Leistikow: On Iowa wrestling's 'elephant in the room'

Chad Leistikow,

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Every day that passes is another day since Iowa’s 23rd and most recent NCAA wrestling championship in 2010.

“Definitely an elephant in the room,” 125-pounder Thomas Gilman admitted.

So on Wednesday, Hawkeye wrestling media day arrived with the now-annual question.

Is this the year?

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In Iowa wrestling terms, a six-year title drought is practically a state crisis. If the Hawkeyes don’t raise the NCAA title trophy in March, it’ll match the longest string without a championship (2001 to 2007) since before Dan Gable turned this program into a title-winning juggernaut in the 1970s.

“We’ve got to do a better job with our guys,” head coach Tom Brands said, 7½ months removed from a painful admission in Madison Square Garden that a wide gap had formed between his program and the Cael Sanderson-led one in State College, Pa., that was raising its fifth title trophy in six years.

“When we were winning (three straight titles from 2008 to 2010), I felt that way. Do you feel more pressure because you haven’t won? I think the question’s thrown out there more. But it’s not something you dwell on or focus on.”

Yet that’s the main story that will play out over the next four-plus months: Has Iowa done enough to not only close the Penn State gap, but jump past it?

Certainly there is a recruiting momentum to get excited about in the future. Spencer Lee, one of the best wrestling recruits of the last decade, is arriving from Pennsylvania next season to back-fill Gilman’s spot at 125, and another mega-prospect in Gavin Teasdale joins Brands and Co. in 2018.

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But for now, the focus is on the 2017 championship.

It’s possible the Hawkeyes could win it, but they first have to prove they're a contender.

While they bring a No. 3 ranking into the season, Penn State is loaded again, and so is No. 1 Oklahoma State.

“You cannot give weight classes away and win a national title, especially when Penn State has the bonus-point capability,” Brands said. “They've got … three guys that can score bonus points, and we have to match that and exceed it.”

Brands is referring to returning national champ Zain Retherford at 149, top-ranked Jason Nolf at 157 and Bo Nickal (last year's No. 1 seed at 174) at 184, all of whom contributed to Penn State's 123-point total in New York City.

Iowa wound up with 81, despite three national runner-up finishes from Gilman, 133-pounder Cory Clark and 149-pounder Brandon Sorensen. All three of those guys are back, but time is running out.

Gilman and Clark, Iowa’s two best shots at a title, are seniors.

It'll take a team effort to overcome that 42-point gulf against Penn State. Sorensen emphasized the gap can shrink with more pace, more major decisions, more pins.

“The challenge is to drive that home to these guys,” Brands said. “And these young guys also have to buy in and it has to be driven home to them as well. It's not just our veterans getting on board.”

The buck stops with Brands, who is signed through the 2020 season.

He has to get the most out of every spot in his lineup, something that didn't happen in Iowa's last best shot in 2015. There are holes at 141 and 197. He needs good health and all-American production from heavyweight Sam Stoll.

He probably needs true freshman Alex Marinelli of Ohio to become Brands' first fresh-out-of-high-school prospect to crack Iowa’s varsity lineup in his 11 years. 

If Marinelli can score five to 10 points at the NCAAs at 165, it’s worth burning his redshirt — even if that’s not how Brands normally operates.

“Guys are whipping tail and taking names, they're going to be in the lineup,” Brands said. “But it has to be right for them. It has to be right for us.”

It could be argued that the Hawkeyes (as of today) have about 15 percent chance to emerge as this season’s NCAA team champion.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands works with his team during media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

If they’re going to inch that chance closer to 100 percent by Saturday night, March 18 inside the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis, they're going to need guys like Alex Meyer (at 174) and Sammy Brooks (at 184) to be mentally and physically consistent and several steps higher on the podium. They both settled for eighth place a year ago.

“When you’re at the very bottom, you’re not scoring a lot of points,” Gilman said, “even though you’re an all-American.

“If we don’t have national champions, we’ve got to have guys putting that hurt behind them and getting third.”

Brooks, another senior, is a swing guy. He’s a Big Ten Conference champion, but he’s also at a loaded weight.

It’s possible he could score more points at 197, but said he felt 184 was a better fit.

“I like my chances,” Brooks grinned. “If I was a betting man, I’d bet on myself every time.”

Wrestlers on Wednesday raved about the team’s camaraderie and drive.

“A lot better than it has been in past years,” Gilman said.

It's going to need to be. While Brands isn't showing impatience or frustration, he knows the clock is ticking.

And nothing less than first place is satisfactory.

"Anything less than the champion," Brands said, "is fighting for scraps in my mind."

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.