Leistikow: Breaking down each Hawkeye's NCAA wrestling path in Cleveland

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For better or for worse, six sessions over three days will define how Iowa’s 2018 wrestling season is remembered.

“It’s about knowing that you’ve got some firepower, and it’s time to go,” Hawkeye coach Tom Brands said Monday. “Don’t leave anything undone.”

The Hawkeyes are taking nine wrestlers to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and if they want to have a shot at the battle for third place (behind Ohio State and Penn State), they’ll need most — if not all — of the nine to contribute.

Spencer Lee at 125 pounds “is probably the best candidate Iowa has to win an individual national title," says Hawkeye wrestling analyst Mark Ironside.

To gather a candid sense of where this team is at, I annually like to pick the brain of Mark Ironside. The former two-time NCAA champion at Iowa and Cedar Rapids native is also the team’s radio analyst, and he’s seen just about every takedown, escape and near-fall point that has become a part of each of these guys’ collegiate records.

Ironside says “anything less than fifth” would be a disappointment in Cleveland.

The top four get a team trophy.

How to make this a successful Hawkeye week?

“Don’t think about winning and losing. Don’t think about where am I going to finish on the awards stand. Don’t be thinking about next year, for sure,” Ironside says. “Think about right now. The only focus you need to have is when then whistle blows, score points and wrestle hard.”

With that said, let’s take a closer look at Iowa’s nine entries with Ironside’s perspective:

125: Spencer Lee, 17-2 (No. 3 seed)

Opening match: The true freshman won’t be the first Hawkeye on the mat; he’ll have to wait for the pigtail winner of Cal State-Bakerfield’s Sergio Mendez and Chattanooga’s Alonzo Allen.

On the horizon: If the seeds hold, Lee’s first Friday at the NCAA Championships will be one of rematches: Feisty No. 6 Nicholas Piccininni of Oklahoma State (Lee won, 10-5, in their meeting at Carver-Hawkeye Arena), then No. 2 Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State (the pair split two meetings, with Lee still seeking his first takedown of the 2015 NCAA champion).

Ironside says: “I think that Spencer Lee is probably the best candidate Iowa has to win an individual national title. I really like where Lee is at. I really like how he wrestled at the Big Tens, even though he lost to Tomasello. … The winner of that (Tomasello-Lee semifinal) match wins the whole thing.”

141: Vince Turk, 13-8 (unseeded)

Opening match: Like Topher Carton for Iowa at this weight last year, Turk drew a pigtail match this year. The sophomore will get Lock Haven sophomore Kyle Shoop (34-12) for the right to face No. 16 seed Cole Weaver of Indiana.

On the horizon: Turk looked good in earning fifth place at the Big Tens, one of the few Hawkeyes to out-wrestle his seed. If he can get past two early Thursday matches (a big if, considering Weaver beat him, 8-3, at the Midlands), No. 1 seed Bryce Meredith of Wyoming awaits.

Ironside says: “If Vince Turk can learn to wrestle in that second period, the kid is going to be a force to be reckoned with. The kid can wrestle with anybody in the country. There’s no doubt about it. But he has to learn to utilize that second period.”

Iowa's Brandon Sorensen wrestles Michigan's Alec Pantaleo at 149 pounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. Sorenson won by decision, 2-1.

149: Brandon Sorensen, 21-2 (No. 2 seed)

Opening match: Navy’s Jared Prince (22-4) gets the methodical three-time all-American.

On the horizon: Sorensen is 17-8 against NCAA competition — including 17-2 against everyone not named Zain Retherford of Penn State. An interesting quarterfinal matchup could be waiting — likely against a former Northwestern wrestler (No. 10 Jason Tsirtsis of Arizona State, who beat Sorensen twice in 2015) or a current one (No. 7 Ryan Deakin, who Sorensen defeated twice this season).

Ironside says: “He’s so solid. I see him making the finals against Retherford. He closed the gap a little bit. He’s really learned to shut down Retherford’s offense. But at the same time, he hasn’t gotten his offense going at all. He hasn’t really sniffed a takedown against Retherford. … It’s a matter of Brandon Sorensen getting into his head, ‘I have to score.'"

157: Michael Kemerer, 22-1 (No. 6 seed)

Opening match: Cal State-Bakersfield’s Coleman Hammond (27-13) is a fifth-year senior making his third NCAA appearance.

On the horizon: Despite just one loss this season, Kemerer’s low seed has him on track for an unfortunate quarterfinal matchup with defending NCAA champ Jason Nolf of Penn State. The question if that third meeting occurs: Which wrestler can best overcome a banged-up knee?

Ironside says: “He’s been struggling in the second half of the season. I don’t think all of it is his knee. I think he’s lost his swagger a little bit. He’s gotten sloppy in a couple matches. That’s what caused him to get pinned (by Ohio State’s Micah Jordan) in the Big Tens. I think the biggest thing for a guy like Kemerer is to just make sure that he comes into this tournament happy and feeling good, both physically and mentally. ... He’s not good when he’s out there holding position. He’s good when he’s going out there and letting the fur fly.”

165: Alex Marinelli, 16-3 (No. 5 seed)

Opening match: The freshman draws his first meeting with Purdue’s Jacob Morrissey (21-18).

On the horizon: Marinelli gets a chance to reverse a disappointing sixth-place finish at the Big Tens. It’s possible he would encounter a conference foe in every round, with top-seeded Isaiah Martinez of Illinois waiting in the NCAA semifinals. This is probably the tournament's toughest weight class, top to bottom.

Ironside says: "It’s going to be an all-out war at 165. Out of everybody on the team, Marinelli is the last guy I’m worried about when it comes to being ready to go and having the right mentality when he steps out on the mat."

174: Joey Gunther, 16-7 (unseeded)

Opening match: No. 13 seed Jacobe Smith of Oklahoma State edged Gunther, 3-1, on Jan. 14 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

On the horizon: Gunther is 2-7 against NCAA qualifiers. A first-round win against Smith would exceed expectations for the sophomore, who edged freshman Kaleb Young in a wrestle-off for the postseason spot at this weight.

Ironside says: “We got in but it wasn’t pretty. It never really is with Gunther. He’s not one of those guys that puts a lot of points on the scoreboard, but he wrestles hard for seven minutes. (The rematch with Smith) is a motivator. He can turn a loss into a big win. That’s a big match out of the gate.”

184: Mitch Bowman, 12-11 (unseeded)

Opening match: After placing eighth at the Big Tens, the junior drew No. 15 seed Canten Marriott of Missouri.

On the horizon: Bowman ends up at his first NCAAs at a weight that was thought to be occupied by Pat Downey, but that grad-transfer phenom’s path to the lineup didn’t work out. Getting past Day 1 would be a pleasant surprise for Bowman.

Ironside says: “The guy is freaky strong. He’s long, he’s lanky. He’s not fun to wrestle. He’s not easy to wrestle. His mojo is his ability to fight for seven minutes. He can’t get away from that. If he goes out there and is standing around and waiting for the other guy to do something and … hoping to pull out a one-point win, that’s not going to win matches for Mitch Bowman.”

197: Cash Wilcke, 18-6 (No. 14 seed)

Opening match: He and Nebraska's Eric Schultz (18-9) have never met.

On the horizon: After rising to No. 2 in the national rankings with a 13-0 record and Midlands title, the sophomore’s season unraveled. A first-round win would likely create a rematch against No. 3 Jared Haught of Virgnia Tech, who beat Wilcke, 4-1, in last year’s NCAA Championships. This isn't a strong weight class, so there's an opportunity to make a run.

Ironside says: “I think (the No. 2 ranking) put a little pressure on himself that was unneeded pressure, and he hasn’t performed up to his ability. Now coming after the Big Tens seeded 14th, there’s no pressure. He had a great nationals last year (getting to the round of 12). He goes in relaxed. He can surprise some people. He can upset some people and hopefully find himself on the awards stand.”

Iowa's Sam Stoll wrestles Northwestern's Conan Jennings at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. Stoll won by decision, 2-0.

Hwt.: Sam Stoll, 19-4 (No. 5 seed)

Opening match: He’ll get Franklin & Marshall’s lone representative, two-time qualifier Antonio Pelusi (24-8).

On the horizon: Stoll has a clear path to the quarterfinals. His second-round matchup would likely come against Maryland’s Youssif Hemida, who he’s easily beaten twice. Getting past Olympic champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State in the semifinals is not realistic.

Ironside says: “The thing I like about Stoll is where his (relaxed) mindset is. He’s a guy that never gets too rah-rah for a match and pysches himself out. … It would be a disappointment if Sam Stoll didn’t wrestle to his seed in this tournament.”