COUNCIL BLUFFS — Doug Kjeldgaard had a lot on his mind.
At the top of the list was protecting his home and family from rising floodwaters. It was the summer of 2011, and his house near Lake Manawa and the Missouri River was in the danger zone.
A former assistant wrestling coach at Council Bluffs Lewis Central, he enlisted the aid of some of the school’s football players and wrestlers. Everyone was welcome in the volunteer effort to help sandbag the area.
Even in that frenzied time, the determination of one underclassman whom Kjeldgaard had never met stuck with him.
“After two days were over, I remember making the comment to my family that Ethan Ruby is a hard worker,” Kjeldgaard said. “He probably did double the work of the rest of them.”
More than two years later, Kjeldgaard is now in his first year as the Titans’ wrestling coach. And Ruby still shows a steely focus that produces results.
The 160-pound senior and three-time state qualifier is ranked No. 5 in Iowa Class 3-A in his weight class by The Predicament. Ruby is 11-2 and remains unbeaten against Iowa competition. His losses are to a defending state champion from Missouri and a Kansas wrestler rated No. 2 in his class.
“I definitely think I’m well on my way to contending,” Ruby said. “Since I started wrestling, my goal was a state championship. And that’s still my goal. I’m looking for a state title, and I’m looking for some redemption.”
Ruby went 0-2 as a freshman and sophomore at the state tournament. Then he dropped his first bout in Des Moines as a junior.
But he reeled off five straight victories to secure third place at 152 pounds and finish 35-7.
‘That’s the hardest way to get third place,” Kjeldgaard said. “It takes incredible mental toughness to be able to do that, and he’s bringing that attitude to the team and to practice. The guys look up to him because they want the same thing for themselves.”
But the wrestling portion of Ruby’s state run last season seemed insignificant compared with what he was facing personally. Only weeks earlier, his 19-year-old brother, Dillon, died.
The siblings had spent plenty of time roughhousing while growing up together at their home just west of Treynor. But February was the first time Dillon wasn’t in the stands to watch Ethan at state.
That pain is still there, the younger Ruby said. But getting on the mat has been a source of relief for him, along with parents Troy and Theresa, younger brother Hunter and their relatives.
“I think going out and competing has been a positive for my family — something to focus on and something to rally around,” Ruby said. “Wrestling has always been a good rallying point for my family. They all love watching me wrestling.”
Lewis Central’s co-captain is one of the team’s three seniors, and the only one with extensive varsity experience. He picked up career win No. 100 in his second match of the year with a 26-second pin at Shenandoah this month.
Former teammate Zeb Wahle has witnessed Ruby develop his strength and positioning in recent years. Wahle, a 2012 state champ for the Titans and current redshirt freshman at Maryville University in St. Louis, still works out with his friend on occasion.
At 174 pounds, Wahle has about 14 pounds on his counterpart and has issued his share of humbling mat experiences during drills. But he knows a budding state champion when he sees one.
“I’ll give him a little beating to make him tougher, but that’s what it’s all about,” Wahle said. “He’s got very high potential, and he won’t just think he can go do it — he’ll work his butt off every step of the way.”
That same effort helped Ruby lead Lewis Central’s football team with 115 tackles from his linebacker spot in the fall. It’s why he’s considering Colorado School of Mines, St. Cloud State and Maryville to continue wrestling next year while also beginning to work toward a degree in engineering.
Ruby is carrying on Titan tradition in more comical ways, as well. He said he’s the only wrestler on the squad capable of growing a mustache, which he proudly sports after starting a beard during football season.
Sometimes the upper-lip hair even distracts opponents during a match. Not that Ruby needs the help.
“When you walk into a weigh-in, people definitely take notice of the mustache,” Ruby said. “Either there’s the intimidation factor, or the factor that the guy thinks you’re a goofball and you have that advantage. Either way, it pretty much works out in my favor.”