INWOOD, Iowa | Some 672 Iowa prep wrestlers reached their dream on Saturday.
That's how many competitors earned a berth in this week's Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Sadly, the dreams for that same number of grapplers -- 672 -- ended on Saturday, their season coming to a close with a third- or fourth-place finish at the District wrestling meet, short of a state tourney bid.
Mario Martinez, a junior at Sibley-Ocheyedan, had high hopes for Saturday's competition. The novice wrestler took a 37-10 record into the competition at 113 pounds. Unfortunately, he also took a sprained right ankle, an injury he sustained while practicing with a teammate after school on Friday.
"It's swelled and it hurts," Martinez said, glancing down at a puffed up right ankle not long after he lost by injury default in a consolation match to Brackett Locke of Woodbury Central.
It hurts. Those two words hung in the air, occupying a corner spot in the West Lyon High School gymnasium where Martinez sat, far removed from the action on the mat, alone in his thoughts, a bag of ice soothing his injury, not his emotions.
"I did not make it to State," he said, managing a whisper of a smile.
He gathered his thoughts as the action wore on, fans from schools like West Sioux and Sibley-Ocheyedan rising to their feet in the bleachers above him, urging their competitors to finish the job.
For Martinez, it sometimes seems like the job's just begun. Coach Ben Strandberg, a history teacher at Sibley-Ocheyedan, noticed Martinez as he walked through the halls in the fall of 2016. He joined Doyle Naig, a longtime coach at Sibley-Ocheyedan, in approaching Martinez to give the sport a try.
The trouble? Martinez came to Sibley just a couple of years before this, he and his family arriving from Guatemala in search of work, which his mother, Maria Niz, found at a local processing plant. Martinez was still learning English. He knew nothing about wrestling.
"We didn't have any little guys," Strandberg said. "Mario was small and athletic."
Interpreter Jackie Garcia, a paraprofessional at the high school, explained the sport to Mario's mother. Her reaction? She thought it was more about fighting than wrestling. She had her doubts, they said.
Plus, Mario was needed at home. His mother works late, which means the older siblings often take care of the two younger children at home, including an 18-month-old.
"I help my little brother, who is in middle school, with homework sometimes," Mario said. "And I make tortillas for us to eat."
He also helps put his little brother and sister to bed before their mother gets home.
"They're a very close family," said Strandberg. "They really support each other."
And the same goes for the Generals and their supporters, who have rallied around their Mario ever since he decided to give the sport a try. His mother was able to attend just one meet this year, the Sectional tournament held last Saturday.
"I have met a lot of friends in wrestling and it is fun to work to complete my goals," Mario said. "Being on this team has helped me learn English."
"Our crowd goes crazy when Mario gets a win or a pin," Standberg said.
Mario's presence has helped sharpen the coach, too. He and his assistant coaches sometimes pantomime a move in their corner to get Mario to understand what they want him to do. Simply yelling the name of a move or a combination, you see, might not translate at this stage of his wrestling career.
"In my first match last year, I was confused," Mario said with a light laugh. "I didn't know what I was doing and I got pinned."
He kept at it, though, and fashioned a 24-22 mark that ended with an appearance in the State Dual Meet Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena, a highlight he'll never forget.
"I think half of Mario's losses in his first year took place before Christmas," Strandberg said. "He learned more and more and just kept improving."
Strandberg figured his 113-pounder, holder of a 37-10 record, was a pretty good bet to advance from Districts this year. That was, until late Friday, when he turned his ankle.
Ultimately, Mario Martinez's 2018 dream was taken down by Hinton's Aiden Christiansen and an injury. Christiansen finished second on Saturday behind undefeated Adam Allard, a sophomore from West Sioux who seeks to add a second state championship to his glossy resume.
If he can, Martinez will report to the wrestling room on Monday to offer what muscle he might in order to keep other Generals like Jose Flores (106 pounds) and Trey Schuck (126 pounds) in shape for their state-tournament runs.
The fact he doesn't have one this year left him feeling a bit down and out and by himself in the corner of an otherwise raucous gymnasium.
Martinez summed up the thoughts of 671 other non-qualifiers who finished this season just shy of their goal.
"It hurts," he said.