Matt Wempen chuckled and remained undecided.
Hunter Washburn deferred to their respective actions.
Max Thomsen’s Union Community wrestling coach, Pat Hogan, just confirmed their talent.
Though you may not get a definitive answer as to who is the best, the fabulous freshmen turned returning state champion sophomores share a mission to own that distinction, possibly joining Iowa wrestling’s elite together.
The trio train as members of DC Elite wrestling club in Cedar Rapids. Which of them can make the claim to be the best?
“I don’t know,” Wempen said with a laugh. “It’s always different every day.”
Even if it’s good-natured ribbing, they prefer results do their talking for them and just focus on getting better.
“We don’t ever like to brag at DC,” Washburn said. “We just keep our feelings to ourselves and let the matches tell it.”
The saying “iron sharpens iron” certainly applies to when they battle during weekly workouts in former Cedar Rapids Prairie state champion Dusty Coufal’s club. Tough varsity matches pale in comparison to squaring off against state champs in practice.
“We’re always pushing each other, trying to make each other better,” Wempen said. “We have good relationships, We’re always able to push each other a little further and get the most out of our workouts.”
The wrestling room is intense. When they practice, their competitive natures kick in, creating some heated moments and increased aggressiveness, if someone has a decisive advantage.
“They definitely are not easy with three state champions going at it,” Washburn said. “It’s a lot of scrambling and hard work. You’re definitely tired afterward.”
Wempen and Washburn won 106-pound state titles last season in Class 3A and 1A, respectively, while Thomsen was Class 2A’s 113-pound champion. Their roads to a state crown didn’t intersect, but the friends and part-time training partners made sure to cross paths and keep up with one another during the state tournament.
“We told each other we’ve been working a long time for this and it’s paid off,” said Wempen, “so stay hungry and keep getting more.”
They have a strong relationship off the mat. Wempen said he regularly follows their results in the media. Washburn noted the three of them will pull for each other in competition.
“I was rooting for all my friends,” said Washburn, who capped the season with a 46-0 mark and helped Alburnett to its third straight third-place team finish at state. “It was really good to have them experience that with me.”
The results might be the same but the method to achieve them vary. Wempen, who went 48-2 last year, has a balanced style that made it hard for Linn-Mar Coach Doug Streicher to pick a strength. Streicher said Wempen is good in any position and always ready to wrestle six minutes or more, if necessary.
“He’s got the total package,” Streicher said. “I don’t see any position he’s really needing a lot of improvement. Of course, you can always improve in any position.”
Wempen is the lone returning 3A state champion and is ranked first at 113 by The Predicament. He doesn’t pay attention to the fact. It has no effect on his quest for a second crown.
“I try not to think about it,” Wempen said. “I just want the success I did last year and train the same way to be ready for our first meet.”
The situation is similar to 10 years ago when Linn-Mar’s Jay Borschel, North-Linn’s Dan LeClere and Iowa City High’s Kyle Anson as area freshmen in the same season. Borschel and LeClere went on to be the second duo to win a fourth title in the same season. Anson captured three state titles, losing only to Borschel as a sophomore. Wempen, Washburn and Thomsen are in different classes and could be the first trio to win four titles in the same year.
Wempen recalled watching Borschel and Lions three-time state champ Matt McDonough in high school. They went on to win 2010 NCAA titles for the University of Iowa. Wempen envisioned being in their position, and is flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence with them.
“I’m still far away from that and I like to concentrate on one at a time,” Wempen said. “I’m just focusing on this year and getting myself to the next level.”
Washburn opened Alburnett Coach Kane Thompson’s eyes with his effort as a freshman. An early season match saw Washburn surrender a takedown and the lead against an eventual state medalist in the final 10 seconds of a match, answering with a last-second reversal for the win.
“The main thing is you never see him rest,” Thompson said. “He’s constantly moving. That kids moves really well. He’s so quick and he knows he’s quick so he knows the more motion he has the more success he is going to have.
“That was the first time I thought we have something special here.”
Washburn, who placed sixth at Preseason Nationals in Cedar Falls, was focused on a championship performance last season. The way it turned out even surprised him.
“I wasn’t expecting a perfect season,” Washburn said. “I was chasing that state title. I didn’t know how hard it would be. I’ve always wanted to be the first four-time state champion for Alburnett. That’s been my goal since fourth grade.”
To keep that dream a reality, Washburn has a lot of work ahead. Thompson has stressed the same training as last year won’t allow him to maintain his edge over competitors. The fear of failure fuels the top-ranked 113-pounder in 1A.
“You have to keep getting better. You can’t slack off,” Washburn said. “I always think about how it feels to lose. I hate that feeling so much I keep working harder and harder so I never experience that again.”
Hogan didn’t know what to expect from Thomsen, despite his youth credentials and the exploits of older brother, Logan. Thomsen cleared everything up, posting a 47-1 record without a loss to a 2A foe.
A run at a second title has been accompanied by a more determined approach.
“He was last year, but it’s something I notice even more this year,” Hogan said. “He’s very focused. He wants it.”
Thomsen, ranked first at 126 in 2A, has a tough disposition, but his biggest strength might be his technique on the mat.
“He’s hard-nosed and can do that stuff,” Hogan said about being physical. “He’s technically sound. He’s hard to do anything against. He picks his places and picks people apart.”
A prime example was last season’s Benton Community Jerry Eckenrod Bobcat Invitational. Thomsen won a tough bracket, pinning a top-ranked opponent in the finals after scoring a major decision in the semifinals over a state finalist. It answered any questions that remained.
“It was just business to him,” Hogan said. “That’s just what was supposed to happen. … That’s the way he was all year.”
A title and another year of experience makes them the hunted instead of the hunter. Complacency is unacceptable. The prevailing school of thought is they are vying for another title and not defending the one won in February.
“Basically, it’s a clean slate,” Wempen said. “It’s up to anyone. I have to work just as hard as last year to get it. I feel I definitely have a target on my back, so that gives me motivation to work that much harder and helps me achieve my goals.”
Thompson is comfortable betting on his champion’s potential of repeating, which would leave it up to the other two to follow suit.
“I like his chances of doing really well,” Thompson said of Washburn. “I like his chances at any weight against any kid.”