The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Drake Ayala extends Iowa wrestling’s finalist streak, advances to NCAA title match

Since 1990, at least one Hawkeye has advanced to the finals every year, a streak that Iowa coaches Terry and Tom Brands started.
Cody Blissett
An official holds up Iowa 125-pound Drake Ayala’s arm during the fourth session of the NCAA men’s wrestling championships at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on Friday, March 22, 2024. Ayala defeated Wisconsin Eric Barnet by decision, 3-2.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Coming into the national tournament, Iowa men’s wrestling had a tradition to uphold.

Since 1990, at least one Hawkeye has advanced to the finals every year, a streak that Iowa coaches Terry and Tom Brands started when they won titles at 126 and 134 pounds, respectively.

Drake Ayala kept that streak going on Friday night, earning a spot in his first-ever title match with a 3-2 win over Wisconsin’s Eric Barnett. Ayala is one of four Hawkeyes who clinched All-American status along with Real Woods, Jared Franek, and Michael Caliendo.

“Here’s the thing, [Ayala’s] been a winner since he was a little baby boy. So that’s continuing now into his college career, and we love it, his family loves it, Hawk fans love it,” head coach Tom Brads said.

This was Ayala’s second win over Barnett this season, the first being an 8-1 decision in the Big Ten Tournament. When Iowa met up with Wisconsin in the regular season, Ayala didn’t wrestle. After the Hawkeyes’ 34-7 dual meet win over the Badgers, Barnett tweeted a duck emoji, inferring that Ayala “ducked” the match and tried to avoid him.

After Ayala’s semifinal win, the Iowa wrestling social media team retaliated, tweeting “Duck, duck, finalist.”

Ayala laughed when someone brought up the tweet in his post-match presser, adding he would be “the last person to duck” an opponent.

“I don’t really know why he said that,” Ayala said of Barnett’s tweet. “But I mean, I have respect for all these guys. There are some tough dudes out here.”

During the first period of the 125-pound semifinal match, refs reviewed a takedown by Ayala for several minutes. Ayala said he had both legs corralled and “bottled [Barnett] up,” so he was surprised when he initially didn’t get the call. But in his corner, Terry Brands and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar were helping him stay fresh and composed.

“I have the best coaches in the country and in the world, really,” Ayala said. “They’re always like, especially in my semis match, they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re not gonna get this, so just be ready to go’ … So I mean, it made sense when I got the call, but I had to be ready for everything.”

Learn more:

According to Iowa sports information, the Hawkeyes have won five national titles at 125 pounds since the NCAA implemented the current weight classes in 1999 — Matt McDonough 2010, 2012; Spencer Lee 2018, 2019, 2021.

Lee is someone Ayala has looked up to since he arrived on campus in Iowa City. Ayala didn’t expect to wrestle in his true freshman season but took over when Lee decided to have season-ending surgery to repair ACL tears in both knees. Ayala finished eighth at the Big Ten Championships that year, qualifying him for nationals, but he didn’t end up placing.

Ayala then redshirted in his second year when Lee returned to the mat. Now, he’s back in the starting lineup and a seven-minute match away from becoming a national champion.

Ayala said he and Lee have gotten “a lot closer recently,” and the five-time All-American is “a ton of help” in the wrestling room.

“My journey has been different,” Ayala said. “I’ve struggled through some things that a lot of people don’t know about these past two years. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to my opponents, and so it doesn’t matter. I’m here, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. I gotta finish it off tomorrow.”

Ayala will take on No. 8 seed Richard Figueroa of Arizona State in the finals on Saturday night. Figueroa defeated Penn State’s top-seeded Braeden Davis 3-2 to advance to the title bout. Ayala said he wrestled Figueroa twice in their senior year of high school, each winning a match.

The 125-pound championship bout is destined to have implications on the team race. Heading into Saturday, the Hawkeyes are in a tight battle for second place, sitting in third 4.5 points behind Michigan and a half-point ahead of Iowa State and Arizona State.

“It’s gonna be a rubber match for our childhood dreams, how’s that?” Ayala said.

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Kenna Roering
Kenna Roering, Sports Editor
Kenna Roering is The Daily Iowan's sports editor. She is a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism with a minor in sports and recreation management. Kenna previously worked as a sports reporter for men's wrestling and volleyball and was the summer sports editor in 2023. This is her second year with the DI.
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.