2021 Fargo Remembered: Junior OWs Ayala & Bockert took different paths

Updated: September 16, 2021

Photos: Both Outstanding Wrestlers from the 2021 Junior Nationals this past summer in Fargo, N.D., came at 126 pounds. Left, Drake Ayala of Ft. Dodge, Iowa won by technical fall over Sergio Lemley of Indiana to claim the freestyle championship. Right, Alaskan Jeremy Bockert used this headlock to beat Gable Porter of Iowa in the Greco-Roman title bout. (Photos by G. Wyatt Schultz)

By Mike Finn

Drake Ayala had already won a Junior National championship in freestyle — that coming in 2019, the last time the event was held before the 50th annual event re- turned to Fargo, N.D., this past July.

And the three-time state of Iowa champion from Fort Dodge High School was well aware that many of the top high school seniors pass up on the final chance to compete in the FargoDome.

But the future Iowa Hawkeye got a strong recommendation from his future college coach to end his prep career in style. And Ayala certainly made the most of his final Fargo experience when he needed just 52 seconds to win by technical fall over Sergio Lemley of Indiana to capture the 126-pound Junior freestyle title. He also earned OW honors in that tournament.

“I talked to the people closest to me and this was the best thing for me,” said Ayala, who looked to Iowa coach Tom Brands and club coach T.J. Seabolt for guidance on wrestling in Fargo.

Did Spencer Lee, Iowa’s three-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds, suggest anything to the man who may someday fill that weight for the Hawkeyes?

“No, he let me do my own thing and he does his own thing,” grinned Ayala, who said he chose Iowa because the Hawkeyes “have the same goals” as himself.

Ayala also realizes that his first shot in varsity may not happen for two more years considering nearly the entire NCAA championship team of 2021 returns this winter.

“I look forward to being in that room and growing,” said Ayala. “I was there training for two weeks and I could feel that I was getting better.”

On competing in his final Fargo, Aya- la said he remembers when he first came to compete as an eighth grader … and even before that.

“I would come with a friend, Cullen Schriever,” he said. “We would watch and dream about it. Then he (went to Fargo and) won and I’d watch him. I love this place.”

Long Road to a Title

Jeremy Bockert, the Junior O.W. in Greco-Roman had a much longer trip to Fargo than Ayala as the 126-pound Junior

Greco champ traveled nearly 2,800 miles from his hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, where he graduated from Lanthrop High School, where he won two state champion- ships.

But unlike Ayala, Bockert does not have immediate college plans. He defeated Gable Porter of Iowa for the Greco championship by posting at least his fifth five- point throw of the Junior National tournament.

“Right now, I’m going to try and keep training in the lower 48 states and other gyms,” said Bockert, who became his state’s first Junior Greco-Roman champion since Eli Hutchison in 2006. “I’m going to get as much exposure as I can and keep training.”

Meanwhile, another Junior National champ from a non-wrestling state was 132-pound James Dalrymple in Greco-Roman. After blanking Anthony Anciete of Nevada, 4-0, for the title, Dalrymple admitted he did not expect to win a title in Fargo.

“The first match, I beat a pretty good guy and after that I got a little momentum and got a little amped up,” said Dalrymple, who also graduated from Christian Brothers in Memphis, where he won two Tennessee state titles. “I was ready to wrestle and things worked out for me.”

Fortunately for Dalrymple, who be- came just his state’s third all-time Junior champ (and first Greco champ since Tom- my Bracket in 2016), he has a college future at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“I always wanted to go to Chattanooga and Mike Hatcher had gotten me involved with the coaches there.”

Friends Forever

While most of the finals competitors quickly walked away from wrestlers who beat them in Fargo, there was an exception at 120 pounds in Greco-Roman, where both wrestlers from Colorado — champion Max Black (Castle Rock) and runner-up Jett Strickenberger (Monument), embraced for several minutes.

(This also came after both wrestles walked side-by-side, rather than run onto the mat alone, as each young man was introduced.)

“Jett and I go back so far,” said Black, who won a Colorado state championship as a senior this past season for Douglas County High School. “When I moved from Oklahoma to Colorado, we’ve been close and it’s really sad that we are splitting apart.

(It should also be noted that Strickenberger, a Colorado state runner-up from Ponderosa High School, first started the match in a USA singlet but was forced to change into a Colorado singlet.)

Emotional Recharge

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the Junior freestyle tournament came between Oklahoma’s Jordan Williams and his father, Marcus Durant, in a lower hallway of the Dome after Jordan credited his father for helping him reach this point … after Williams took nearly a month off from the sport.

“Taking the time off really helped,” said Williams, a three-time Oklahoma state champion from Collinsville High School in Tulsa, who originally verbally commit- ted to Oklahoma State, but is reconsider- ing that decision. “What made me want to get back at it is that I went to a post-season event with my dad and it came into my head that I wanted to keep wrestling.”

Durant also blamed himself for put- ting too much pressure on his son.

“There was a lot going on and a lot of pressure, and I just think he needed a break” said Durant, who embraced his son for at least a minute after the interview session “He’s been wrestling since he was seven years old. I was hard on him and we all had to take a step back.

“I had to stop being a coach and start being a father because at the end of the day, I didn’t want my son to hate me. It’s very hard because you have to know when to be a father and when to be a coach.”

Hooray for Ray Ray

Wrestlers from the state of California left Fargo with 10 individual champion- ships, the most of any state that competed in Fargo.

But perhaps no California wrestler was more hyped than Ray Ray Harris, a junior from Buchanan High School in Clovis, who beat another California wrestler — Elias Navida of San Diego — for the 106-pound Junior Greco-Roman championship.

“It shows that I’m here, that I’m at this level here and if someone wants to come get (his title), let’s go,” said Harris, who captured a 16U title in 2019.
This was also Harris’ second USA

Wrestling championship this season after he also won a folkstyle title this past spring in Iowa. He was unable to compete in the freestyle tournament.

“I got lackadaisical in high school,” he said. “I needed to make up a class this summer and was forced to miss freestyle.”

Stewart creates a Squawk

The yellow runner chicken — historically thrown onto the championship mat at the Junior Nationals to honor the champ — made its first appearance since 2017 (when current Penn State NCAA champ Aaron Brooks won in Fargo) — when Thomas Stewart defeated Brian Soldano for the 182-pound Junior freestyle championship.

While Stewart hailed from Rockville, Md., the senior-to-be is a three-time National Prep All-American at Blair.

Soldano, a two-time state champion from New Jersey, will wrestle at Rutgers tis winter.

Wait was worth it

The Fargo experience is also the last chance for many of the older high school wrestlers at Fargo to claim a stop sign championship trophy. That was the case for 170-pound Junior Freestyle champ Manuel Rojas, who defeated Brayden Thompson of Illinois in the title bout.

“I’m a little more grateful for this tournament being a finalist twice without winning,” said Rojas, who will be a junior at Detroit Catholic, where he has won two Michigan state titles.

Fargo 2021 was a good tournament for Michigan wrestlers in the Junior free- style as two other wrestlers from the state won Fargo titles in that tournament.

The other two were Braeden Davis (113) from Belleville, Mich., and Joshua Barr (160) from Davison, Mich.

“I’ve been training all summer for this and I’m glad I made it count,” said Davis, a two-time Michigan state champ from Dundee High School, who did win a 16U national title in 2019.

Barr, a two-time Michigan state champ from Davison High School, admit- ted he was hoping to catch the attention of college scouts.

“Some were surprised I was wrestling (in Fargo),” said Barr. “I’ve had a couple colleges contact me here.”