Iowa head coach Tom Brands discusses his team's first day at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Before Sam Brooks burst out of Assembly Hall’s tunnel and on to the bright semifinal mat, he wildly jumped and shouted while warming up by himself.
The 184-pound senior would become Iowa’s fourth finalist a few minutes later. He’s a defending champion that was due for a star turn at Saturday night’s noisy Big Ten Wrestling Championships session.
But he and fellow Hawkeye finalists Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark and Michael Kemerer are wrestling their own psyches before they face real opponents in Sunday’s championship matches.
“It’s different for everybody,” Brooks said. “Some people need to be more intense. Others need to be more calm. I’ve got to find that perfect, happy medium where I’m calm but I’m also on edge and on my toes. It’s self-talk and getting myself looking at the right things all day.
“I’d like to think I’m best at it now than I ever have been.”
The talented quartet has Iowa sitting third in a surprisingly competitive team race inside Indiana University’s legendary basketball arena. Brooks and Clark will wrestle opponents from first-place Ohio State in their finals, and the Hawkeyes have a chance to catch defending national champion Penn State with a few wins in the crowded consolation brackets.
“I like tournaments because as the day goes on I get warm and my body gets going and I feel better and better each match,” Clark said after his semifinal win at 133 pounds.
“I almost wish we could just do the finals in a couple hours.”
Gilman was his usual gritty self getting a pin and major decision at 125. The returning NCAA runner-up was trying to be smart with his behavior…until Michigan’s Conor Youtsey started slapping in their evening semifinal.
“Being in the postseason, I can’t have any hiccups here where I lose my temper like maybe I did a couple years ago,” Gilman said. “It got a little bit chippy there… but that guy was punching me in the face and I’m not just going to let him do that to me. I was going to retaliate a little bit. But I kept it under control and got two takedowns.
“Keep scoring points is the best way that I can keep my composure.”
Iowa senior Thomas Gilman won a feisty semifinal at 125 pounds on Saturday night in Bloomington, Ind.
Kemerer used a last-second escape to reach the finals at 157 as a redshirt freshman. With late struggles at a couple other weights, the four finalists are why Iowa will be heavily involved in Sunday’s podium climbs. Their mental and physical strengths are showing on the Big Ten’s biggest stage.
“Kemerer does it right,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “There’s no complaints about his methods… he’s the real deal.”
Clark coming in clutch
A three-time All-American and two-time NCAA runner-up, Clark has spent a large chunk of his senior season out of Iowa’s lineup with an undisclosed injury to his shoulder.
The former Southeast Polk four-timer entered Assembly Hall with just 14 matches under his belt and none in a tournament format since the Luther Open in November. He tackled three opponents on Saturday looking healthy and stellar.
“I felt like my pace was good, I felt like I was feeling good physically and felt strong,” Clark said. “Hard off the whistle.”
Iowa senior Cory Clark discussed his journey back to the Big Ten finals and dealing with a shoulder injury on Saturday night.
Wearing a protective shoulder sleeve he’s sported since his January return, Clark won his opener by major decision, shutout Maryland’s Bill Rappo in a 5-0 quarterfinal and rode out Minnesota’s Mitch McKee in a 7-1 semifinal.
Brands did not want to discuss Clark’s health after the session — “Fifth-year senior has got a lot of mileage on him, so you’ve got to manage it,” — but did indicate he was pleased with the performance. Those three wins set up a final against Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, the nation’s top-ranked wrestler at 133.
“It’s going to be a good match,” Clark said. “I plan on getting to my stuff and controlling the pace.”
Crowd turns on champs
Big Ten fans might be getting tired of seeing Penn State on top of the podium.
The Nittany Lions have won four of the last five national championships and dominated Saturday’s early session with a run of seven straight quarterfinal wins, including five pins.
So, when cracks started to show in coach Cael Sanderson’s lead, the Assembly Hall crowd cheered for rivals to rally. Iowa fans joined in with a standing ovation for Ohio State’s Myles Martin after a thrilling win over Penn State star Bo Nickal at 184. PSU would lose three other semifinals matches, meaning Ohio State and Iowa both have more finalists than the favorites.
Ohio State is pacing the team scoring at 117, with Penn State (98.5), Iowa (95) and Minnesota (81) following behind.
“We’ve got to be ready to go,” Brands said. “We’ve got to be ready to finish this tournament off.”
Meyer stitches up slow start
A returning All-American at 174 pounds, Iowa’s Alex Meyer wasn’t about to take a quarterfinal loss and go home. The senior staged a comeback in the consolation bracket with tough decisions over Rutgers’ Jordan Pagano and Indiana’s Devin Skatzka, all while sporting two stitches near his right eye from a cut suffered during his defeat.
“Each tournament is a stepping stone,” Meyer said, “but this is the type of stuff I’ve been training for since I started wrestling.”
After a 3-1 opening day, Meyer is in the consolation semifinals and, with a win, could still wrestle for third-place.
“It’s the next best thing,” Meyer said. “I’ve got to come back, set myself up for a couple weeks and do it for the team as well.”
Making it count
In addition to Meyer, Iowa has three more wrestlers trying to earn points and NCAA Tournament bids in the consolation brackets.
Returning NCAA runner-up Brandon Sorensen lost his semifinal bout and will be featured in the consolation semifinals at 149. Cash Wilcke split his four matches and is competing for seventh at 197, where the conference gets seven automatic bids. And Topher Carton has survived a ninth-place bracket at 141, which the conference added to determine its final spot.
“There’s more work to do,” Brands said.
SUNDAY’S BIG TEN FINALS
Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
When: 2 p.m. (CT), Sunday, March 5
Media: Big Ten Network