Fred Stroker gets ready for battle in Fargo (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Every summer in the third week of July there is a national tournament that hardly anyone watches in person. It's hard to get to and is held in a cavernous building that somehow is called a dome. It might be the least fan-friendly place to watch wrestling anywhere. But if you happen to be a coach or a member of the media, it is arguably the single most thrilling event in amateur wrestling. If you're lucky enough to get on the floor of the FARGODOME during the ASICS/Vaughan Junior & Cadet National Championships, you will never want to settle for a patron's seat. I know, I've done both. If you have ever wrestled in this event (especially the Junior division), you have officially entered the three most brutal days of staged competition. If you place in the top eight, you are one of the elite in the nation. Frankly, there should be a penalty to a wrestler's national ranking if he chooses to skip Fargo. The risk to reward is too high and the penalty for skipping is none.
For the last three Fargo tournaments I have picked a well-known national wrestler and asked if I could follow him through the three days of competition. The first year I traveled along with current Minnesota Gopher wrestler Brandon Kingsley, who finished fourth. The following year I chose current Gopher wrestler Jake Short, who finished third. Last summer I trailed incoming Gopher freshman Tommy Thorn, who failed to place. Each was a slight favorite to win the title and I have since developed a reputation as a bad luck charm.
T-shirts were made honoring the late Jim Short, a Minnesota wrestling legend (Photo/David Peterson)This came my way by none other than the grandmother of Minnesota wrestling, Pat Short. This year she cornered me and asked whose tournament I'm going to ruin this year. I told her Fredy Stroker from Iowa. She seemed pleased with the answer, had a tear in her eye and kept moving. Pat Short has been attending this event for many decades but this is the first year she was without her husband Jim. He passed away a few months ago and there were many Minnesota coaches wearing shirts honoring the late great Jim Short.
Fredy and I met up Thursday morning as the small guys were on the mat. He had a smile as wide as a river and looked fresh. I was a little skeptical. Two nights earlier he was involved in a serious accident that totaled his dad's car. Fredy's mom Anabel begged him to stay home and forget about Fargo. Also, this was Fredy's first live competition since the Iowa state tournament where it was determined he wrestled the entire event with a torn MCL. I also happen to know every big-time wrestling coach in America wants him at his college. In the past two weeks he has hosted several head coaches in his parents' living room that have recently won national titles. I couldn't help but wonder if the pressure was going to be too much. Finally, he is wrestling one weight class higher (145) than he planned. He simply did not want to cut weight for this event
Day 1: Thursday, July 24, 2014
Match No. 1: Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Kaleb Winebarger (Oregon)
This is an opponent that Fredy knows nothing about. Kaleb is a two-time state placewinner in Oregon and last season was a runner up. This is a mismatch from the beginning and Stroker walks away with an easy 10-0 technical fall. Fredy barely breaks a sweat and is happy to be off with an easy start.
Since this tournament no longer uses the pairing style and has moved to traditional bracketing, it has almost guaranteed the top wrestlers will be separated. In the past it was common for crazy tough matchups to happen right away. Also, once you lose here, there is no chance to wrestle in the finals. Many people favor this and many longed for the way it's always been. One thing is clear: this new form of bracketing is here to stay. The only question many people had on the opening day is, "Will Friday night be as exciting as it has always been?"
Fredy Stroker (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Match No. 2: Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Chase Lemons (Idaho)
This is the second straight match with an unknown opponent. Lemons is more recognizable in Idaho and recently finished as a runner-up in the state tournament. Fredy gets an early takedown for a 2-0 lead. As the first period rolls on, Lemons is becoming more confident and has found a way to slow Fredy down. The period ends 2-0. As the second period begins, it's clear Lemons smells victory and gets in deep on a few takedowns. Stroker has to work hard to fend off being pushed out of bounds. Clearly Stroker is hanging on to his lead and the momentum is on Lemons' side. The last 30 seconds of the period ends with a few nice scrambles, but Fredy hangs on for a close 2-0 win. He walks off the mat with a sigh of relief and another smile. He knows this thing is going to be rough.
Fredy Stroker is an Army brat and has moved several times. He considers Pennsylvania his home state and has several friends in this weight class. They are not only his friends; he has wrestled with these guys throughout his youth wrestling career. Each of them at one time or another has been ranked near the top of the national rankings. Right now that spot belongs to Fredy. The Stroker family moved to Bettendorf, Iowa, three years ago just in time for Fredy to enter high school. He is currently a two-time state champion and is on track to break most of the Bulldogs' long-standing records. He is coached by Iowa wrestling legend Dan Knight, who is one of Iowa's four-time state champions.
Match No. 3: Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Rocco Russo (New York)
Once again Fredy knows nothing about this opponent. He's damn good. He has a high school record of 237-33 and is a multiple-time state placer. He has committed to Buffalo. This match gets off to a quick start. Fredy gets an early takedown followed by a two-point tilt. He follows this with another takedown and the period ends 6-0. This match will be over halfway through the second period with Fredy picking up the fall. Later I ask him why this match seemed so much easier. "I wasn't mentally ready for my second match," said Fredy. "I came into this one warmed up and ready to go." I asked if he felt like he was ready to make a deep run. He smiled and said, "I am!"
Last fall Fredy skipped his usual preseason events and only entered Flo's "Who's Number 1?" This inaugural event in Pennsylvania featured four of the nation's top 132-pounders. Fredy surprised most of his critics by defeating multiple-time Fargo champion Seth Gross in his first match and then took out his friend Michael Kemerer in the finals. He spent the season ranked No. 1 by some publications and ran the table to the state championship. Many people have asked if he deserved that ranking, and this weekend in Fargo provides an opportunity for Stroker to silence the doubters.
Day 2: Friday, July 25, 2014
Match No. 4 (Round of 16): Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Zac Carson (Ohio)
There will be nothing easy today. Anyone still alive without a loss today is a very good wrestler and the chances to win by large margins are small. In the old pairing system mentioned earlier, this day (Cadet finals are in the middle of the day) used to be considered the toughest day of wrestling anywhere. I'm excited to see if it holds up. Carson is another unknown opponent nationally, but certainly is known in Ohio circles. Two years ago he was a runner-up to four-time state champion Dean Heil, and was a bronze medal winner last year. He was also a placer at FloNationals.
Steve Elwood (right) and Lance Hughes take in the action from the elevated mat in Fargo (Photo/David Peterson)As Fredy is warming up, he mentions he has never wrestled on the championship stage. "I have never had any match up there," said Fredy. "I hope my first time is in the finals tomorrow." I ask him where this next match is and he doesn't know. We part and a few minutes later I read on the screen "Mat 1: Stroker vs. Carson." This is the championship stage. As the match gets underway, neither wrestler can gain an advantage. A minute goes by without any scoring. Carson tries a few leg attacks that are blocked easily by Stroker and then Fredy receives a passivity warning. He is told he has 30 seconds to score, or a point will go to his opponent. Within 10 seconds Stroker has Carson's leg in the air and brings him to the mat for a 2-0 lead. The period ends with that score and another look of relief is on Stroker's face as he comes to the corner to cool down.
Forty seconds into the second period Fredy gets an easy takedown to build the lead to 4-0. He is now doing a little shuffle with his feet and daring Carson to come in on him. Carson takes him up on this offer and picks up a nice two points of his own. The last minute of the match is pure excitement as Carson tries everything he can to even the score as Fredy circles and tries to fend him off. The match ends 4-2 Stroker. Fredy is not happy with his performance here and is frustrated he isn't scoring more points. "I should have run away with that win. It should never have been that close."
Every wrestler thinks his weight class is the tournament's toughest. The experts agree that 120, 126, 145 and 195 pounds are probably the deepest. Entering the weekend, most thought the top competitors at 145 pounds were Isaiah White, Fredy Stroker, Michael Kemerer, Josh Maruca, Vincenzo Joseph, Patrick Duggan and Mark Voss. We are now in the quarterfinals and all those wrestlers have yet to take a loss.
Match No. 5 (Quarterfinals): Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Patrick Duggan (Pennsylvania)
This is one of Fredy's longtime wrestling pals. They have known each other since they were 6. Mr. Stroker and Mr. Duggan are very good friends. This will not be an easy match for either wrestler. They shake hands and it is clear Duggan has spent many days in the weight room. His muscles are bulging out of his singlet and he's clearly the strongest opponent Stroker has faced in Fargo. Duggan has plenty of accolades. He is a multiple-time placewinner here at Fargo, Beast of the East placewinner and a two-time Pennsylvania state placer. They meet in the center and Duggan comes at Stroker right away. Fredy has to fight hard to ward off a takedown. The pressure keeps coming and like the match before, Fredy is put on the 30-second clock for passivity. This time he is unable to capture a point and for the first time in the tournament, Stroker is behind 1-0.
Fredy Stroker gets his hand raised (Photo/David Peterson)Duggan shoots in again and almost picks up a takedown. The period ends with Duggan ahead 1-0. Stroker gets on the offensive early in the second period and gets a nice takedown to jump ahead 2-1. Fredy keeps coming at Duggan and the referee returns the favor and puts Duggan on the 30-second passivity clock. Patrick tries several moves to prevent the one-point penalty, but can't pick up any points. It's now 3-1 Stroker with under a minute remaining in the match. Duggan is desperate and tries several throws and leg attacks. None of them are successful, but with 15 seconds to go, Duggan gets one point for a pushout. He vainly tries another dive in on the legs but comes up empty. Final score is 3-2 Stroker. This guarantees All-American honors for Stroker.
How tough is it to be an All-American in Fargo? There were 108 entrants at the 145-pound weight class. 100 of those will not be All-Americans. It's a big deal and I can attest that virtually every one of those 108 competitors thought they would make it. The look in the eyes of the wrestlers as they are eliminated is ghost-like. Most do their best to get away from the crowd. It is almost always followed by the saddest tears and time spent alone. No one wants to be caught crying, but many of the competitors can't hold the tears back as their opponents' arms are raised. It is tough to watch a young boy hang his head as he goes to every corner to shake all coaches hands and make his way to the center judge to do the same. There's something sadly shameful about this that only a wrestler understands. They have no one to hang their loss on. It's their fault and their dreams are dead.
Match No. 6 (Semifinals): Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Vincenzo Joseph (Pennsylvania)
Here is another longtime friend and wrestling partner of Stroker's. Vince has been in the shadow of the likes of Kemerer, Stroker and Maruca, but unfairly. Joseph is the reigning Pennsylvania state champion and a multiple-time state placewinner. He also finished fourth in the prestigious Walsh Ironman last December. Still, most don't give this tough wrestler his due. He is another very strong athlete with very little body fat. He looks much bigger than Stroker. The match starts with Joseph diving and successfully grabbing the ankle and gets a quick 2-0 lead. Fredy tries a similar move but finds himself at the edge of the circle and is easily pushed out. It's now 3-0 Joseph.
Fredy Stroker (Photo/David Peterson)Coach Knight recognizes this match is not going to be like the others and is yelling for Fredy to control the ties and get him off the head! The period comes to a close with Joseph confidently walking off the mat with a nice 3-0 lead. The second period starts just like the first, but this time Fredy blocks the shot to the ankle with his signature whizzer hold. It does nothing except take valuable time off the clock. After the referee breaks the action, Joseph is in again and this time scores the two points. He follows this right away with a two-point tilt and suddenly Stroker is down 7-0.
With less than 90 seconds to go, Fredy takes a few wild shots that are easily blocked. As the period comes to an end, Joseph gets one more point for a pushout and the match ends 8-0 Joseph. I'm stunned this happened so fast. I didn't see this coming and neither did most others. I have been here enough times to know to get away from a wrestler after a devastating loss. I know he needs time alone and I'm all about giving it to him. Fredy Stroker's dream of being a national champion is dead.
The rest of the semifinal round is lights out. Some of the very best wrestling matches are condensed to this two-hour period and the action is breathtaking. My traveling companion Lance Hughes and I are constantly running between the three semifinal mats making sure we don't miss anything special. We are fortunate enough to see Mitchell McKee (Minnesota) score an unbelievable 10 points in the last 20 seconds of his match to march to the finals. We watch Tommy Thorn roar back from a three-point deficit with less than 30 seconds on the clock. We slap hands as Bobby Steveson (Minnesota) avenges his loss to Samuel Colbray with another gut-check comeback (was down 5-2) with 45 seconds to go. The new bracketing system seems to bring out the best in these guys. The famous Friday night blood round has been replaced by some thrilling semifinal matches.
Match No. 7 (Consolation Semifinals): Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Michael Kemerer (Pennsylvania)
This is the third straight opponent from PA for Stroker. These two know each other all too well. Kemerer is a two-time state finalist and a multiple-time All-American in Fargo. He was clearly one of the favorites to win this title. These two are now wrestling to make it into the third-place match. The loser will wrestle for fifth. Kemerer strikes first with a takedown in the first minute of the match to go up 2-0. Stroker battles back with a takedown in the final 30 seconds of the period to knot the score at 2-2 as the opening period comes to a close. Kemerer regains his lead, 3-2, with a pushout 57 seconds into the second period. Kemerer nearly scores a takedown midway through the period, but the two wrestlers go out of bounds. Both wrestlers remain aggressive, and with 23 seconds left in the match Stroker fires off a shot and converts it to a takedown with 16 seconds left to take a 4-3 lead, which is how the match would end. He will wrestle for third place in the medal round tomorrow.
Day 3: Saturday, July 26, 2014
By this time most of the competitors are in the stands. The Junior division started with over a thousand wrestlers and we are down to the final 120. There will be 15 champions taking a stop sign (the big plaque is octagon shaped) home with them. Most wrestlers covet this hardware more than any other besides an Olympic gold medal. There is nothing harder to win as a high school-age wrestler, and their peers consider them the best in the nation. It's the only major national wrestling event without travel restrictions or barriers to enter. If you think you have it, bring it.
Fredy Stroker with Bettendorf teammate Logan RyanMatch No. 8: (Third Place): Fredy Stroker (Iowa) vs. Josh Maruca (Pennsylvania)
Fredy and I can't believe he is about to wrestle his fourth straight friend from Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania is without argument the deepest wrestling state in the nation. State placers in PA would win state titles in the majority of the other 49 states. The match does not start off well for Fredy. Maruca gets in on a takedown and traps Stroker's arm. He uses his leverage and rolls Fredy back and forth in a series of successive moves. Each roll is worth two points and they are coming fast and furious. Like some other freestyle moves, when a wrestler is caught in deep, there is very little he can do. The points are awarded faster than I can keep up with and just like that, it's over. Maruca wins the third-place match 11-0.
I give Fredy plenty of space to absorb the loss. I know this is painful and I'm not getting near that agony. I make my way to the championship stage to take in that action. Later, Fredy comes up on the stage with the other All Americans at 145 pounds and accepts his fourth-place trophy. He is happy and light on his feet. He tells me he feels bad about the losses he took here, but fourth place feels pretty good. He knows he has one more year of this next summer and he looks me in the eye and says, "It's mine next year!" I believe him.
Isaiah White of Illinois went on to win the championship at 145 pounds in convincing fashion, defeating Vincenzo Joseph 9-3 in the championship match.