DES MOINES — A sliver of doubt, if ever briefly, slipped into Joe Kelly’s mind.
On his first day back wrestling after missing seven weeks with a torn ligament in his shoulder, Kelly wondered for a moment how he could adjust to the effects of the injury after losing the 152-pound final at the River Valley Conference tournament on Jan. 30.
The West Liberty sophomore grappler emphatically showed that is no longer an issue Friday night.
Kelly (17-4) rallied from an early deficit to pin Albia’s Blake Lawless in a 152 semifinal at the Class 2A state wrestling tournament to earn the opportunity to wrestle for a state championship Saturday night, exactly three weeks to the day since he suffered the only loss since his return from injury.
He’ll wrestle Glenwood’s top-ranked Matt Malcom in the title match at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“My first day back, there was confidence. I made it to the finals. That final match, I didn’t feel like I had enough confidence in my shot, my shoulder,” said Kelly, who beat Washington's Trey Van Weelden 8-2 in a quarterfinal earlier Friday. “After that match, I really learned a lot from it and how to get my offense with it. Since then, my shoulder’s been feeling fine. I’ve been getting a lot of confidence with my shots, my offense.”
That was showcased in the semifinal match against Lawless, the fourth-ranked senior. Trailing 7-3 early in the second period, Kelly’s aggressive approach paid off as he landed a four-point swing in one move to tie the match and built a 12-8 lead before pinning Lawless in 4 minutes, 24 seconds.
“I just kind of hipped him over, just pushed the pace,” Kelly said of the four-point move.
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He added, “I was trying to push the pace from the very beginning and keep my intensity up. He started to drop down [intensity] while I kept mine up going higher.”
Kelly’s sophomore classmate Bryce Esmoil advanced to the semifinals at 195, where he lost a 7-5 decision to Creston senior Seth Maitlen in overtime. Esmoil trailed throughout much of the match but escaped Maitlen’s grasp early in the third period to tie the match at 5-all, which is where is stayed until late in the extra session. It was then that Maitlen took Esmoil to the mat with 12 seconds left in the overtime session and was awarded a takedown.
The second-ranked Comets grappler will look to bounce back from his first loss this season Saturday morning when he’ll wrestle Applington-Parkersburg’s Shane Poppens for the chance to advance to the third-place match. He can finish no lower than sixth.
Joining Esmoil on the backside of the 2A bracket are Columbus Community teammates Josh Keller (113 pounds) and Tucker Morrison (170), who will both wrestle for seventh after losing their final consolation match Friday.
Keller lost a 9-1 major decision to Webster City’s top-ranked Drake Doolittle after winning his first consolation, while Morrison, who lost a 10-2 major decision to Creston’s top-ranked Chase Shiltz in a quarterfinal to move to the consolation bracket, lost his third-round consolation match 5-4 to Glenwood’s Anthony Sherry.
“Like I told both of them, it’s not what we wanted but you’ll want to be remembered how you walk off the mat the last time,” Columbus wrestling coach Bill Plein said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to step up to that.”
For Kelly, that will be trying to become West Liberty’s seventh state champion and first since 2000, when Keith Pearl won the 145-pound 2A title.
“Since I started wrestling I knew I wanted to be here,” Kelly said. “My dad took me to the state championship probably back in the fourth grade. I just liked the atmosphere, the whole arena. I just knew I wanted to be down there some day.”