SIBLEY, Iowa | There were times a year ago when Hunter DeJong felt overshadowed, wrestling on a star-studded Sibley-Ocheyedan squad headlined by four seniors.
Dylan Schuck, the Class 1A state runner-up at 145 pounds, finished his career with 200 wins and a pin total of 154, which incidentally is second on the state’s all-time list. Fourth-place finishes came from 170-pounder Trent Kruger (182 wins, 131 pins) and heavyweight Matt Naig (167 wins, 104 pins) while 160-pounder Garrett Sayler (181 pins, 126 pins) took seventh.
Perhaps DeJong shouldn’t have felt overshadowed. After all, Naig was DeJong’s practice partner throughout his varsity career.
Naig pushed the 195-pound DeJong, currently 17-0 with 12 pins, to a career-best fourth-place state tournament finish. Sibley-Ocheyedan finished a program-best third in the final team standings, its 75 points just one shy of runner-up and perennial powerhouse Gilbertville Don Bosco.
“Matt taught me how to finish my shots quicker,” said the Sioux City Journal’s Siouxland Athlete of the Week, an Iowa State recruit who’s ranked third among Class 1A 195-pounders by The Predicament.
“He was so much bigger than I was. If I didn’t finish my shots quicker, he’d use his weight on me to his advantage. That taught me how to finish my shots quicker and smoother.”
Naig has a current 5-5 record as a heavyweight at Augustana (S.D.), the same place where Schuck has an 11-4 mark while competing at 149 and 157.
“Hunter and Matt were great workout partners,” said Sibley-Ocheyedan Coach Ben Standberg. “They didn’t like to give each other an edge. It was always exciting. I give Matt and Trent credit for working with Hunter on a daily basis. They helped him grow as a wrestler because they brought the bar up.”
The 17-year old son of Heath and Wendy DeJong of Sibley said he misses the four graduated seniors. Three of them became the school’s first-ever four-time state qualifiers in Schuck, Naig and Sayler, a defensive back for Northwestern College’s football team.
“Quite a bit,” he said. “The fire they brought into the room. They brought intensity. The bond we had went into every sport in high school.”
Naig wasn’t the only one who tuned DeJong up to become a likely four-time state qualifier.
Competing at the Fargo (N.D.) Nationals for the first time ever in the summer of 2016, DeJong became a two-time All-American in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling.
Last summer, DeJong didn’t duplicate his previous success at Fargo. However, a successful showing at the UWW Nationals in Akron, Ohio, gave him the opportunity to compete at the Pan-American Championships in Buenos Aires, Aregentina. Competing against opponents from Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico, he won a gold medal in Freestyle and a silver in Greco-Roman.
“It was really an awesome experience,” said DeJong. “It taught me to be more confident on my feet. That transfers to the Folkstyle season. Greco taught me to be better at my hips and it made me more versatile in my Folkstyle moves. There’s a lot of things you can do differently on Freestyle that can go into Folkstyle which has helped me a lot.”
Posting his career win totals to 150 wins and 92 pins after going 6-0 with four pins in Saturday’s Sibley-Ocheyedan round-robin tournament, DeJong said he has never been undefeated this deep into a season.
He has three new practice partners. There’s sophomore 220-pounder Bert Ortiz.
Occasionally, Sandberg will practice, but most of the time, it’s first-year assistant Mike Finch, who in 2006, won the Class 1A state 152-pound title at Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn and later competed at 157 for Iowa State.
“It’s always a challenge against (Finch) because he wants me to be best I can be,” said DeJong. “He never takes it easy on me. I always have to step to the challenge. It’s always a dogfight. He’s taught me a lot.”
Strandberg feels the combination of Finch, Naig and summer wrestling has given DeJong success.
“He’s really strong, really athletic and really dedicated to the sport,” said Strandberg. “He’s put in a ton of time and travel around the state and beyond. The common cliché is summer wrestling builds winter champions. That summer (2016), clicked for him of what summer wrestling could do.”
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