In what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, the Iowa Hawkeyes surprised many across the country (and even in Iowa) with their third place finish in Cleveland, resulting in yet another team trophy under Tom Brands. Preseason forecasts had the Hawkeyes just inside the top ten and even once they decided to pull the redshirt on true freshman Spencer Lee they weren’t considered strong candidates for a top four finish. Despite the national perception being against them, the Hawkeyes managed to put together a strong rebuild with a young core that should only continue to get better.
A large reason for the Hawkeyes outperforming their expectations was the amount of bonus they were able to generate at the national tournament. As a team the Hawkeyes combined for 13 falls and technical falls, which was four more than second place Penn State and almost double third place Ohio State in that same category.
And if we go even deeper the linchpin for the team’s success came from the aforementioned Lee whose national title was a big landmark during the tournament. For starters it was the best finish by a Hawkeye at the tournament (not surprising), but his run to the finals was the real impressive feat as Lee accounted for four of Iowa’s fall/tech falls during the tournament. By the end of the weekend Lee’s 27 team points was the most scored by any individual at the NCAAs, including eventual Hodge Trophy winner Zain Retherford who scored 25 points. Lastly, the win also kept a near three decade long streak where a Hawkeye has appeared in the NCAA finals.
Heading into next season we shouldn’t see a ton of roster turnover. Nine starters from the 2018 postseason return, including four of Iowa’s five All-Americans. The lone wrestler not returning is 149-pound star Brandon Sorensen, though the Hawkeyes will be hoping the drop off to his replacement will be minimal.
IAwrestle’s Projected 2018-19 Hawkeyes Lineup
125: Spencer Lee – so
133: Paul Glynn – jr
141: Vince Turk – jr / Max Murin – rsfr / Carter Happel – so
149: Pat Lugo – jr / Jaren Glosser – jr
157: Michael Kemerer – jr
165: Alex Marinelli – so
174: Joey Gunther – jr / Kaleb Young – so
184: Cash Wilcke – jr / Mitch Bowman – sr
197: Jacob Warner – rsfr
285: Sam Stoll – sr
In just a short time span we saw Spencer Lee go from hyped freshman making his season debut, to national title contender, to actual national champion. Lee’s presence in the lineup was a landmark moment for Brands, who pulled the redshirt on the first wrestler straight out of high school during his time as a head coach. Obviously hindsight tells us it was the right move, and it’s not like everyone didn’t already know Lee had this kind of potential, but I don’t think it should be overlooked how big the decision was that he made.
Just nine months after he had ACL surgery Brands opted to wrestle Lee at the UNI Open. A month later he gambled he was indeed healthy enough to be in the lineup. Then to top things off heading into the first major tournament of Lee’s college career he backed his wrestler’s decision to remove the bulky knee brace eliminating all sense of protection. All of these were ultimately the right decisions, but just because it all worked out doesn’t mean Brands doesn’t deserve credit for taking the chance and trusting his athlete.
As for next season Lee will be the no brainer favorite to repeat. Rumors are already circulating that his main competition – NCAA finalist Nick Suriano of Rutgers – is moving up to 133 pounds. Lee wrecked just about everyone else in the college landscape though his freestyle foe from high school, Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, will be an obvious threat to stop Lee, but given what we saw out of Lee this season all confidence should be with him.
Looking at the rest of the lineup Iowa has eight former NCAA qualifiers projected to be in next season’s lineup. The only weight Iowa did not qualify a wrestler this season was at 133 pounds, where Paul Glynn managed to come on strong late in his sophomore season, but wasn’t able to punch his NCAA ticket at Big Ten’s. Given some of the good things we saw down the stretch from Glynn it’s reasonable to assume he will be in the picture of qualifying as a junior, though he will need to continue his positive progression he’s showed to this point.
Recently some chatter has popped up about Drexel’s Austin DeSanto as a potential transfer for the Hawkeyes, though he is reportedly very early in the process. A top ten ranked wrestler and NCAA qualifier at 133 pounds the fit with Iowa is a bit obvious. Additional reports from Flowrestling also mention that Penn State, Rutgers, and Nebraska are in the mix as well and that DeSanto may also be looking to move to 141 pounds. The latter tidbit obviously would significantly reduce his fit with Iowa if it is indeed true.
Speaking of taking steps forward, sophomore Vince Turk was able to close out his season strong, not only wrestling well above seed at Big Tens, but he also made it all the way to the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament. His strong run definitely adds a new wrinkle to the lineup conversation for next season. All year long Turk battled with freshman Carter Happel and next year Max Murin is expected to make it a three headed battle for the spot as he comes off of redshirt. As we head into next year this doesn’t look like it will be a weight-class that will be resolved early in the season.
Putting a gun to my head right now I would guess that Murin holds the advantage right now, with Turk as the current second. The issue is that all three wrestlers had moments this season that one could point to for evidence they will be the guy. Murin’s resume is obviously more limited compared to his teammates, but from what we were able to see in that limited stretch and given he only has a couple months in the room his upside appears to be the highest. Things can change this summer, but that feels like an accurate assessment of where things stand.
An additional lineup battle may take place at 149 pounds where juniors Pat Lugo and Jeren Glosser should be in contention. Its not going to be easy replacing a four-time All-American like Sorensen, but Lugo has the strongest resume at the moment. For starters Lugo has been to two NCAA’s while still competing for Edinboro as a freshman and sophomore. Second, Lugo defeated Sorensen during his sophomore camping when Iowa traveled to Edinboro.
The issue is Glosser looks like a high quality wrestler in his own right and won’t be rolling over for a teammate just his credentials are stronger. As it stands now Lugo, who has spent time ranked in the top ten prior to his transfer will be the favorite but I wouldn’t assume this battle over.
The middle of the lineup features a pair of All-Americans that are very much a part of the strong, younger core the Hawkeyes have developed. Entering what will be his junior season is Michael Kemerer, who earned his second straight top eight finish last month. Penn State’s Jason Nolf will be the national favorite, but Kemerer should enter next season as a finalist threat.
Backing Kemerer up is Alex Marinelli at 165 pounds who will also be in the mix for the national title. Leading the way nationally is Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph, who won his second straight national title in March. The big note about Joseph is in his career he’s lost a total of six official matches and Marinelli will be the only active college wrestler with one of those wins. There is still quite a bit of room for Marinelli to grow – he finished his first NCAA tournament with three straight losses to take sixth – and judging from the massive knee brace he was supporting all season he may also need to spend some time on the shelf recovering.
Over the next three weights we could/should see some jumbling of the lineup which will lead to some new faces. Sophomore Joey Gunther won the battle over freshman Kaleb Young for the starting spot at 174 pounds, but as evidence in their two wrestle off meetings, the margin is razor thin. Additionally, Young began the season wrestling at 165 pounds to fill in for Marinelli, who didn’t compete in the month of November. With a full offseason dedicated to 174 we could see this dynamic change, but for now Gunther is the favorite to keep his spot heading into next year.
Next season should also bear witness to the official debut of freshman Jacob Warner, one of the nation’s top recruits in the class of 2017. Projecting at 197 pounds the obvious hurdle would be two year starter Cash Wilcke standing in his way to starting, but the unofficial chatter is that Wilcke will cut down to 184 pounds to allow Warner to slot in. If WIlcke does not cut down the starter will be up in the air.
During the wrestle offs back in November we saw Warner get a narrow win over WIlcke, but the upperclassmen returned the favor at the Midlands. A two-time NCAA qualifier, Wilcke will own the experience factor, but Warner holds the edge in upside. Looking at both wrestlers’ resume its clear that Wilcke doesn’t hold any wins that come close to the level of performance as Warner’s major decision over Missouri All-American WIllie Miklus.
Depending on what happens at 197 will impact the starter at 184 pounds. It had to be a long season for junior Mitch Bowman, as rumors swirled that former Iowa State All-American Pat Downey would be transferring in to take his spot. The transfer never materialized, and Bowman went on to a 14-13 record and ended with him going 2-2 at nationals. Even if Wilcke drops to 184, it won’t be an open and shut case he will take over at 184. These two battled for the starting spot at 197 two seasons ago where Wilcke managed to come out on top of, but with Wilcke dropping down to a more natural weight for Bowman we could see a much more competitive battle.
The lineup ends with Sam Stoll who managed to earn All-America status in his junior season. We’ve always known Stoll’s podium potential. He’s looked the part of an All-American since he stepped foot on the mat as a freshman. The issue for Stoll has been his health as ACL injuries derailed both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Heading into next year we will see Stoll as one of the top contenders at this weight now that Kyle Snyder and Adam Coon have officially graduated.
While health will still be in the back of everyone’s mind next season with Stoll the good news is that the Hawkeyes will have a pair of true heavyweights behind him if the worse were to happen. Coming off of redshirt is Aaron Costello who was 14-7 this past season and the Hawks also added 2018 recruit Anthony Cassioppi, a top recruit for his grade. Both backup options will still need a bit of polish before being ready to take over this role in a meaningful way.
So where does that leave us? Well I suppose that depends on your outlook on Iowa wrestling. On the one hand 2018 should be considered a success. This team wasn’t considered a trophy team all season long and after a less-than-stellar Big Ten’s it looked like that was indeed the case. From there Brands managed to turn his squad around into the third place team on the big stage.
This year’s NCAA tournament was considered Penn State and Ohio State’s to lose. Obviously if you are an Iowa fan you want your team mentioned in the same breath as that last sentence, but the signs are pointing to Brands and Company are finally getting things figured out to get back on target. Over the past two seasons recruiting has been on point and the team has rediscovered its ability to score bonus up and down the lineup, not just at the lightweights.
Heading into next year the key will be the development of that young core. The anchors will be the returning four All-Americans, Lee, Kemerer, Marinelli, and Stoll with that quad having a strong record for bonus when their team needs it. With contributions from the new blood Murin (if he does indeed win 141), Lugo, Wilcke (at a new weight maybe), and Warner this is a lineup that when firing on all cylinders they will give any team all they can handle. Team trophy remains very much on the table and the squad will need to continue to find ways to close the gap on Penn State, so they can one day potentially bring a team title back to Iowa City.