Iowa head coach Tom Brands breaks down how senior Sam Brooks was pinned by Penn State's Bo Nickal in the 184-pound semifinals.
ST. LOUIS — Friday night wasn’t supposed to feel this way.
Iowa had four semifinalists and was challenging for second place behind runaway leader Penn State and felt ready to make a real push at the Scottrade Center.
Then a loss by undefeated senior Thomas Gilman started turning the plan upside-down. The Hawkeyes left the fourth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships reeling, stuck in fifth-place and searching for silver linings.
“You’ve got to get to your offense and you’ve got to get to your scores and builds your leads and that didn’t happen,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said.
Cory Clark became a four-time All-American and Iowa’s lone finalist on Friday, unseating Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello in a tense 133-pound semifinal. That triumph came minutes after Gilman’s overtime loss to Lehigh’s Darian Cruz — a 4-2 defeat on a sudden-victory scramble at 125 — and had cooled off by the time Brandon Sorensen and Sammy Brooks were pinned by Penn State opponents at 149 and 184.
“(Gilman) is really, really tough and he waits for kids to let up,” Cruz said after the stunning victory that sent roars around the sold-out arena. “I think he thought I was letting up and could fire off a shot.”
Once Iowa’s unbeaten, top-seeded lead-off man went down, the standings began to slip away. The Nittany Lions lead by more than 30 points heading into Saturday’s placement matches and finals, with Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Missouri all in front of the Hawkeyes.
“Our guys showed up,” Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said.
Optimism exuded Iowa when all nine of its wrestlers advanced out of Thursday’s opening rounds and rightfully grew when unseeded performers such as Topher Carton, Joey Gunther and Cash Wilcke racked up team points in the consolation brackets.
But once No. 3 Sam Brooks was thrown off his feet by Penn State’s Bo Nickal in the 184-pound semifinals, the spiral was complete.
“You don’t want to be doing anything fancy or funny in a match like that,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “I think (Brooks) was ready. He just went out and got his elbows too deep, the guy stepped around him and tossed him.”
There are bonus-point opportunities and All-American bids left on Saturday. Iowa does not intend to collapse or fall out of a team race for second.
That won’t reverse the semifinal losses or the silence the black-and-gold clad fans were forced into as the Nittany Lions cheered.
"It's hard to deal with," Brands said. "It's hard to deal with for this team and for this coaching staff."
Start up the Zain Train
Penn State junior Zain Retherford had a strong case for Outstanding Wrestler honors before Friday night’s semifinals. Then he offered up hard evidence against Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen.
In a rematch of last year’s 149-pound final and a 9-8 overtime thriller at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this season, Retherford pinned Sorensen in 2:37, closing out a headlock while trapping the No. 5 seed’s right leg down.
“To be honest, I watched both those matches right before this match in my hotel room,” Retherford said. “Seeing what I did well and didn’t do well, correcting the mistakes.
“Last year in the finals, I wrestled free like I like to wrestle, and I think I had more fun that way.”
Retherford opened a run of five straight semifinal victories for the Nittany Lions. He had three technical falls in the rounds prior to meeting Sorensen, who was seeking his first career victory over the defending national champion. Instead, the Iowa junior will head to the consolation bracket as a three-time All-American.
Iowa prep exports score
Three old Iowa high school standouts wrestled into Friday for their out-of-state teams.
Ankeny’s Ross Larson, Iowa City West’s Jack Hathaway and Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Colton McCrystal all made it through Thursday for Oklahoma, Oregon State and Nebraska, respectively.
Larson ended his senior season in the third round of 285-pound consolations. Hathaway was eliminated a little earlier on the same mat at Scottrade Center, bounced via pin from the 141-pound bracket.
McCrystal made it to Friday night’s blood round by winning 12-4 and 8-5 over two seeded opponents. The Cornhuskers’ No. 9 seed lost before he could earn All-American honors as a junior, dropping a 10-6 decision to Minnesota’s Tommy Thorn.
Cyclones bow out early
After one win and one team point, Iowa State’s postseason reached its end. Senior Lelund Weatherspoon was ridden out in a 3-0 loss to Wisconsin’s Jake Christensen in Friday afternoon’s consolation round, closing out the worst NCAA Championships performance in Cyclones history. Qualifiers Earl Hall (133 pounds) and Marcus Harrington (197) were eliminated on Thursday after taking two straight losses. Weatherspoon won his first match, but couldn’t return to All-American form.
“When you’ve been wrestling a certain style for a long time and you’ve had success with it, you want to hold on to it,” Iowa State interim coach Travis Paulson said. “When you’re stressing scoring points, it’s a process and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
TEAM SCORING THROUGH NCAA SEMIFINALS
1. Penn State 121; 2. Ohio State 89.5; 3. Oklahoma State 86; 4. Missouri 81.5; 5. Iowa 74; 6. Minnesota 60; 7. Cornell 57.5; 8. Virginia Tech 53.5; 9. Nebraska 50; 10. Illinois 41.5.