Winning state titles as underclassmen stamped Liberty’s James Deitz and Miles Nuessle as wrestlers to watch.
Claiming their second individual gold medals as juniors on Feb. 10 in Prescott Valley takes both Lions to another level entirely.
Deitz won the Division II 152-pound title while Nuessle proved up to his top seeding in the 195-pound class.
“James is such a talented wrestler. We saw glimpses of that last year. Winning as a freshman, the world turns to you and the expectations grow,” Liberty Coach Eric Benton said. “He became afraid to fail. Throughout this season he struggled with that still. But once he bought in to the idea that we only care if you get effort, that helped take some of the pressure off.”
Dietz broke out first as a freshman, winning the 138-pound class in his first try. Nuessle also had an impressive debut, placing third at 160 pounds.
Liberty finished second in the Division II team competition in 2015. Last year the Lions seniors and sophomores led the way to the program’s first state title.
Fortunes changed for the sophomores. Dietz entered the 2016 state finals as the No. 2 seed at 152 pounds but did not place.
Nuessle also was the second seed — at 182 pounds — and turned in the decisive win for Liberty. He beat top seed Bridger Barker of Chandler Seton Catholic 3-1 and the Lions edged out the Sentinels by five points for the team crown.
“Miles handled the situation like a champion. He spoke about going to these national tournaments — going above and beyond so that when you do wrestle in the state tournament, that’s probably the smallest tournament you’ve wrestled in,” Coach Brenton said. “Miles takes every match one match at a time. That’s how he approached state. Even when he was getting tired he knew mat strategy, what he could do and what he could give up to hold on.”
Those results sent Nuessle into this season with a target on his back and motivated Dietz to get back to his perch.
“I felt more pressure because I had my redemption. Last year wasn’t a good year for me and this year I felt like I had to prove a point. I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Deitz said.
Nuessle arrived with a 23-2 record and the top seed. He mowed through his opponents until the final minutes of the final.
Gilbert Williams Field senior Briggs Conway started making a comeback and got to within a point, but Nuessle kept him at an arm’s length to win 9-8.
“I was winning the whole time but I was getting tired, so he was catching up. I ended up winning by a point,” Nuessle said.
Meanwhile, Deitz and Coach Benton both figured the biggest challenge at 152 loomed in the semifinals from Marana Mountain View senior Frankie Lee. They were right.
Deitz dug deep to beat Lee 9-6. In the final he pinned Queen Creek junior Nikolas Manuel in a minute and 10 seconds.
Though Liberty has emerged as an elite Division II program in recent years, this duo is the Lions’ first two-time state champions.
“It’s super cool because nobody’s ever done it here before. If we win it again no one has ever done that. I think that would stick for a long time,” Nuessle said.
Nuessle said he will wrestle in the major tournaments at Virginia Beach and FloNationals during the summer. Deitz said he is not sure if he will take part in the big tournaments.
In a way, Deitz is already looking at next year and his newfound leadership status.
“I feel like next year we’ll be just as strong, if not stronger,” Deitz said. “It’s a little nerve wracking for me. I’m not used to being the big dog captain. Next year it will be like a pedestal you’re on where people will be looking up to you. I have to work harder and be better to help the team.”
He and the rest of the Class of 2018 will enter the next year with a goal to reclaim the state title. Liberty placed third this season, 38.5 points behind Marana Mountain View and 32 behind runner up Queen Creek.
Next year’s seniors include 2016 state champion and 2017 runner up Trey Escobar, and state placers Brenan Powell, Adriane Kedekein. Freshman Kamryn Stonebreaker placed fourth at 145 pounds.
“They understand the situation they’re in. They are now seniors and it’s their job to lead the team. We’ve always talked about leaving a legacy — leaving your picture on the wall and your name in the record book,” Coach Brenton said. “This now-senior class is tremendously talented. Adrian placed sixth and grew so much this year. They’re going to rise to the occasion. There’s nothing better than being a senior and having the reins of the program.”