Leistikow: What a successful weekend might look like for Hawkeyes at NCAA wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Sunday night before departing for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, the Hawkeyes got together for a team dinner and a movie.

The feature presentation?

A highlight video of the 1997 NCAA Championships in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” freshman 165-pounder Alex Marinelli says.

Iowa's Spencer Lee chats with Missouri's Jaydin Eierman during the practice sessions at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

What Iowa wrestling fans remember about that weekend at the UNI-Dome: A stirring performance in Dan Gable’s final year as the Hawkeyes' coach. Iowa crowned five NCAA champions and scored a tournament-record 170 points (which still stands), for Gable's 15th title in 21 years.

What fans might not remember: Oklahoma State was supposed to win that tournament going away, by maybe 30 to 40 points.

Iowa beat the Cowboys by 56½.

“They had a lot people doubting them,” Marinelli says. “They put six in the finals and won five. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Now, let’s be realistic: This Hawkeye team isn’t anywhere near the 2018 national championship conversation. If this team can unleash 23 straight victories in tournament matches (and 24 of 26 on Friday) like that legendary team did in 1997, then we’ll talk.

But Iowa is among six to eight teams that figure to battle for third- and fourth-place trophies when this year’s championships kick off at 11 a.m. CST Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Hawkeyes enter the tournament with doubts, like that 1997 team sure did, after a distant fourth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships.

Also like that 1997 team, though, the Hawkeyes arrive to the NCAAs with talented firepower, capable of making a run.

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That was the lesson Iowa 12th-year coach Tom Brands was hoping his team would grasp when they viewed the 1997 video before departing Iowa City.

They picked up on inspiring stories like Jesse Whitmer, a guy that had come up short all year before putting together the tournament of his life to win a national title at 118 pounds.

Even though he was 3 months old when the Hawkeyes rocked the UNI-Dome, 197-pound qualifier Cash Wilcke counts some of his wrestling idols (like Lincoln McIlravy) on that 1997 team.

"Winning the big matches,” says Wilcke, who enters this week seeded 14th after rising as high as No. 2 nationally this year. “That’s what this tournament is all about.”

For Iowa to contend for third behind Penn State and Ohio State this weekend, there is little margin for error.

Trackwrestling has the Hawkeyes ranked seventh entering the championships, but to show how much this can fluctuate — they’ve been as high as third and as low as 10th this season.

The race is that tight.

A few victories here and there, plus some bonus points, and challenging Michigan or Missouri (and beating out North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Lehigh and Arizona State) becomes plenty realistic.

Even for a proud program like Iowa, third or fourth place would constitute a good week.

Anything less, short of an individual championship or two, and it probably isn’t.

The Hawkeyes must have a complete tournament, from start to finish.

No margin for error.

And they could get it going as early as Thursday morning. It’s not outlandish to think that they could go 10-0 in the first of six sessions.

Though the Hawkeyes didn’t get great bracket draws across the board, one thing that went their way: Even their unseeded guys aren’t facing giants. A No. 13 (Oklahoma State’s Jacobe Smith) is the best seed any Hawkeye faces on Thursday morning.

Why not go 10-0?

After that, who knows?

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Third-seeded freshman Spencer Lee at 125 pounds has the opportunity to capture Hawkeye fans’ imaginations this week. He could run the table, but it’ll take a furious Friday to put him in position. No Iowa freshman has won an NCAA title since Matt McDonough in 2010.

“I need to wrestle seven minutes hard, and if it takes more than seven minutes, I need to wrestle however long the match is, as hard as I can," Lee says. "Every second, every position. If I do that, I’m going to win.”

At 149, second-seeded senior Brandon Sorensen needs to make the finals against Penn State’s Zain Retherford. And who knows, maybe the seventh time is a charm versus his collegiate nemesis. That’d be quite the story.

At 157, sophomore Michael Kemerer showed a year ago by finishing third with several bonus-point wins that he’s capable of being a big-moment wrestler. He could have his moment in Friday’s quarterfinals, with a possible matchup against defending NCAA champ Jason Nolf of Penn State.

At 165, fifth-seeded Marinelli can reverse a sixth-place Big Ten finish by getting to the national semifinals against two-time NCAA champ Isaiah Martinez of Illinois. We haven’t seen Marinelli on this stage before. We know he has talent; he knocked off defending NCAA champ Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State last month. Let’s see what he can do on this stage.

For Iowa to complete a satisfying weekend, it might take a surprise performance or two, as well.

"I think Cash Wilcke (can make a run), if he believes in himself. Vince Turk (at 141 pounds)," Marinelli says. "There’s a couple weight classes separated by a takedown. It’s the will to win."

You can tell, these young Hawkeyes — four sophomores and two freshmen among their nine qualifiers — are revved up to make their own mark, like the 1997 team did.

“I know they’re excited for this chapter ... Sorensen, all the way down to our true freshman, Spencer Lee.," Brands says. "... They’re ready to go.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.