skills on the line before hiss re-introduction to the bright lights of Des Moines.
That’s not to say Robbins can’t handle the pressure of falling behind, as he proved, that’s quite the contrary. But a little scare here and there certainly isn’t a bad thing.
“He needs to be tested a little bit,” Beekman said. “It sets a different mindset, because now he’s down by two. (Robbins trailed Anderson 5-3 in the third period of the district championship prior to his pin). That’s the type of stuff I think we need to be tested with mentally.
For McKinley, it’s really hard for him to get fazed by any of that stuff. He just continues to work. He’s going to have some tough kids, you’re at the state tournament. It’s a tug of war.”
Robbins, who drew the second seed opposite Notre Dame-West Burlington-Danville’s Blaine Frazier (43-3), will open his second straight state tournament Thursday evening against Davis County’s Dawson Townsend, a junior sporting a 25-3 record.
To capture the elusive state title, Robbins will need to defeat a throng of experienced wrestlers, but Beekman believes there’s no doubt he’s up to the task.
“Being seeded second, he’s just going to go and do his thing. We keep working on his technique and little different things that we see that he could improve on. (We) really (him) to push the pace of his matches,” Beekman said. “He really showed in his (district) finals match that he’s strong. He’s someone that kids are really going to have to come after if they’re gonna beat him.”
The jump to 120 pounds this winter from 106 a year ago really has been a blessing. Robbins is allowed to focus more on his training and less on cutting weight. He’s not much taller than 5’6” which means the sophomore really won’t be pushing the weight limit.
“Where he sits now, he’s able to eat more, he’s able to drink more, he feels better,” Beekman said. “He can come in and practice harder. That type of stuff. I think the jump has been fine. It really hasn’t fazed him much.”
A lot has changed over the last 12 months, but Robbins’ desire for a title hasn’t. He’s poised, itching for that second chance.
The Class 2A semifinals are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19 while the championship round will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The semifinals and finals can be viewed on the Watch IHSSN mobile app.