Jan. 25—OTTUMWA — For the first and only time this season, the Ottumwa High School girls wrestling team found themselves in the spotlight at Evans Middle School Gymnasium.
Isaiah Cox, a former two-time state placewinner at Ottumwa, is no stranger to that spotlight. The head coach of the Bulldog girls kept his instructions simple heading into the team's one and only home dual of the season on Tuesday.
"Don't hold anything back and let it fly," Cox said.
The program's first-ever home dual turned into a memorable one for the Ottumwa girls wrestling team as Marshalltown took a 24-22 lead into the final match of the night against the Bulldogs. With the entire dual riding on the result of the final match, Joselin Mendoza took down Melissa Hernandez midway through the first period of never relinquished control, securing a fall in 1:27 that lifted OHS to a 28-24 win over the Bobcats leading to an emotional celebration with family, friends and teammates.
"I'm not going to lie. I didn't expect that I'd be able to do that," Mendoza said. "It was hard for me because all of my family is here. Seeing them in the stands was nice to see. It got me a little emotional. I got a big hug from my sister, my brother, my nephews and all my teammates.
"I was a little nervous. She (Hernandez) was coming in hard. Getting that underhook in slipping her over got it done."
The dual served as the final tune-up for the Bulldogs before Friday's regional tournament at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. Ottumwa will be one of 25 teams competing in Region 3 with the top four individuals in each weight class advancing to compete in the inaugural Iowa High School Girls State Wrestling Tournament in Coralville.
"For some of these girls, if they don't qualify for state, this could be the last time wrestling," Cox said. "At this point, you've just got to let it fly. Everything you've got left you've got to let it go. There's no more time left to be afraid and no more time left to be worried."
Jasmine Luedtke is no stranger to that pressure, having qualified for the Iowa High School boys state wrestling tournament each of the past two years. Luedtke followed a first-period fall scored by teammate Bradi Houston at 110 pounds with a second-period fall at 115 scored against Emma Andrade, giving Ottumwa a 12-6 lead in the dual.
"I'm a little bit more stressed out this year just because I know how many people are watching me and how much pressure I have," Luedtke said. "I'm honestly not too worried. Wrestling the boys (the last two years) was intimidating, but I knew if I didn't qualify for state I'd have to wake up the next morning and deal with it. I'm just lucky for the opportunity to have the chance to qualify for state and wrestle up to that higher level."
While Luedtke is considered one of the contenders to not only qualify for state, but to contend for a state title, many Ottumwa wrestlers are seeking a state berth that seemed perhaps unattainable at the beginning of the season. Maravilha 'Wonder' Vedina earned a 9-0 major decision over Seanna Mancillaz, giving the Bulldogs a 16-6 lead over the Bobcats.
"It was scary walking out there in that spotlight. I just went out there and stayed patient. I stayed calm and didn't take anything too fast," Vedina said. "I had to think about all the positives. In the beginning of the year, it was tough because I was wrestling girls that had more experience than me. Keeping a positive mindset and all the work I've put in at practice has made a huge difference for me.
"I think I'm better now. I'm nervous for Friday. It's one of the biggest things I've ever done for wrestling. I'm really hoping I can go to state. It's one of my biggest goals."
Marshalltown was able to rally back with three straight pins, setting the decisive match between Mendoza and Hernandez. Not only did the fall by Mendoza set off a celebration on the mat, but earned the Bulldog girls their first big cheer from the fans in the stands at Evans Gymnasium.
"We watched the dual the boys had last Thursday with Des Moines Hoover-North. The girls kept asking me if it was going to be like that. I told them it was going to be way better because there were going to be a lot more people hear screaming and cheering them on," Cox said. "The crowd was great. The girls have never felt anything like that before.
"It wasn't just good, it was great. For a lot of these girls, they've never even been a part of a team before this year. This is probably the hardest thing to do to come out here and wrestle under that spotlight in front of all these fans. Being out there and trusting your ability, trusting your conditioning, you never know what can happen."
— Scott Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.