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WEST LIBERTY — It didn’t take long for Bryce Esmoil to find out how big the stage was.

Stepping out on the mats at Wells Fargo Arena last February at the Class 2A Iowa traditional state wrestling tournament, Esmoil — the unbeaten West Liberty sophomore 195-pounder — quickly realized that the stakes had been raised.

“It was scary,” Esmoil admitted. “There were so many people there and the atmosphere was so great.”

His first state match, a 4-3 loss to Charles City junior Nick Jacobs, was one he felt got away.

“My first match I actually wrestled defensive. I tried to keep it close,” he said. “I didn’t try to score a lot.”

Heading back to Des Moines for a second straight season, the second-ranked Esmoil, who is 45-0 this season, feels prepared for what is to come over the next three days, even if he knows he’ll have to get past those butterflies he expects to come back when he heads to the mats to wrestle Gilbert’s Chris McGuire in a first-round match on Thursday.

His coach, Jeff Wiele, has no doubts as to whether Esmoil is prepared this time around, though.

“I really think that won’t be an issue. That’s that first time you’re there, happens to everybody,” Wiele said of the first-match jitters last season.

“He’s ready.”

Esmoil’s accomplishments so far this season back up his coach’s confidence.

The Comets grappler has won 25 of his 45 matches by pinfall. He’s had eight victories come via decision or technical fall, and, combined, has given up a total of 13 points against him, six of which came in one match.

Despite finishing seventh at state as a freshman last season, Wiele has seen Esmoil make significant gains this winter, ranging from his confidence level to his technical ability.

“He’s so much better on his feet than he was a year ago,” Wiele said, pointing out one area of improvement. “… I think he’s only got five legit takedowns on him.”

Wiele’s confidence isn't limited to just Esmoil but also the Comets other state qualifier — sophomore Joe Kelly, who finished eighth at 138 pounds last season.

Despite not wrestling from early December until returning at the River Valley Conference tournament on Jan. 30, Kelly, who is 14-4 this season at 152, claimed sectional and district titles to earn the return trip to state.

“I think he gets better every single time he wrestles,” Wiele said of Kelly. “Both of them are amazing, but that’s amazing in itself. He sits out for seven weeks and he comes back and wins sectionals and wins districts. That’s not very easy. He’s wrestled one kid since he’s been back that hasn’t had 25 wins and he’s won every match but one.”

Having Kelly back at state can only help Esmoil, and vice versa. The two have been around each other most of their lives and are close friends.

“I think for both of them for sure it helps,” Wiele said. “I think there’s a comfort there and there’s a comradery."

With his success and confidence on the mats, and the familiarity back for a return trip to Wells Fargo Arena, Esmoil has positioned himself for the run to the top of the podium he aspires to complete this week.

“I just need to stay calm and do what I normally do. Wrestle a hard match, get aggressive right away,” he said.

“I need to get off right away and just get all the bugs out and keep going all the way to the top.”

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