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Remember The Wrestler: Willie Harris; Creston HS/Wartburg College

When you make the leap from Youth/JH wrestling to High School Wrestling, there are many transitions to make. The matches become twice as long, the intensity doubles, the gyms you compete in become 3-4X more packed and 20X as loud, the girls in your age group seem to take 10X more interest in your wrestling events and the pressure of it all can either add fuel to or interfere with your ability to perform well, for the stakes seem to be 100X higher. You see guys that you grew up wrestling with or competing against who either end up quitting, regressing, plateauing in their development or in many cases, improving immensely out of nowhere. The way a wrestler does or does not make the “youth to HS” transition can depend on a variation of so many things, but generally speaking, I don’t think I am going out on a limb when I say that most people who have followed a particular age group throughout their youth endeavors are able to somewhat accurately predict who most of the hammers will be at the high school level.  Most of the guys who excel at the HS level, excelled at the youth level to at least some degree. Your 4X state champions usually do not come out of nowhere. Most of them were hammers before HS. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t common for wrestlers to make huge, unexpected (by opponents) jumps at the high school level and place themselves firmly among the elite guys of their grade despite struggling to reach the top for years at the youth wrestling scene. I don’t remember this happening more than with my younger brother, Justin’s age group and weight range. This consisted of guys who graduated in ‘02-05 and competed in the lower-to lower-middle weight ranges. Justin’s little longtime group of SE Iowa practice partners consisted of Aaron Drain (Mepo), Logan Frescoln (Cardinal), Chad Hutchinson (Mepo), Riley Ball (Burlington), Micah Keller (Mepo), Zach Walrod, Christopher Johnson (West Burlington) and Steve Reynolds (Mepo). They wrestled with each other for several years at the youth level and all of them generally did well at AAU State every year. After years of relatively consistent success for most of those guys at the youth level, we thought we all had a pretty good grip on who ALL the studs were in their age and weight range(s) and didn’t expect too many surprises in HS, for we figured we saw pretty much everyone already at some time or another. And holy cow we were wrong, for there were several surprises for these guys. Especially with guys from the SW, NW and NE area of the state.

Some of the new names that these guys started bumping heads with on the biggest stages at the high school level included guys like; Ruben Chavez from West Liberty, Levi Heinold from Clarinda, Andre Avila from Assumption, Mitch Zmolek from South Tama, Aaron Helmrich of North Linn, Jay Bjustrom from Algona, Brad Gregory from Glenwood, Judd Wagner from Dyersville-Beckman, Joe and Tom Rodman of Sergeant Bluff, Adam Grell of Dewitt-Central, Josh Marker of Ames, Jeremy Johnson of Clarksville, etc. Pretty much every Osage guy we encountered (Trent Goodale, Joe Uker, Dusty Pollard, Kuper bros, Tom Michels, Jayden Olsen, Tracy Kleckner, etc.) for this description because they generally didn’t wrestle AAU State because it fell on the same date as their home tournament. So we never expected any of those guys to be in the mix until we encountered them…and they were insanely tough, all of them.   And I left a big one out… I don’t think there is a wrestler who epitomizes the type of wrestler I’m talking about more than Willie Harris from Creston.

Willie was relatively unknown to us Southeast Iowans prior to HS, yet became a potential thorn in one of our guys’ side every…single…year at the HS State Wrestling Tournament. When he was a Freshman, it was Steve Reynolds who was in his bracket. When Willie was a Sophomore, it was Chad Hutchinson in his bracket. When he was a Senior , Christopher Johnson was in his bracket… Harris placed ahead of those guys all three years. We didn’t see it coming, for I want to say Willie placed just once in AAU. He placed 6th at state as a 6th grader, I believe, behind our guy, Christopher Johnson, who ironically lost the biggest wrestling match of his entire HS career to Harris as a Senior in the semifinals at state. Other than that one 6th place finish, though…we hadn’t ever really heard anything else about Harris coming into HS. A testament to the great job the Creston wrestling program consistently does year after year, decade after decade in developing and getting the most out of their wrestlers when they hit the HS level.  When we would read Harris’s name in the rankings when he was a Freshman or so, we’d generally look at his name and scoff and kinda make comments about the guy who compiled the rankings as not having a grasp of “who was who” with that age/weight range. And that guy was the late Dan McCool…. and he certainly DID have a grasp of who was who in that group of guys, for Willie showed us pretty quickly that he was going to be an absolute force to be reckoned with for anyone who had to take the mat with him when we first saw him compete at state as a Freshman. He was GOOD. REALLY, REALLLY GOOD. Our mindset would go from seeing his name on the bracket at state and not thinking it’d be that big of a deal if one of our guys met with him to taking a total 180 turn where we thought, “dang… it’d be nice if we didn’t have to deal with Willie Harris every year at state. That’s kind of an unpleasant surprise.” He was a GAMER. I mean, it just took watching him in one match at state as a Freshman before you could confidently conclude that he was the real deal and was only going to get better quick…which he did, every year. He went from somewhat of an “unknown” to most of us from SE Iowa to an undeniable “top dog” in a matter of one weekend. By the time he was a Senior, our area coaches were in full-fledged “scout mode” against Harris, for we knew that either my brother Justin would run into him at 2A 135 or Christopher Johnson would have to face him if Willie decided to go 2A 130. It ended up being Christopher Johnson who was faced with the difficult task of wrestling Willie Harris at state that year and as alluded to earlier…Harris gave Christopher his most heartbreaking loss he ever took. To give you an idea, Chris Johnson was a 3X National Folkstyle Champion in HS (2X Tulsa Champ/1X AAU National Champ) and a Reno World Champion as a Junior in HS…. yet he never won state because of losses he took at state to Jacob Naig (Emmetsburg), CJ Ettelson (Hudson) and Willie Harris. A guy who won 4 National/World Championships did not win state in Iowa… that’s tough… and obviously the guys who played a role in preventing this from happening were absolute hammers themselves.

Willie Harris… one of the best overall wrestlers in that entire loaded 2003 graduating class! And has a ton of cool stories and interesting insight to share with us all to boot!


2000 2A 112 1.) C.J. Ettelson, Fr., Hudson 2.) Joe Honts, Sr., Louisa-Muscatine 3.) Bryan Dennis, Sr., Iowa Falls 4.) Willie Harris, Fr., Creston 5.) Judd Wagner, So., Dyersville Beckman 6.) Grant Vanderheiden, Jr., West Central, Stuart

2001 2A 125 1.) Trent Goodale, Sr., Osage 2.) Michael Billings, Jr., Clear Lake 3.) Maury Noonan, So., Emmetsburg/Armstrong-Ringsted 4.) Willie Harris, So., Creston 5.) Ruben Chavez, So., West Liberty 6.) Mitch Zmolek, Jr., South Tama

2003 2A 130 1.) Jay Bjustrom, Sr., Algona 2.) Willie Harris, Sr., Creston 3.) Chris Johnson, Sr., West Burlington 4.) Mark Jensen, Sr., Crestwood (Cresco) 5.) Albert McNeil, Sr., Northeast Goose Lake 6.) Robert Struthers, Jr., Emmetsburg/Armstrong-Ringsted 7.) Kevin Townsend, Sr., Glenwood 8.) Adam Kurimski, Jr., Fairfield

What clubs, schools, etc. did you wrestle for?

I grew up in the Creston Express program coached by Mark Loudon (Chris Loudon’s dad).  My next-door neighbors were the Long family so Dylan Long beat on me for most of my childhood and would probably now if he got the chance.  Matt Long is Dylan and Andrew’s dad and still a close friend of mine.  In high school I was coached by Darrell Frain, and he really raised the bar on the Creston’s program before handing it off into the very capable hands of Cody Downing.  In the off season, my freshman year I wrestled Freestyle for a club out of Osceola coached by Weiser.  My sophomore year I wrestled for a club that had Winterset, DCG, and Perry guys on it.  And in my Junior/Senior year I wrestled some for Keith Massey on the Golden Eagles.  I went to some events, but I never really bought into Freestyle after the long high school seasons. My senior year I wrestled for Iowa in the Dream Team Classic. In college I wrestled for Wartburg.

What year did you graduate?


Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?

I was 5 when I started and it was just something everyone in Creston was doing.  My dad died when I was 10 and I was pretty mad at the world.  If you get into a fight at school you get in trouble, but if you beat a guy up on a wrestling mat you get your name in the paper. It was a good way to channel my energy growing up.  I remember traveling around SWIA with my dad to all the tournaments and having fun with him. After he passed away, I always felt like he was watching even though he wasn’t there so it made me proud and I kept wrestling.

Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?

My dad and uncles all played basketball and football.  I was the first wrestler in the family.  My brother Jesse was the real stud wrestler of the family, but I won’t admit it to him.  He qualified at 130 his sophomore year but didn’t place, his junior year he got 7th at 140 and his senior year he got 4th at 171 (but he only weighed like 158#).  He was overshadowed by the studs going through Creston during that time like Kaleb Evans, Andrew Long, Trent Tucker, Bret Kautz and Quinn Leith.  My son Heston wrestles now and got 5th this year at 61# in the kindergarten bracket.  He’s already more talented and athletic than I ever was.

What were your youth results? Any rivals there?

I got 6th in 6th grade, that’s it, haha. I got beat on by Michael Wells and Levi Heinold from Clarinda, I got beat on by Henry Wahle from Underwood, and by Mario Galanakis from Greenfield.  I didn’t really have any rivals and I didn’t have much success in my youth but I had fun.


What was your record in HS?


How did you place at state every year?

Freshman-4th@ 112

Sophmore-4th @ 125

Senior- 2nd @ 130

What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?

The one that comes to mind was just mentally breaking my junior year.  I put too much pressure on myself and just broke.  I only wrestled about half that year.  I lost a double-overtime match to Mario Galanakis for the first match of the year and just shut down.  I partied and mentally checked out.  I got in trouble and had to sit out the last part of the year.  That’s about the only thing I regret is that I let my team down.  How did it turn out?  That year sucked but it drove me mad.  I signed up for Freestyle tournaments, went to a 30-day J Robinson camp and started training for my senior year before my junior year ended.  As far as college went, I tore my ACL twice and eventually quit wrestling my junior year.  My spirit wasn’t into it because my body couldn’t do the things my mind knew I could.  Sorry, that’s kind a somber way to end that category, but it’s the truth.


How would you describe your wrestling style?

I was technical, funky and confident.  I wasn’t cocky, but I knew I was going to win before I walked onto the mat.


How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?

It was really one-sided.  The only person who beat me more than one time was Mario and he lived 20 minutes down the road in Greenfield and handed me 8 or 9 of my high school losses.  I probably had guys who had rivalries with me but I didn’t know it. Ben Moss was a guy I loved to wrestle from Lewis Central, he always made me bring my best.  I respected him a lot.


Who was your most influential coach?

I can’t name one, I had lots of great coaches.  Matt Long, Darrell Frain, Keith Massey and Jim Miller/Eric Keller at Wartburg.  The guy who was responsible for me turning the corner was Matt Long, no doubt.


Was your team competitive in HS/college?

In high school, I think Creston placed 3rd in the traditional state tournament all four years I was there. In college, Wartburg had had a strangle-hold on D3 wrestling for quite some time. That college team was full of studs, but the guy I hated wrestling in practice was Bart Mehlert.  Bart was a man among boys.


Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?

Dylan Long, without a doubt, I wanted to be as successful as he was.


Who would you consider the GOAT Iowa HS wrestler?

David Kjeldgaard, he won 11 medals and 8 championships in Cadet and Junior Nationals.  He was the first national winner of the Dave Schultz award.


Are there any wrestlers you’ve seen, past or present that you would compare your style to?

Maybe a mix between Roman Bravo-Young and Lincoln McIlravy.  Tough, technical, and funky.


What are some interesting hypothetical matchups between guys from different eras that you would have been interesting in seeing?

I would love to see Trent and Travis Paulson against any of the guys today.  Those guys were studs and I think they’d show that they were a level above others regardless of the era.  Or Andrew Long against anyone!  He’s like a little brother to me and one of the most talented guys I’ve ever known.

Who are some Iowa HS wrestling guys from your era that you have an immense amount of respect for?

CJ Ettleson and Mack Reiter were both 4x champs and my age.  The guys at Lewis Central always had me in awe, Trent and Travis Paulson, Brandon Mason, and Chad Davis.  I don’t think those LC guys ever knew how much I loved watching them wrestle. I was taking mental notes each time they stepped on the mat.

Who are your favorite current wrestlers?

RBY, Spencer Lee, and Jaydin Eierman

What music would you listen to back in the wrestling days?

Hard stuff before matches like Pantera, Danzig, etc. to get my heart going.  Before a match I was getting ready for a fist fight in my mind.

What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?

After losing the state finals my senior year I was pretty upset.  I ran into Jay Bjustrom randomly the next year and sat on a couch with him in a dorm room at Wartburg and joked around.  He won that day, I respect him for that.

If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?

I would have walked on at Iowa after high school instead of Wartburg.  But I don’t have any regrets and I enjoyed my time at Wartburg.


What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?

My senior year Creston went to the Lee Summit tournament in KC.  I had 6 or 7 pins to get into the finals and I won by tech fall in the finals.  My Uncle Dennis was there with my Grandma Katie and I was really proud to win in front of my family.


Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?

High school was Mario, he won all the matches though haha.  In college I was battling Dustin Hinschberger, Ozzie Saxton and Tyler Hubbard for a varsity spot.  Those guys won but man it was fun battling them.


Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?

Mostly seasonal, I never went to Fargo or competed much after the season, but I had fun learning and practicing.


How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?

I think we were more physical than the guys today.  In Creston we wanted to beat guys up just as much as we wanted to win the match.  The sport is progressing to being more technical but I’m raising my boy to be physical and technical. Heston Harris will be the best of both worlds.


Did you wrestle after high school?

Yep, Wartburg and a little intramural at Iowa State University.


What other sports did you play?

Football, golf and track.  I got cut from the Freshman baseball team and I took it personally.  I spent that whole summer working out with Matt Long.  That is the real reason no one heard my name before high school.


What are your favorite sports teams?

I’m an Iowa fan even though I went to Wartburg and ISU.  Hawkeyes for everything college, baseball is the Chicago Cubs and NFL is the 49ers.


What are your hobbies other than wrestling?

I love getting my kids outdoors for anything. I spend a lot of time bow hunting, pheasant hunting and fishing.


How good does it make you feel to give back to the sport?

I love coaching the youth wrestling program in Creston.  I love running into all the guys I know at youth tournaments.  I coached before my son wrestled and will probably continue after he’s done.  I have a daughter who is super-athletic.  I’m still working on talking their mom into letting her wrestle.  If I get that one accomplished Vivi Harris is a name you will know in Iowa Girls Wrestling.


How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?

I don’t know who I would be without it.  It taught me mental toughness and discipline.  I learned that I can accomplish anything I want if I’m willing to put in the work.


What do you do now?

I’m a Quality Engineer for Precision Pulley and Idler and I own a couple apartment buildings in Creston.

Are you still involved with wrestling?

Yep, the youth program in Creston.

Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?

Don’t give up just because you aren’t winning.  I spent more time losing than most growing up but I didn’t quit.  Learn 1 or 2 moves from top, bottom, and neutral.  Master those and then add to your toolset.  Ask for help from guys who are having success.  In return, help anyone who asks for your help.  No one gets to the top of the podium on their own, it takes practice partners and coaches to get you there.

Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?

Yep!  Give me a time and place.  I need to show my son how it’s done!


Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?

All the Creston guys are still a closely knit group and deserve recognition.  Cody Downing, Chris Downing, Matt Buck, Chris Loudon, Boone Hayes, Daniel Scarberry; we shared a padded room to beat on each other so that bond will never be broken.  Daniel Scarberry was my practice partner and we wore mouthpieces because we would end up throwing hands, knees or elbows most practices.  He has my respect to this day.  I’d like to thank Darrell Frain for being an all-around great coach, Matt Long for helping me learn the technique and mental aspect of wrestling, and Eric Keller/Jim Miller for giving me a chance to wrestle in college.  Keith Massey deserves a shout-out for teaching me to keep wrestling fun, I still love seeing that guy these days.

Do you have anything to add? Funny/interesting stories? Trivia? Etc.

When I was a kid, the Long’s would take me to tournaments with them.  Matt learned that I got nervous before almost every match so he started entering me into tournaments officially as “Wildman Willie Harris”.  It embarrassed me but I stopped getting nervous and he would laugh and say “Imagine what that other guy is thinking when he hears he has to wrestle the Wildman!”  The Long family still calls me Wildman to this day if they want to make me smile.

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