NEW YORK — Thomas Gilman wrapped his right arm around Cory Clark on Saturday night as Iowa’s dejected juniors walked together through a back passageway inside Madison Square Garden.
A few minutes later, sophomore Brandon Sorensen appeared through the same corridor, carrying a white box with an NCAA runner-up trophy packed inside.
In the end, the Hawkeyes were left with the disappointment and unsatisfying consolation prizes that come with reaching college wrestling’s grandest stage, only to fall one win short of the reward they covet most.
For the first time in the Tom Brands era, Iowa exited the NCAA Championships without any representation in the tournament awards ceremony.
No individual titlists. No team national championship. No photo and trophy for second, third or fourth as a squad, either.
Iowa went winless in three medal matches Saturday morning, struck out in three individual title bouts Saturday night and finished outside the top four for the first time since 2007.
“We take this stuff personal,” Brands said. “I’m not more miserable because we were 0-3. I’m miserable for Gilman and Clark and Sorensen and (six) other qualifiers that didn’t probably perform the way they wanted to, they way we needed them to. That’s how you build, I think.
“I don’t think your disappointment grows because of a trainwreck-type thing, which the finals could probably be described a little bit as a trainwreck. I think our fans expect more. I know we expect more and I can doggone tell you those guys expect more, too, after some brief conversations.”
Iowa coach Tom Brands after his team's fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
All of the above expect Iowa to challenge for championships, and the Hawkeyes were hardly even in the hunt this week.
Top-ranked Penn State left Iowa and everyone else in its wake, racking up 123 points to finish 25.5 ahead of second-place Oklahoma State.
The only real team suspense Saturday occurred in the race for the final two trophies. Two individual title winners catapulted Ohio State past Iowa and Virginia Tech and into third with 86 points. The Hokies claimed their first trophy, finishing fourth with 82, one more than the Hawkeyes.
To Brands, though, the more relevant issue was the 42-point gulf between his program and the one Cael Sanderson operates.
“We are a long ways, and that doesn’t mean this guy is giving up,” Brands said when asked about the current gap between Penn State and Iowa. “But when you look at how they wrestle, when you look at the points they score – and I’m not talking about only match points. I’m talking about bonus points, team points, how they add up – we’re a long ways away. It’s not light years. But we have to do some things that close the gap on that.”
That sentiment became most apparent in Saturday night’s finals. Iowa’s opponents scored nine takedowns. The Hawkeyes scored none.
The tenor for the night was set late in the first period at 125 pounds, where one of Iowa’s best scoring opportunities resulted in Nittany Lion points.
Penn State’s Nico Megaludis slipped around Gilman for a takedown that came moments after the Hawkeye seemed in an advantage position. It sent the Nittany Lion senior on his way to a 6-3 victory and his first title after two previous runner-up finishes.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Gilman said. “It’s a loss. It doesn’t necessarily (matter) that it’s at the national tournament or at a dual or anywhere else, it’s a loss. Here, it hurts a little bit more because you’re so close but you don’t quite get there.
“It’s hard to swallow, especially because I’ve never beaten that guy before and I felt like I had him, I outwrestled him. But the score didn’t show that. I didn’t put any points on the board offensively. I can’t just outwrestle my opponents, I’ve got to outscore them, too.”
After title-bout defeats in 2012 and 2013 and a third-place finish in 2014, Megaludis said he brainwashed himself throughout the past year by writing “2016 national champion” in various signs throughout his home and on the steering wheel of his car.
The quest now for Clark is to duplicate the Megaludis path. To learn from two championship-stage setbacks and cash in on one last chance at a title.
The Iowa junior dropped a 7-6 decision at 133 to Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett, who punctuated his 37-0 senior campaign with a late double-leg takedown to put away Clark, whose points came on escapes and stalling penalties.
“I’m not very satisfied or happy with the results, but I’ve got to take it like a man and really move forward quickly and get my head straight with my thoughts and my body recovery and start going back to work,” Clark said. “Last year it happened, and I didn’t capitalize on my opportunity to redeem myself, or however you want to put it. I know last year I went into a dark place for a while, and I kind of want to avoid that.”
Cory Clark on his 7-6 loss to Cornell's Nahshon Garrett in the 133-pound NCAA finals.
Penn State’s Zain Retherford squashed Iowa’s last chance for a champion, topping off his bonus-point run through the tournament with a 10-1 major decision against Sorensen at 149. The sophomore also registered three pins and a technical fall during the tournament to complete a 34-0 season.
“It’s not a fun place to be right now,” Sorensen said. “It’s not where I want to be, it’s not my goal and stepping on that award stand. And hearing that final cheer for first place stings, and I don’t like being here.”
Brandon Sorensen after his 10-1 loss to Zain Retherford in the NCAA finals.