Its been ten years since the University of Iowa end the season as NCAA champions and a decade removed from their last NCAA title head coach Tom Brands has assembled a collection of talent that are strong enough to help the program bring home title #24. Their obvious biggest obstacle is overcoming the current wrestling dynasty, Penn State in order to do so.
As a team Iowa comes into the season with all ten of their projected starters carrying a preseason rankings, but perhaps even more important is if preseason rankings were to hold as the final season results the Hawkeyes would have eight All-Americans and three NCAA finalists. Even with their strong preseason rankings the Hawkeyes have room for even more optimism. A lot of the wrestlers have proven upside from where they are ranked, which is why many of the Iowa faithful are hopeful that 2020 will be their year.
As a starting point in the lineup its tough to come up with new, nice things to say about junior Spencer Lee that you don’t feel like you’ve already used a half dozen times to describe him as a wrestler. As the weight’s two-time defending NCAA champion, Lee has let his wrestling do the talking and his performances hearken back to the days of Gable when the Iowa wrestlers cut through their opponents like a buzzsaw.
The biggest question surrounding Lee will be his freestyle schedule, which many are assuming the three-time age level World champion will mixing into his competition slate. With the sport’s top prize winning an Olympic gold medal, it wouldn’t be surprising if Lee opted to go compete at one of, if not both of the Bill Farrell International and the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier in November and December respectively. The latter definitely seems more likely with the team’s schedule. Its also possible that Lee could attend an overseas international freestyle tournament in January to keep himself prepared assuming he qualifies for the Trials.
If Lee does have to miss time for a freestyle tournament Iowa would likely turn to redshirt freshman Aaron Cashman to serve as the backup. Cashman is a former Cadet World team member who saw limited action last season.
Returning All-American Austin DeSanto is currently expected to man the 133-pound spot this season where he would figure to be in contention for the title. A year ago DeSanto managed to beat the eventual NCAA champion on his home mat and with both returning finalists announcing they will be taking an Olympic redshirt, that opens the door even more for DeSanto. The biggest obstacle at this weight will be the return of 2018 champion Seth Gross, who missed all of last season due to injury. The weight is far deeper than just Gross and DeSanto, but so far the Hawkeye junior has show the ability to hang with the best of them at this weight.
Backing DeSanto up is senior Paul Glynn who is a wrestler with starting experience providing some insurance should the team need it. Iowa will also have recent Penn State transfer Gavin Teasdale who was a blue chip recruit in high school though he has not registered an official college match.
We may be seeing Teasdale sooner than expected after a cryptic comment from coach Brands at Iowa’s preseason media day, “(L)ook forward to seeing him on the mat November 17. I mean, why not. Let’s just put it out there.”
With Teasdale being a former 125-pound prospect he would likely be better suited to compete at 133 which is a weight he seemingly grew into over the last year. If the staff does decide that Teasdale is the option at 133 that could mean DeSanto will be on his way up to 141.
Depending on the Teasdale/DeSanto shake out at 133 will likely have an impact on who starts at 141 this season. If DeSanto stays down at 133 we will likely see the return of another Pennsylvania native in the lineup, sophomore Max Murin. He put together a 17-10 season, but the key fact was how he wrestled in March. At the Big Ten conference tournament Murin was on the bubble in terms of claiming an automatic berth based on his seed, but he out placed his seed to book his trip to national’s. There he made a surprise run to the quarterfinals, and finished one win shy of the podium.
If last March is any indication on how much Murin was able to improve it’s not out of the question for the Hawkeye to end this season on the podium. Iowa also has some good depth beyond Murin with former four-time Iowa high school state champion Carter Happel and Justin Stickley. As a freshman Happel was right there in battling for the starting spot with Vince Turk and actually beat former All-American Tommy Thorn in a dual at Carver.
Iowa will feature a pair of seniors at 149-pounds though the weight’s incumbent wrestler is All-American Pat Lugo, who placed eighth last season. Pushing for the starting spot will be former two-year starter at 141 pounds, Vince Turk. Last season was on par for what many expected from Lugo. The Florida native hovered in the top eight rankings all season and finished on the podium. There is still hope that Lugo has more upside in him than an eighth place finish, and after the weight’s top All-Americans cleared out from a year ago Lugo should be considered as a contender for the top spot.
The biggest breakout in 2019 probably belongs to 157-pound starter Kaleb Young, who managed to place fifth in his first season as a starter in the lineup. While Young was far from an unknown as a prospect coming into Iowa, many were wondering how the Pennsylvania native would handle the cut down to 157 after wrestling at 165 and 174 his first two seasons in college. Young responded by taking second at Midlands and fifth in the country. He reached the NCAA semifinals by defeating the same wrestler that beat him in the Midlands finals (Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin).
He enters the season ranked #2 in the country behind former NCAA finalist Hayden Hidlay of NC State. When folks think of Iowa’s title contenders the first two names that come to mind are Lee and Alex Marinelli, though many are starting to come around to the fact that Young may also need to be in the conversation. In fact Marinelli had high praise for Young in a recent podcast recorded with IAwrestle stating if Young doesn’t win a title by the end of his career it would be mind blowing.
As Young’s chief sparring partner Marinelli has some real first hand experience at how good the 157-pounder is. As one of the top wrestlers at his own weight, Marinelli will look to finish what he started last season after placing seventh last season.
Nicknamed the Bull, Marinelli’s upside has always been the top of the podium and in 2019 things looked to be going his in terms of winning a NCAA title. After an undefeated regular season he ran the gauntlet at the Big Ten conference tournament and wound up winning his first title taking out two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph. The conference crown rightfully earned him the top seed at national’s, though looking at the draw he received its debatable whether or not his seed gave him a more favorable path.
Looking at the field this year Marinelli will be factored as one of the top guys along with the aforementioned Joseph who wrestled in his third finals last spring. Last year’s champion Mekhi Lewis announced he will be taking an Olympic redshirt which means Marinelli will have to wait a year before getting a potential rematch with the wrestler that gave him his first loss last season.
One impressive fact from last year’s team was there run to a team trophy despite the fact that one of their key performers, two-time All-American Michael Kemerer, missed the entire year due to injury. After breaking out as a freshman, Kermerer became a key performer in Iowa’s lineup and someone that could be regularly relied on to turn out a bonus point performance. With Kemerer sideline the team relied on freshman Myles Wilson and then senior Mitch Bowman. The team failed to qualify the spot for the national tournament.
Fast forward to this year and Iowa is excited to have one of their leaders back in the lineup. While Kemerer has yet to record a match at his new weight, the preseason expectations still have the Hawkeye as a top five wrestler at 174 pounds, with an upside as being able to contend for a title.
Its a pretty rare feat to have a projected lineup that features seven returning All-Americans, but what makes this Iowa lineup a true title contending squad is that despite the fact they have plenty of guys that have already made the podium, they also have their share of guys knocking on the door as well. In addition to Murin at 141, the Hawkeyes are also hopeful that senior Cash Wilcke will reach the podium at 184 pounds.
For three straight seasons Wilcke has been on the cusp of All-America status, coming within one win as a freshman and sophomore (at 197 pounds) and last year was quasi-step backwards being two wins out at 184 pounds. In order to win the title Iowa will need contributions from all ten spots in the lineup. if Wilcke manages to finish top eight those couple extra points could go a long ways for his team, and it would be an appropriate ending to his career as a four year starter.
As one of three seniors in the lineup (depending on the Kemerer medical redshirt outcome) this will be a weight that will obviously need to be replaced after this season. There are a couple of names to keep an eye on such as current sophomore Myles Wilson, who could potentially slide up. Another name is a wrestler that is expected to redshirt this season, and that is incoming freshman Abe Assad, the team’s highest rated recruit in the class of 2019. Assad has loads of national high school accolades and is a Cadet World medalist in freestyle.
Last season Iowa had two freshmen enter the lineup in Murin and the 197-pound Jacob Warner, who earned All-American honors by taking seventh in the country. As a redshirt Warner lit up everyone’s radar by winning the Lindenwood Open where he defeated a fellow blue chip recruit (Jake Woodley, Oklahoma) and an eventual four-time All-American (Willie Miklus, Missouri/Iowa State).
In his first season as a starter Warner delivered on expectations. He entered March as top five seed at the national tournament and finished on the podium. Now in his second year he will be expected to take the next step forward. Already established as one of the top guys at his weight it will be interesting to see if Warner can make the transition to title contender at this weight.
The lineup is turning over at heavyweight, where former All-American Sam Stoll has since graduated and moved on to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. That means one of sophomore Aaron Costello and redshirt freshman Tony Cassioppi will need to take over.
The front runner for the spot would appear to be Cassioppi, who had a successful redshirt season going 20-2. His losses were to former Round of 12 finisher Jere Heino of Campbell and 2019 All-American Matt Stencel of Central Michigan. He also defeated his fellow spot contender at 2-0 at the Loras Open.
Iowa will be inactive as far as outside competition for the first couple weeks of the season. The team did announce that they will be holding an intra-squad match in Carver next Thursday and Friday – though the communication of that event noted the matches were not to be considered wrestle offs.
The season slate opens with a home dual against Tennessee-Chattanooga followed by a road dual to Iowa State in November. The team then turns around and faces rising Big Ten program Wisconsin the first weekend in December and will travel to Princeton to close out there 2019 dual slate. As usual the team will end the calendar year by competing at the Ken Kraft Midlands in Illinois.
Projected 2019-20 lineup for Iowa:
125 – #1 Spencer Lee (JR)
133 – #4 Austin DeSanto (JR)
141 – #7 Max Murin (SO)
149 – #6 Pat Lugo (SR)
157 – #2 Kaleb Young (JR)
165 – #2 Alex Marinelli (JR)
174 – #4 Michael Kemerer (SR*)
184 – #10 Cash Wilcke (SR)
197 – #4 Jacob Warner (SO)
285 – #12 Tony Cassioppi (RFR)
*Note this preview was written using TOM’s October 2nd rankings.