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OUR STORY: Any way you slice it, super regionals was a tremendous success for our girls’ wrestling program

Gilbert senior Brooklynn Nees was exhausted. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. She started the day with a full gas tank, but by the time she’d completed her seventh match – yes, her seventh match of the day, more on that later – nearly eight hours later at the girls’ wrestling super regional in Des Moines on Friday, that tank was bone dry.

She barely had the energy to walk to the corner of the mat where she immediately collapsed into the arms of head coach Scott Auderer. She buried her head in his forearm and then slowly wilted to the ground. Eventually, she was aided off the mat and over to the cement floor near the bleachers where she sat for some time.

Nees was so close to punching her ticket to the state tournament. How close? An inch. On multiple occasions. Seriously. Twice in consolation matches, she had her opponent staring at the lights and just one more inch would have put the shoulders flat on the mat for the fall. A win in either of those matches would have clinched a state berth.

Nees’ story is why so many of us have a love-hate relationship with sports. If you believe in the seeding process, she wasn’t supposed to contend for a spot at state, but she didn’t buy into the predictions. With fire in her eyes and determination in her gut, she dove into the deep end of the pool with no fear. She won four matches on the day, all of them by fall and two that were considered significant upsets to those that had never met her and had no idea what she was capable of.

Nees’ story shouldn’t be taken for granted. Did she reach her ultimate goal? If that ultimate goal was to wrestle at state then, no, she didn’t. But if you were there on Friday and you watched what she accomplished, then you know this for a fact: she won in the game of life. And that should stay with her forever.

Our girls’ team had many similar stories throughout the tournament. So many successes that need to be told and shared.

Bronze medalist Cecelia Bowers wasn’t a top-four seed either, but she’s headed to the state tournament after winning five of six matches, her only loss coming against eventual champion and ninth-ranked Alexis Winkey of Ames in the 125-pound quarterfinals.

Fern Neubauer will join Bowers at state after she went 4-1 to place third at 155. The headlock throw should be renamed The Fern with how quickly and efficiently she pulled off the move in all four of her wins. If opponents want to leave their neck out there, Neubauer is more than happy to take them for a ride.

Neubauer’s only loss came to arguably our state’s best pound-for-pound wrestler. No. 1-ranked Skylar Slade of Southeast Polk hasn’t lost all season. She’s nationally ranked, a Super 32 champion – trust me, that’s a big deal nationally – and, oh by the way, A WORLD CHAMPION! Slade went to the U15 Pan Am Championships in Columbia recently and walked away with a gold medal.

Alex Harswick, a senior 145-pounder, reached the finals to clinch her advancement to state and she’ll be a contender for a medal later this week. Lanky and strong, it only takes seconds of watching her on the mat to realize that she just gets it. All of it.

Hadley Boshart (130 pounds), Brooke Hamers (140) and Anna Steenhoek (170) were all right there as well, in the thick of the fight. Boshart and Steenhoek wrapped up tremendous seasons in the same unenviable position as Nees, on the losing end of a wrestleback for the final spot in their brackets. Both were devastated as anyone would be, but just to scratch and claw into those positions was tremendous. When the emotional scars heal, that’s what I hope they remember.

Hamers, a junior who finished sixth, was battling more than her opponents. A nationally accomplished gymnast before she decided to give wrestling a try just a year ago, Hamers was forced to battle her own body as well. Grappling with a shoulder injury throughout the majority of the season, it would have been easy for her to give in and say she couldn’t do it. But that’s just not her way.

When it was over, and her tournament was finished, the pain was equal parts physical and emotional for Hamers as she looked to Auderer for a comforting word. She’ll be back though, she’s too good not to be. And if she can remain healthy throughout her senior season next winter, there’s no telling what she can accomplish.

Other thoughts …

  • I mentioned before that Nees was forced to wrestle seven times on Friday. That’s too much. Way too much, actually. For years, boys have not been allowed to wrestle more than five times in a single day and it’s a rule the girls need to adopt as well. If that means adding more regionals or splitting off into classes, then so be it.
  • Bowers, Boshart and Steenhoek all wrestled six matches. Again, too much. Hopefully the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union agrees moving forward.
  • All in all, I thought the IGHSAU ran a solid tournament. Was it long? Absolutely, but with 25 teams in the Super Region 4 field, that was inevitable.
  • Gilbert’s sixth-place finish in the team race should not be forgotten either. Our girls won 24 matches on the day, 17 by pin, and topped several significantly larger schools: West Des Moines Valley, Urbandale and Johnston.
  • With 13 of the 14 weights filled, the Tigers tied regional champion Southeast Polk, Ames and Raccoon River Northwest for the most wrestlers in the field. Why is that significant? Because it shows that just one year into this, Auderer is building an incredibly solid program. And his current crop of grapplers should be remembered for what they started.
  • The state pairings were released Sunday afternoon and here’s who our three qualifiers drew for first-round opponents:

–125 Pounds: Cecelia Bowers (20-13) vs. No. 2-ranked Tatum Shepherd (44-2), Ridge View.

–145 Pounds: Alex Harswick (26-4) vs. Kallie Gibbons (28-10), Mason City.

–155 Pounds: Fern Neubauer (18-8) vs. No. 5-ranked Lauren Nicholas (34-8), Cedar Falls.

  • The first-ever IGHSAU girls’ state wrestling tournament will be held Thursday and Friday at Xtream Arena in Coralville. The opening round will get started at 9 a.m. on Thursday. Good luck to our three qualifiers!

Gilbert Students, Community Give Back Through Mentoring Programs

We celebrate all of our volunteers during National Mentoring Month

Pastor Christian Johnson, who watches over the congregation at Gilbert Lutheran Church, had a smile on his face as he sat and waited for intermediate student and fourth grader Parker Main Tuesday afternoon. For one, Pastor Johnson enjoys a good school lunch and on the menu today is a corn dog. Secondly, and most importantly, he gets the chance to spend an hour with Main, who he’s mentored for nearly four years.

Soon enough Parker shows up, and he and Pastor Johnson take their lunches to the east gym where they sit with their backs to the bleachers and eat while they talk. They might shoot some hoops, or play another game afterward, whatever Parker wants.

Pastor Johnson and Parker get together weekly and it’s a visit they both look forward to.

“Parker is an amazing kid,” Pastor Johnson says. “I love his energy, his creativity, and his spirit just lifts me up. And I love to be in the school too. To see the teachers, the staff, the kids; it just lifts you up.”

Pastor Johnson is one of 30 individuals – students and community members alike – who take part in the YSS School-Based Mentoring program, according to Gilbert Mentor Facilitator Erin Wimmer. Now in its 22nd year, the program is so popular, in fact, that there are four boys on the waiting list, biding their time until a mentor can be located. 

The YSS School-Based mentoring program is for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and there are a number of Gilbert High School students that serve as mentors alongside community members. Wimmer says sophomores, juniors and seniors can apply to become mentors and it’s a great way to give back to younger students.

“I do my best to recruit people who are interested in spending time once a week with younger kids in the school,” Wimmer says. “It’s being there for them, being a positive role model in their lives, and it enriches your own life too.”

January is National Mentoring Month and today – Thursday, Jan. 26 – is Thank Your Mentor Day. This month serves as a chance to raise awareness for how one conversation, one experience, and one mentor can change a young person’s life, according to the website mentoring.org.

Wimmer has witnessed many beautiful connections over the years, and nearly 50 percent of the mentors stay with their students for at least two years. Some, as in Pastor Johnon’s case, maintain that connection for even longer.

“I’ve been here for eight years and one of the most impactful stories came in my first year,” Wimmer said. “At the end of every year, we ask the mentees what having a mentor means to them. Usually answers are: it means I can play games with somebody, or it means I have somebody to talk to, or it means I can skip outside recess when it’s cold outside. But my first year, a student responded to that question with: it makes me feel less invisible. I will never forget that.”

The YSS School-Based Mentoring program is just one of several ways that our students are afforded the opportunity to connect and make a difference in the lives of their younger peers.

At the high school this past fall, Assistant Principal John Ronca spearheaded a new program called Tiger Den, in which seniors can mentor freshmen in the building. Being new to the high school can be scary and intimidating for ninth graders, and the Tiger Den’s mission is to help alleviate that strain.

“Freshmen always seem a little bit timid, so this was an opportunity to create a program where seniors can sign up and help,” Ronca says.

Sixty seniors committed to the program, and while it’s voluntary for freshmen, Ronca says every member of the class signed up to take part. Each senior was assigned two or three freshmen to mentor, and the group gets together once a month during Success Center to talk and play games. Ronca envisions a growing program in the coming years..

“The goal was to have freshmen get to know at least one senior they could count on, whether they had questions about classes, behavior, culture … they could talk to a senior about those things.

“The program is simply helping freshmen assimilate into the culture of the high school with the seniors, and the program has been really good. I think the seniors and freshmen are really enjoying their time, and any time you can get older students to help mold the younger mind, that’s a plus.”

Students at the high school have one additional way to help mold the minds of the next generation and that’s as a Tiger Helper at the intermediate building. During the first semester, more than a dozen students took part and logged more than 160 hours in classrooms with younger students.

Any high school student with a study hall can sign up to be a Tiger Helper and each individual stays in the same classroom throughout the semester. It gives the students a chance to bond with both the students and staff and build relationships that may last long after the semester ends.

Whether it’s through the YSS School-Based Mentoring program, the Tiger Den program, or the Tiger Helper program, our students are reaping the benefits. For the mentors, these programs teach dedication and responsibility, and the chance to give back can heighten one’s own self-esteem. And for the mentees, it’s one more friend with a shoulder to lean on, or someone to smile and laugh with.

Any way you look at it, it’s win-win.

Girls Wrestling Team Hosts Panorama Tuesday

Tigers take state aspirations into Friday’s regional tournament

The inaugural season of sanctioned girls’ wrestling is drawing toward its conclusion, but not before teams across the state face their biggest and toughest tests of the season.

Regionals from Sioux City to Cedar Rapids and places in between are set for Friday, with the state tournament scheduled to take place Thursday and Friday, Feb. 2 and 3, at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

The top four finishers at each weight from regionals will advance to state. Gilbert’s full team will take part in Region 4 inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Friday. Wrestling will get started at 11 a.m.

“Friday, yeah, it’s a big deal,” Gilbert head coach Scott Auderer said. “Our regional is tough, but they’re all going to be tough. Most of the weights, I’d say they’re pretty good one through four.”

Like Auderer said, Friday is important. But his grapplers haven’t turned their complete focus to that, not yet anyway. They’re currently focused on Tuesday night and a chance to wrestle in front of their home crowd for the first and only time this winter.

Gilbert will host Panorama at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening in the first sanctioned girls’ dual the school has ever hosted. It wasn’t on the Tigers original schedule, but when a December home meet was canceled, Auderer looked for another team willing to make the trek to compete. Panorama was up to the challenge, and it has Auderer and his pupils excited.

“Tuesday’s meet is a big deal for our program,” Auderer said. “It would be great to get that gym full for those girls and it’s something that helps to build the program.

“The girls are excited and they want to be recognized as a legitimate sport. They want people to see the hard work they’ve put in and get a chance to showcase themselves.”

Students will get into the dual free of charge, and the team would love if everyone from the community ventured to the high school to be part of the first-ever sanctioned dual at Gilbert. Most, if not all, of the 14 weights will be contested.

Auderer was still putting the final touches on his lineup for the dual and regionals Monday morning. Ten of the 14 weights have already been penciled in, but there are several challenge matches set for Monday afternoon that will decide the final lineup.

Friday’s regional will be anything but easy. Joining Gilbert in the Region 4 field will be Ames, Baxter, Boone, Cardinal, Carlisle, Chariton, Colfax-Mingo, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, Earlham, Fairfield, Grinnell, Johnston, Martensdale St. Marys, Nevada, Ogden, Panorama, Pella, Perry, Raccoon River-Northwest, Saydel, South Tama County, Southeast Polk, Urbandale, and West Des Moines Valley. It’s a blend of small and large schools with Gilbert somewhere in the middle in the one-class setup.

Gilbert’s lineup will look something like this for regionals:

•100 — Jaedyn Henry
•105 — Jaydan Jeppesen
•110 — Alicia Smith
•115 — Brooklynn Nees
•120 — Undecided
•125 — Undecided
•130 — Hadley Boshart
•135 — Brooke Hamers
•140 — Annika Yoder-Stoulil
•145 — Alex Harswick
•155 — Undecided
•170 — Anna Steenhoek
•190 — Open
•235 — Macy Underwood

Harswick, a senior 145-pounder, has put together a stellar campaign and she’s hopeful it will end in Coralville early next month. Harswick takes a 16-match winning streak and 22-3 overall record with 19 pins into Tuesday’s dual. She fell at the hands of second-ranked 140-pounder and 2022 state runner-up Sarah Lewis of Centerville early in the season, and her two other setbacks have both been avenged.

Auderer says Harswick’s lanky frame, strength and athleticism are all keys to her success. However, her determination is what truly sets her apart.

“The big key for her is her mental toughness and her discipline,” Auderer said. “She’s smart, she understands the diet, she understands the whole thing. It’s a priority for her and she has legitimate goals.”

Boshart, also a senior who competes at 130, is another Tiger with state aspirations, as she boasts a 19-7 record with 18 pins. She competed at state a season ago and understands the pressure the spotlight can bring.

“She’s improved a lot and she knows what she’s doing,” Auderer said of Boshart. “As long as she’s got the confidence in herself, she’ll be fine.”

Brooke Hamers, a junior 135-pounder, has dealt with injuries this season, but she’s back in the lineup and ready to take her crack at state as well. Hamers is 14-8 on the season.

“I think she has a shot on Friday, and I think a couple others have a shot (to reach state) as well,” Auderer said.

Of the 21 girls on the Gilbert roster, nine — Nees, Boshart, Hamers, Harswick, Steenhoek, Aubrey Dunn, Emma Britcher, Cecelia Bowers, and Fern Neubauer — have won at least 10 matches.

Your chance to see the team in action, right here at home, happens Tuesday evening. We hope to see you there!

Gilbert Competition Cheer Squad Ready To Take On Nationals

Tigers to compete in Dallas on Saturday and Sunday

Jordan Sytsma was noticeably nervous as she stood to the side and watched her Gilbert competition cheer squad prepare to perform in front of friends, family, and the entire community during halftime of the boys’ basketball game last Friday night.

This was the squad’s last chance for a full out in front of a crowd before it departs on Thursday for the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) High School Nationals and Sytsma, the Tigers’ head coach, wanted perfection.

No coach ever gets perfection but, hey, they can dream, right?

“Friday was stressful,” Sytsma said. “To put them out in front of the entire community, that’s a pressure cooker. But I was very happy. I’ll always nit-pick things because you’re always striving to be better, but it went really well.”

With a little extra fine-tuning this week, the comp cheer squad hopes it will perform even better this weekend when it steps onto the big stage inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, for nationals. Competing in the Small Varsity Game Day Division, the Tigers will showcase their routine during the semifinals on Saturday, and again during the finals on Sunday. The semifinal performance will account for 25 percent of their overall team score, while Sunday’s finals will make up the remaining 75 percent.

Gilbert’s three-minute routine is comprised of a band chant, situational response, and the school fight song. The routine itself was choreographed way back in August, although it had to be put on the back burner somewhat until following the state competition in November.

It’s not an easy routine. It’s not a safe routine. And that’s precisely what the squad’s 14 members — Carly Dolan, Clair Lewis, Grace Lornston, Julia Lewis, Anella Troncoso, Lulu Smith, Liz Fierce, Addie Pink, Payton Crawford, Ella Overman, Olivia Schuelka, Riley Lempiainen, Ava Price, and Blair Hibbing — wanted.

“We’re always pushing ourselves and taking risks, and the kids want that,” Sytsma said. “We’re not going to put out a safe routine. These girls want to be challenged, they want to take risks. We’re going to swing for the fences.”

Gilbert, which won back-to-back Class 3A state cheerleading titles prior to this season’s state runner-up finish, is one of only four schools in Iowa that will compete at nationals. Waukee, Waukee Northwest, and Mason City will join the Tigers in Dallas.

This year’s NCA High School Nationals will be the largest field in the 75-year history of the event. While that may seem daunting, it only adds to the excitement for Gilbert’s cheerleaders and coach. They’ve been together since June, working tirelessly to be ready for those six minutes on mat this weekend.

“The NCA’s tag line is the work is worth it, and I fully believe that,” Sytsma said. “It’s a ton of work, but the goal is to go down and do well. Just the experience of being able to compete on the national level is something I take a lot of pride in, as do the kids. They’re the first group from Gilbert to ever do that.

“This is the big leagues; you’re competing against the best of the best in the nation. Our kids want to go down and they want to win, which we are capable of doing.”

We wish Coach Sytsma and the girls nothing but the very best of luck this weekend. They’ve put in the time. They’ve put in the work. They’re ready. And we know they will represent our school incredibly well.

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