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A closer look at our state's wrestling culture. James Kramer/The Register

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Iowa's road from third place in the Big Ten Conference to first place at the NCAA Wrestling Championships is uphill and narrow.

But at least there's a path.

The Hawkeyes enter the three-day tournament, which begins at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, as the top challenger behind three front-runners, none of which is a slam-dunk title favorite.

Ohio State might be hard-pressed to repeat the impressive chain of results that led to a surprising Big Ten championship in Bloomington, Ind.

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The Iowa wrestling coach examines some of his top stars and the team chances in St. Louis. Chad Leistikow

Penn State's bid for a sixth NCAA title in seven years might get stalled by a potential shutout at the lower three weights, if an injury to third-seeded Nick Suriano at 125 pounds is as bad as it seems.

Oklahoma State has all 10 qualifiers seeded No. 9 or better, but a lack of star power could have the Cowboys relying heavily on the consolation bracket.

On paper, if Iowa wrestles a little bit above its seedings, it would accrue around 105 or 110 team points. If Penn State, for example, wrestles at or just below its seedings (and if Suriano gets zero), it’s somewhere between 115 and 120.

Somewhere along the way, Iowa wrestlers are going to pull some head-to-head upsets against the three front-runners.

“It’s about showing up every match and being ready to go,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said.

To get a better idea of what Iowa needs to do to pull a St. Louis surprise, I turned to longtime Hawkeye wrestling radio analyst Mark Ironside. The two-time NCAA champion sees things a lot of us don't.

He views the NCAAs as a "3½-team" race: Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Penn State ... and maybe Iowa.

“You can’t count out the Hawks,” Ironside said. “We’ve got an awful lot of firepower in that lineup. If some guys really step up at the right time, and they wrestle up to their capability, I think they’re going to be right in there with everybody else.”

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Chris Cuellar and Chad Leistikow are live from St. Louis all week.

With Ironside's help, here is a breakdown of Iowa's nine NCAA qualifiers and their potential path to victory.

125: Thomas Gilman, 27-0 (No. 1 seed)

Opening match: A rematch of last year’s NCAA opener vs. Central Michigan’s Brent Fleetwood (22-10). Gilman won that one by technical fall, 24-8.

On the horizon: Getting to the NCAA semifinals (as he did in 2015) or NCAA final (as he did in 2016) isn’t going to cut it for Gilman, who is aiming to become Iowa’s first individual champion since Tony Ramos in 2014. He’s 33-2 all-time against wrestlers in his bracket.

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The Iowa 125-pounder is 27-0 and ranked No. 1 entering the NCAAs.

Ironside says: “For sure our best prospect for winning a national championship. … I think the biggest thing is he needs to stay where he’s good, and that’s on his feet. He needs to keep the pressure on his opponents with his hands (and by) using his feet to get to his offense on a regular basis.”

133: Cory Clark, 15-3 (No. 4 seed)

Opening match: The Pleasant Hill native has never faced Stanford junior Connor Schram (14-4), who was an all-American at 125 last year.

On the horizon: If Clark can win his first national title after two straight runner-up finishes, he’ll have earned it. He’s battling through a shoulder injury, for starters, and his bracket is loaded. If he can get through Thursday unscathed, his Friday menu would likely entail Michigan’s red-hot Stevan Micic and top-seeded Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State. If he gets through all that, he could face former Hawkeye Seth Gross of South Dakota State.

Ironside says: “He is not wrestling like he’s hurt at all, and that’s a positive for Cory Clark. I think his mindset is phenomenal; it’s exactly where it needs to be. … Losing the last two years in the finals has made him incredibly hungry. He cannot wait for that night to come. At the same time, he’s got to be on his game in the quarters and semis as well. Every match basically at this point is a national finals match.”

141: Topher Carton, 24-8 (unseeded)

Opening match: Carton drew the lone pigtail match just to make the Round of 32, the first Hawkeye since Ethen Lofthouse in 2012 to be saddled with that random extra match.  Carton will face Campbell’s Joshua Hall (15-11), with the winner facing No. 6 George DiCamillo of Virginia.

On the horizon: Because of his pigtail draw, the senior will actually be the first Hawkeye to take the mat Thursday and set an early team tone. Each of Carton's eight losses are by a regular decision, including an 8-5 defeat to No. 1 Dean Heil of Oklahoma State.

Ironside says: “He’s lost a lot of close matches in the third period against some highly ranked guys. If he can turn those losses into victories, he’s going to be on the awards stand, there’s no doubt about it. … Nobody’s really seen the real Topher Carton yet, and what he’s capable of. … That first pigtail match for him is extremely pivotal.”

149: Brandon Sorensen, 26-4 (No. 5 seed)

Opening match: He’ll meet Appalachian State sophomore Matthew Zovistoski (26-9) for the first time.

On the horizon: After losses in the National Duals and a third-place Big Ten finish, the junior's road to reach the NCAA finals for the second straight year got a lot tougher. He’ll likely to have to avenge a loss to No. 4 seed Micah Jordan of Ohio State before even getting to top-seeded, defending national champ Zain Retherford of Penn State in the semis.

Ironside says: “That’s what happens when you wrestle a lot of these close matches over and over and over. …. Now he’s in the 5-seed boat. And that’s a tough position. Sorenson knows he can wrestle with everybody in that bracket, including Retherford, and he proved it in his (Jan. 20, 9-8 overtime loss) to him. … He has to get to his offense (and) be stingy on his defense – which he’s really good at. … If he’s going to go out and stand around and hope to win a 2-1 and 3-2 type of match, you’re playing with fire.”

157: Michael Kemerer, 27-2 (No. 2 seed)

Opening match: Kemerer’s first-ever NCAA opponent will be Indiana's Jake Danishek (19-13), whom he pinned in the first period on Feb. 10.

On the horizon: Will there be any nerves for a first-time freshman? Kemerer’s only losses this year are to top-seeded Jason Nolf of Penn State, by scores of 9-4 and 8-2. He is trying to join Matt McDonough (2010) as the only freshmen in the Brands era to win a national title.

Ironside says: “Get that first win out of the way, and I think he’s going to get in a good rhythm. The thing is with Kemerer, he’s so good offensively and defensively. His hips are insane. He’s surprised people all year long with how good his defense is, and also how good his offense is – and how often he gets to it. That’s the big (reason) why Kemerer is the 2 seed right now and Sorenson is the No. 5 seed. … (Kemerer) gets to his offense a lot more often, and it’s provided him with more victories.”

165: Joey Gunther, 18-8 (unseeded)

Opening match: The freshman’s first NCAA appearance will come against No. 13 seed Brandon Womack (30-8) of Cornell.

On the horizon: Iowa’s team chances would get a boost if Gunther can pull a mild upset in the opener; after that, it’d likely be a rematch with Wisconsin’s fourth-seeded Isaac Jordan. Gunther pushed Jordan but fell, 3-1, in sudden victory in a Feb. 3 dual.

Ironside says: “That first match for Gunther is huge. He actually got a pretty good draw with Womack. This is a very winnable match for him. … He’s a little bit like Sorensen; he needs to get to his offense more in matches and not rely so much on his defense. If he can do that, I think he’ll be fine.”

174: Alex Meyer, 24-7 (No. 11 seed)

Opening match: The fifth-year senior’s last NCAA Tournament starts with Austin Dewey (24-13) of Boise State.

On the horizon: Though up-and-down Meyer struggled to a fifth-place Big Ten finish, he’s pushed No. 3 seed Bo Jordan of Ohio State to the wire and has beaten No. 5 seed Mark Hall of Penn State.

Ironside says: “If they’re going to have any chance of winning this tournament, they’re absolutely going to have to have Alex Meyer on the awards stand in a very high fashion. ... The biggest thing with Meyer, which everybody knows, is he can’t get into a hole right away. He can’t get down 6-2 in the first period and expect to battle back to win at this level and this tournament. … Meyer could be a real dark horse.”

184: Sammy Brooks, 24-2 (No. 3 seed)

Opening match: A third career meeting with Rutgers’ Nicholas Gravina (20-9) awaits. Brooks has dispatched Gravina by scores of 11-5 and 8-4.

On the horizon: A possible quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Myles Martin of Ohio State awaits. Martin is the defending NCAA champ at 174 pounds, but Brooks dominated Martin with a 12-2 win in the Big Ten finals thanks to an early six-point move. He would also probably have to beat Penn State’s Bo Nickal, who pinned Brooks in their only matchup, just to meet dominant Cornell two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean in the finals.

Ironside says: “He just keeps getting better and better and better every single time he steps on the mat. ... I’m not just saying this because I’m a Hawkeye, but there’s nobody wrestling at a higher level at that weight class right now than Sam Brooks. He reminds me (of) Cory Clark right now, where his mindset is just spot-on.”

197: Cash Wilcke, 16-11 (unseeded)

Opening match: Bucknell’s 13th-seeded Tom Sleigh (31-5) is the opponent; Wilcke got into the field after an injury withdrawal after the pairings were announced.

On the horizon: Any points scored by the redshirt freshman are gravy. He's 2-10 vs. the NCAA field.

Ironside says: “This is humongous for a guy like Cash Wilcke, to have the opportunity like this, to get good experience at the national tournament. Go through the weigh-in, go through the tournament process. It’s very vital for someone like that, that during the entire offseason, they can always envision something in their mind: Why they’re training, why they’re working.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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