The Final Period: Gadson, Moreno fight through turbulence to find success


Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Redshirt senior Kyven Gadson looks to the official during his match against Northern Iowa’s Basil Minto on Feb. 15 at Hilton Coliseum.

Beau Berkley

Plenty of doubts persisted after their troublesome freshman campaigns, but Michael Moreno and Kyven Gadson would not falter. That wasn’t part of the plan. 

As the two All-American wrestlers prepare for their final two collegiate tournaments — the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments — they do so within reach of goals they set for themselves years ago. Goals that at one time seemed unreachable. Goals that were almost forgotten. 

“I didn’t think Division I wrestling was for me after my infamous freshman year,” Moreno said. “I thought maybe I bit off a little more than I could chew and that [the] dream might not come true and maybe I shouldn’t oversell myself.”

As a redshirt freshman, Moreno finished his season with a 4-13 record and a last-place finish at the Big 12 tournament. While Moreno struggled on the mat, Gadson struggled off it.

In his first dual match as a Cyclone, Gadson blew out his shoulder in a 6-1 loss and sat out the rest of the season. Gadson’s troubles did not end there, as later on that year his father, Willie, was diagnosed with cancer, which would eventually take his life just a year later. 

The program was also suffering, as the Cyclones lost 13 duals and placed 35th at the NCAA tournament that season, both the worst in program history. 

With both wrestlers grappling within themselves after their first year, it seemed as though the two former Iowa high school state champions had been swallowed up and spit out by the trials of collegiate wrestling, just like countless wrestlers before them who struggled with the transition. 

“It’s been a long road for both of us,” Gadson said.

The long road that Moreno, Gadson and ISU wrestling has been on the last five years can be traced back to a day in April 2009, a day that changed the current landscape of collegiate wrestling.


The lights were off, the office was empty and suddenly the last three years didn’t seem to mean anything. 

The legend was gone.

Following a third-place finish at the NCAA wrestling tournament in 2009, former ISU wrestling coach Cael Sanderson departed his alma mater for the head coaching position at Penn State. Sanderson, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest competitors the sport has ever seen, took over as Iowa State’s coach in 2006, filling the vacancy left by Bobby Douglas, who coached Sanderson to four undefeated seasons at Iowa State and a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. 

During his three-year tenure as head coach of the Cyclones, Sanderson’s squads won three consecutive Big 12 titles and never finished worse than fifth at the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones qualified every wrestler in their lineup all three years during Sanderson’s era and finished with at least four All-Americans all three years, including seven in 2007-08. Two wrestlers won national titles under Sanderson, one of whom is current ISU assistant coach Trent Paulson. 

“In the end, Cael said that he appreciated everything Iowa State and our fans had done for him but he believes winning a national championship will be easier at Penn State,” said ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard in a statement released following Sanderson’s departure. 

The pride of ISU wrestling left for a greener pasture and now the search was on for a successor. Not even a month later, a new coach was named and he was the same coach who joined Douglas in Sanderson’s corner as he wrestled for Olympic gold. 

Kevin Jackson, an All-American at Iowa State and Olympic gold medalist, was named as the 16th coach of ISU wrestling. The team that Jackson inherited was ripe with verteran talent, as Iowa State placed third at the NCAA tournament in 2010, led by national champions Jake Varner and David Zabriskie, as well as second-place winner Andrew Long.

However, the success was short lived as Sanderson was not the only Cyclone to leave for Penn State. Trekking east with Sanderson was a small following of Cyclones and recruits that included Sanderson’s little brother, Cyler, who was an All-American, as well as top recruit David Taylor, who would become a four-time All-American, Big Ten champion and two-time national champion.

After several run-ins with the law, Long would be dismissed from Iowa State and join other former Cyclones at Penn State.

So while the fire of Iowa State was slowly diminishing, Penn State’s was spreading. 

But hope came in the form of Jackson’s first recruiting class, which was ranked as one of the top in the country. The class was highlighted by two out-of-state wrestlers: Ryak Finch from Arizona and Joe Cozart from Florida. 

But there were two homegrown boys Jackson wouldn’t have to woo. 

One was Moreno, an Urbandale, Iowa native who, as he puts it, was “literally born into the program”, as his father, Mike Sr., was embarking on his All-American senior season as a Cyclone when Michael was born. 

The other, Gadson, also had strong lineal ties to Iowa State, as his father, Willie, was an All-American at Iowa State and friend of Jackson’s. 

With the leftover wrestlers from the Sanderson era on their final leg, it was up to Jackson’s first recruiting class to bring the program back from the doldrums. But that would take longer than expected. 

With the graduation of national champion Jon Reader after the 2011 season, Iowa State would begin the following without any returning All-Americans.

The inexperience showed. 

Iowa State’s worst season in program history ended with a 35th place finish at the NCAAs and no wrestlers on the podium. To add insult to injury, both Finch and Cozart transferred to the NAIA ranks and are currently defending NAIA national champions at their respective weight classes. 

After that year, Moreno and Gadson made a pact. A pact that would remove the doormat label the team bore the previous season. Those two combined with NCAA qualifier Luke Goettl, Quinn Wilson, Scott Moody and RJ Hallman are the only remaining wrestlers from Jackson’s inagural class. 

“They wanted to be here, they wanted to work hard and they wanted to achieve something great,” Moreno said. “When you can cut the fat and just have those guys, it helps exponentially.” 

Led by Moreno and Gadson, the Cyclones slowly began to claw their way back to the top and any doubts seemed to be disappearing in the rearview mirror. 

“I think I always knew deep down that I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” Moreno said. “I’ve never been much of a quitter.”

At the 2013 NCAAs in Des Moines, Moreno and Gadson both earned All-American honors for the first time and became the first two ISU wrestlers to earn All-American honors and also be the sons of former All-Americans. Heavyweight Matt Gibson also placed on the podium that year and Iowa State finished 11th, far ahead of 2012’s 35th place. 

The two followed up 2013 with last year’s 11th place finish, where Moreno placed fifth at 165 pounds and Gadson finished fourth at 197.

With their senior seasons coming to a close soon, both wrestlers have set themselves up for promising seeds in the NCAA tournament. In the final dual of the year, Moreno pinned No. 2 Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin, while Gadson capped off his dual career with a pin against Jimmy McCall, which puts his dual record at 43-1, his only loss being his first match when he blew out his shoulder. 

“Together, we’ve gone through quite a bit [and] we’ve had some tough years,” Jackson said. “We’ve grown a tremendous amount and this program has grown a tremendous amount.”

Iowa State is ranked No. 8 in the country heading into this weekend’s Big 12 Championship. For the first time since his first year, Jackson’s squad has a chance to achieve the goals they set for themselves five years ago. Goals that were almost forgotten.  

 “It was dark,” Jackson said “It wasn’t any fun for a few years, but we’re wrestlers and we keep grinding until we reach our goals.”