Chris Cuellar and Chad Leistikow are live from St. Louis all week.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Asking Iowa seniors Cory Clark and Alex Meyer to reach back five years into their memories is a strenuous exercise.
They fondly recall high school wrestling and the foundation they laid at Southeast Polk, but there’s immediately some head-scratching and considered breaths.
“It was a great experience,” Meyer said Monday inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, “but I still wish we would have gotten that state title.”
Iowa's wrestling coach makes an opening statement on the eve of the NCAA Championships.
Clark was a four-time state champion in Class 3A and has since been a three-time All-American. But his sentiments are the same as his longtime teammate's.
“It’s kind of funny,” Clark said. “We never did get to win a team title. That next year they won and they haven’t really stopped.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny how that worked out.”
The fifth-year homegrown stars will confidently lead the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes into Thursday’s NCAA Championships in St. Louis, yet a similar feeling hangs over them.
For all their hard work, positive example and individual accolades, will the duo ever get to touch the top trophies? From one black-and-gold powerhouse to the next, their stories have been the same.
“You always hope that if the individuals take care of their job that the team race will take care of itself,” Southeast Polk head coach Jason Christenson said.
“In 2012 those guys did their part. They didn’t get to experience that state title, and I hope they get to find success here. But it’s a pretty tough round down there for everybody.”
Southeast Polk had never won a state team title and claimed just five individual championships when the class of 2012 stepped foot in the wrestling room as freshmen. That happened to be when Iowa was in its run of three consecutive national titles.
Clark won by himself in 2009 and 2010 as the Rams program built up. Classmate Willie Miklus – an All-American at Missouri who was injured early this season – jumped atop the podium in 2011, too.
And by the time Meyer gave the Rams three champions in 2012, they were contending with Bettendorf, but still a step behind.
The Iowa wrestling coach speaks highly of Gilman, Clark, Carton, Meyer and Brooks.
“They put us in the top 15 nationally, but we couldn’t win a state title,” Christenson said. “That was about the time I didn’t know if we were ever going to win one.
“We’re still seeing guys on our team now, even though they were never teammates with that class, the expectations that were set forth have been a huge difference-maker for us. They’re showing these kids what’s possible.”
Iowa took Clark and Meyer as recruits and Miklus headed off for a year at the Olympic Training Center. Southeast Polk has since won four of the last five team titles in 3A, including 2015-17 in dominant fashion.
“I love watching them having success,” Meyer said. “Coach Christenson and the staff deserve everything they’ve won. I’ve been around that program and none of it is by accident.”
Iowa’s roster has since added two more Southeast Polk grads – Keegan Shaw and Meyer’s younger brother Aaron – further cementing the training and technique happening in the Pleasant Hill practice room. Iowa assistant coach Ryan Morningstar wrestled at a smaller, but still elite, program in Lisbon and thinks high school prepared Clark and Meyer perfectly for Iowa City.
“That grinder mentality translates well to Division I,” Morningstar said.
The wrestlers feel prepared to follow up their junior season success at the Scottrade Center, with Clark seeded fourth at 133 pounds and Meyer placed 11th at 174.
Nursing a shoulder issue and finishing as runner-up at the Big Ten Championships hasn’t prevented Clark from planning a title charge this weekend.
“If you ask him, this is his best time of year,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “He’s a serious customer.
“He’s good to go. He’s ready.”
The Iowa 125-pounder is trying to become the program's first unbeaten national champion since 2010.
Meyer finished eighth as a junior, which was his first full season as a starter. He feels like the strength and depth of his prep program – Southeast Polk boasted more than 80 wrestlers in 2017 – prepared him for time as a backup at Iowa. Having former Hawkeye wrestler Jessman Smith around as a Rams assistant was beneficial, too.
“Alex is arguably one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had and his example carried through,” Christenson said. “He didn’t even qualify for state as a freshman and has had to work his tail off for everything that he’s ever gotten.”
Iowa appears to have a strong foundation after falling short of team expectations for the last few seasons. And blue-chip recruiting classes are on the way. Coaches are quick to credit the current Hawkeye senior class with help there.
“They’re doing a great job of paving the way,” Morningstar said.
“And not just with their success but with the work ethic they have and the groundwork that goes back to Christenson and his staff at Southeast Polk.”
But how will fans look back on this weekend’s performance five years from now? More important, how will Clark and Meyer? They’ll begin to find out when the tournament starts at 11 a.m., Thursday.
“I’ve been in the mix so it’s hard for me to evaluate my year,” Clark said. “I haven’t been looking back. It’s all been forward, forward, forward. Once the season is over, it’ll be a little easier to say what I thought about my senior year.”
Iowa wrestlers at NCAA meet
No. 1 THOMAS GILMAN
125 pounds, senior, 27-0
First round: Brent Fleetwood, Central Michigan, 22-10
About: Reigning Big Ten champion was national runner-up in 2016 and fourth in 2015. Earned bonus points in 23 of 27 wins this season. Could become Iowa’s first undefeated champ since 2010.
No. 4 CORY CLARK
133 pounds, senior, 15-3
First round: Connor Schram, Stanford, 14-4
About: Three-time All-American has finished runner-up in the last two NCAA Tournaments. Losses to No. 1 and No. 3 seeds came by one point each.
141 pounds, senior, 24-8
Preliminary round: Joshua Heil, Campbell, 15-11
About: NCAA qualifier for first time as a senior after earning ninth-place at Big Ten Championships. Would wrestle Virginia’s George DiCamillo (20-4) with pigtail win.
No. 5 BRANDON SORENSEN
149 pounds, junior, 26-4
First round: Matthew Zovistoski, Appalachian State, 26-9
About: Last year’s runner-up starts this tournament on same bracket side as Penn State’s Zain Retherford and Ohio State’s Micah Jordan. Four losses have come by combined five points.
No. 2 MICHAEL KEMERER
157 pounds, freshman, 27-2
First round: Jake Danishek, Indiana, 19-13
About: Unbeaten in rookie season against all wrestlers who aren’t No. 1 Jason Nolf. Highest-seeded projected opponents until final are all seniors.
165 pounds, freshman, 18-8
First round: No. 13 Brandon Womack, Cornell, 30-8
About: Used at-large bid to qualify after losing three of last four matches by decision. Win could set up rematch with No. 4 Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin, who Gunther has taken to overtime.
No. 11 ALEX MEYER
174 pounds, senior, 24-7
First round: Austin Dewey, Boise State, 24-13
About: Snuck onto podium as All-American in 2016 after first full season as starter. Meyer has gone 19-11 in 30 career matches against the current field.
No. 3 SAM BROOKS
184 pounds, senior, 24-2
First round: Nicholas Gravina, Rutgers, 20-9
About: Two-time Big Ten champion has won eight straight matches since being pinned by No. 2 Bo Nickal of Penn State. Could see last year’s 174-pound champ Myles Martin in quarterfinals.
197 pounds, freshman, 16-11
First round: No. 13 Tom Sleigh, Bucknell, 31-5
About: Late at-large addition finished eighth at Big Ten Championships. Winless against ranked opponents this season, Wilcke opens against a three-time qualifier.