We’re a little over one month into the college wrestling season, and the Iowa Hawkeyes are the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in Division I.
Yes, you can read that again.
Tom Brands’ guys hold the top spot in virtually every major wrestling poll. That’s (inhales) Trackwrestling, Flowrestling, The Open Mat, Intermat, Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine and the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
I might be missing one, but you get the point.
We always knew that this group of Hawkeyes could be the team that ends the program’s championship drought. Through the first three weeks of the season, they carry the look of a squad on a mission to do just that.
Iowa opened with a 39-0 win over UT-Chattanooga and followed with back-to-back victories over top-10 opponents — a 29-6 shellacking of Iowa State and, more recently, an even more impressive 32-3 win over a tough, up-and-coming Wisconsin team.
It’s only three duals, but Iowa has won 27 of 30 contested matches and has scored bonus points in 11 of them. In all of those matches, the Hawkeyes have outscored their opponents by a combined 285-108.
“We just got beat by a really damn good team today,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said after the Cy-Hawk dual Nov. 24. “If you’re a Hawkeye fan and you’e been watching lineups for a long time, you’re going to have a hard time finding a better one than that.”
Here is where I provide you guys with the wet blanket: it’s only December 3. Iowa has only wrestled three duals. The season’s biggest tests are on the way.
And none of this will matter if the Hawkeyes don’t perform in March. But this season was always going to be a fun one because of this Iowa team’s potential.
Track’s latest Division I poll has a Hawkeye ranked in the top 10 at all 10 weights. This is far and away the best Iowa team since 2009-10, and it has the potential to surpass that group, too — which ended the year with eight All-Americans, by the way.
Enjoy the ride, is what I’m saying. Much of college wrestling’s attention is on the NCAA Championships and those crucial three days in March. I get that. Don’t get so caught up in the ultimate goal that you don’t relish the process, though.
Now, then. On to the mailbag. For those wondering, Northern Iowa checks in at No. 5 in Track’s latest poll, tied with Arizona State, while Iowa State is at No. 9. It's a fun time to be a wrestling fan in Iowa.
Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up-to-date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.
I see you guys are curious …
… about Nelson Brands.
Nothing has changed from the soliloquy that I wrote in last week’s mailbag. I should just copy and paste that here, but I’m not going to. I will, however, provide the link.
My thoughts aren’t going to change much until I see more evidence — in short, every bout from here moving forward is a tryout for both Brands and Cash Wilcke to prove they can be the guy when the time comes. I still think Tom Brands is going to hold off from any concrete decisions until after the Midlands Championships later this month.
We’ll learn a lot that weekend, and I think this is important for you guys to keep in mind as we progress through the early portion of the season.
We’ve seen Nelson Brands compete well in duals. He has two impressive wins over nationally-ranked guys. But how does his size disadvantage hold up in a tournament setting, where he wrestles multiple matches over multiple days? That’s something to remember here.
Nelson Brands has a strong case to be the guy at 184 pounds right now. He can bolster that argument with a strong performance at the Midlands.
At the same time, Wilcke can also re-assume his spot as the usual starter by wrestling well against Princeton, if he gets the nod, and then producing a strong performance at the Midlands — where, last year, he lost 3-2 in the finals to the eventual NCAA champion.
This is a long-winded way of saying that everything is still on the table. Tom Brands seeks consistency and dominance from his guys. That’s how they earn their spots.
The season is long. Final decisions aren’t going to be made because of two good performances or one bad one.
This is a fun thought exercise, and it’s tough to tell right now because we haven’t seen Iowa in a tournament setting yet. Add that to the list of reasons why the Midlands will be a fun two days.
The rest of the season is dual-focused, and along the way, we’ll learn a lot about each opposing team’s tournament potential — or at least how each Iowa guy stacks up comparatively. The three-week stretch in January when the Hawkeyes host Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State will be revealing, as those are primarily the teams that should keep pace.
In many ways, the same reasons Iowa is a blistering dual squad is why it is also a daunting tournament squad, too.
There’s the bonus-point potential with Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto, Alex Marinelli, Michael Kemerer and Tony Cassioppi.
Then there’s the guys who have proven they can gut out gritty wins, like Max Murin, Pat Lugo, Kaleb Young (who also has some bonus potential) and Jacob Warner.
There’s just not really a hole in the lineup right now. When the guys you’re likely most worried about have also been a win away from becoming All-Americans, you’re sitting in a pretty good spot.
It will take a strategic combination of all of that, plus whoever gets chosen at 184, to ultimately take the crown in March. That also means guys will have to win their way to Saturday night’s finals.
Which leads us to the second part of your question: The NCAA finals aren’t for another four months, but I’m seeing four guys — Lee, DeSanto, Marinelli, Kemerer — with legitimate shots and another two — Young and Cassioppi — who would be next in line. Depending on the draws, I could see paths for Lugo and Warner as well.
Four finalists puts your team in really good position. Six would be a little nutty. Eight would sew up the team title Friday night.
But, again, that’s four months away. It’s a long season.
I think Cassioppi's win over Trent Hillger put him in that conversation.
The heavyweight field is stacked, you guys. I’m a big fan of the direction this weight is headed over the next few years, just with the current crop of wrestlers and those coming up. It’s going to be so, so, so exciting.
Cassioppi is part of that. His first two wins were nice. I was impressed by the way he controlled Iowa State’s Gannon Gremmel from start to finish. His win over Hillger on Sunday, thanks to a first-period takedown, was something of a small announcement to the rest of the country.
But the road is only going to get tougher. The Midlands is always stout, and the Big Ten currently boasts six of Track’s top eight heavyweights. Five of last year’s All-Americans are back this season, including Penn State’s Anthony Cassar, the defending champion. The Big Ten and NCAA Championships aren’t going to be easy sledding.
That means his progression will be important, both for his individual prospects and for Iowa’s team title hopes. Heavyweight is deep. Depending on his draw, he could reach the finals. He could also fall in the bloodround. Neither would surprise me.
But Tom Brands had an interesting quote after Sunday’s dual that offered some insight into Cassioppi’s mindset and how he views these things. Here it is in full:
“This Cassioppi guy gets up for big matches. I was up on the radio, and (former Iowa wrestler) Mark Ironside asked, ‘What kind of kid is he? Is this just no big deal to him?’ It’s a big deal. This is what I told Ironside: it’s a big deal, just like it was a big deal to you.
“He gets ready to wrestle these matches. He goes out there and performs, then it’s not a big deal anymore. Because he knows, just like you, Ironside, he knows that there’s more fish to fry. If you want a little bit of a glimpse into our heavyweight, that sums it up pretty good.”
Mental fortitude is a valuable asset in Division I wrestling. Cassioppi has plenty of it. He’ll need it to achieve his goals.
Iowa applies for its medical hardships at the end of their athletes’ respective clocks. So, technically, Kemerer is a senior this year, and the Hawkeyes will apply to get him another year after this season.
By all accounts, he should get it. Check back again in late March/early April.
If I hear before then, I’ll obviously let you guys know.
The two duals were fairly similar, to be honest.
Iowa took eight of 10 matches against Iowa State, then nine of 10 against Wisconsin.
Iowa outscored Iowa State 90-38 in total match points, then outscored Wisconsin 76-32.
Iowa totaled 27 takedowns to Iowa State’s four, then totaled 22 to Wisconsin’s three.
This tells me two things — that Iowa and Penn State are far and away the two best teams in the country this year (yes, even though the Nittany Lions lost to Arizona State and have lineup questions), and many teams will contend for top-10 finishes in March.
Iowa State is in that second tier this year, and that’s right where they probably should be. The Cyclones have only wrestled a few times, so it’s hard to glean a lot from them. Their showing at this weekend’s Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational will reveal a lot more.
The Cyclones are capable of finishing in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships. Heck, with a strong tournament and a few other dominoes falling their way, I could even see a top-six finish. They have that potential when the lineup is fully healthy and clicking.
They could also trip up and finish, say, 12th. I think that’d be a disappointment.
There’s still a lot to be decided before then, but the pieces are there.
Alex Mackall has clearly taken steps forward and could finish on the podium at 125. David Carr looks like a finalist contender at 157. Jarrett Degen has taken two early losses, but both were to guys who should be on the podium at season’s end.
Here are the questions that will likely decide Iowa State’s season:
- Can Austin Gomez get healthy and take a step forward? If he can’t, how much can Todd Small progress this year?
- Ian Parker is capable of beating the best guys at 141, but can he do it when it counts?
- Can Sam Colbray take that next step after reaching the bloodround last year?
Every point counts when you’re looking at fifth through 15th place. The difference between fifth and 10th place at last season’s NCAA Championships was 11.5 points. The difference between 12th and 20th was 14. Those could come from an additional All-American, or from everybody winning one more match.
Many duals will reveal more about this Iowa State team’s mettle over the course of the season. The Cyclones will see Arizona State and Oklahoma State next month, then Northern Iowa and Missouri in February.
It’s easy to talk about what this team is capable of, but another thing entirely for them to go and reach it.
(That, of course, applies to everybody.)
High school wrestling’s first week of competition has arrived, and the Cliff Keen Independence Invitational is one of the best ways to open the 2019-20 season.
So many great teams will be there — Ankeny, Fort Dodge, Iowa City West, Lisbon, Osage, Solon, as well as some top-tier out-of-state competition in Minnesota’s Simley and Missouri’s Christian Brothers. It's a good early-season barometer for everybody.
At a glance, the 138-pound weight class looks like a beast, featuring Lisbon’s Cael Happel, Ankeny’s Caleb Rathjen and Simley’s Ryan Sokol, among others. Those three are all nationally ranked by MatScout.
So many other potential matchups hover over this tournament.
At 132, there’s Lisbon’s Robert Avila and West’s Hunter Garvin. At 113, Ankeny’s Trever Anderson and Crestwood’s Carter Fousek. At 170, there’s Osage’s Spencer Mooberry, Solon’s Jax Flynn and West’s Ashton Barker.
The keyword here is “potential,” because these are based off the preseason rankings released this week by The Predicament. Guys may not be at these weights. Some may also not compete. We can only hope they will.
If they do, we’re in for a treat.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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