Leistikow: Hawkeyes win only half the battle on Day One of NCAA wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Day One of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Iowa won roughly half the battle.

And Hawkeye coach Tom Brands will be the first to tell you: At a six-session tournament on college wrestling’s grandest stage, winning half the battle simply isn’t good enough.

The Hawkeyes did a lot of really good things Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena. Good things to be excited about. We’ll get to those.

Iowa's Spencer Lee wrestles Purdue's Luke Welch at 125 pounds at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, March 15, 2018. Lee won by tech fall, 18-0.

But winning the full battle looks more like what Ohio State did on Day One.

Of the 20 matches the Buckeyes contested Thursday, they won 19 of them.

That’s winning the battle. That's dominating the battle.

No wonder the home-state school has a big leg-up on the competition, with 36 team points out in front through the first of three days in downtown Cleveland.

Penn State was in second at 28.5 points, and Iowa is leading the tussle for third place with 27 points and eight of nine wrestlers still alive (only Joey Gunther at 174 pounds is done). Michigan is fourth with 23.

But a few giant thuds put a damper on an otherwise excellent Hawkeye day: Top-five seeds Brandon Sorensen (149 pounds) and Sam Stoll (heavyweight) were knocked out in gut-wrenching fashion in Thursday night’s round of 16.

"We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow," Brands said. "This is a three-day tournament; this is Day One. We’re in Session Two. We didn’t do well.”

Sorensen, the No. 2 seed aiming to collect his first national title in his final chance, let No. 15 Ronald Perry of Lock Haven hang around too long. And in a 1-1 bout late in the third period, Sorensen succumbed to a takedown and a 3-2 loss.

"We let him hang," Brands said.

Then, with Stoll leading 2-0 late in the third and seemingly in control against Maryland’s Youssif Hemida, the fifth-seeded Hawkeye junior yielded a jarring takedown and near-fall points as time expired. An opponent Stoll easily handled twice before had knocked him into the consolation bracket, 7-2.

"Stoll froze at the end," Brands said. "I think the guy scared him (earlier in the third) when he picked him up and threw him out of bounds and ran through him.”

Those losses by program veterans — Sorensen’s in his fifth year, Stoll’s in his fourth —  quieted some of the buzz the Hawkeyes built earlier.

Iowa roared to the team lead after Session One. Yes, the team ranked seventh by Trackwrestling coming into this event had the points lead as fans headed for the bars on 6th Street between sessions.

RELATED:Session Two analysis on Iowa, UNI, ISU and those with Iowa ties

The Hawkeyes went 9-1 Thursday morning, with help from stirring late-bout victories by unseeded Vince Turk (141) and No. 14 Cash Wilcke (197) and a surprising major decision by unseeded Mitch Bowman (184).

Of course, the Session One team lead here means about as much as a first-inning lead in baseball. But to see “IOWA” atop the scoreboard for several hours was a reminder that there’s some octane in the Hawkeye program.

“We had lots to improve on from Big Tens,” true freshman Spencer Lee said of the Hawkeyes’ distant fourth-place finish two weeks ago in East Lansing, Michigan. “And we’re going to do our best to make a point here. Make a statement.”

Lee did his part. He was — oh my — so very impressive in his NCAA debut, winning by a pair of 18-0 technical falls at 125 pounds, in a combined 5 minutes, 40 seconds.

Fellow freshman Alex Marinelli powered into the quarters with two third-period pins at 165, mimicking the two pins from Iowa sophomore Michael Kemerer — his hotel roommate this week in Cleveland — at 157.

“Kemerer and I feed off each other,” Marinelli said. “He gets a pin, I want a pin. … We’re wanting to top each other. We both have two pins; it’s pretty cool.”

Tech falls (worth 1.5 extra team points) and pins (worth an additional two) aren’t easy to come by at the NCAA Championships, but the Hawkeyes flashed that kind of frequent firepower Thursday.

They racked up 15 bonus points on Day One — behind five pins, two techs and two major decisions.

By comparison, Iowa had just 10 bonus points in the entire 2016 tournament in New York City. It had 17.5 last year in St. Louis.

That’s how you do it at the NCAAs. That’s how Penn State has rolled to six of the last seven national titles — racking up bonus-point wins on this big stage. That’s something Iowa hasn’t been very good at over the years, quite frankly, so this was an encouraging sign.

That’s why, despite only sending three wrestlers through to Friday morning’s quarterfinals, the Hawkeyes are firmly in the race for third.

“That’s how you wrestle matches. You wrestle matches to dominate and score bonus points," Brands said. "It’s more fun that way.”

More bonus points are available for the Hawkeyes on Friday, especially from Sorensen (who must respond with at least three straight wins to reach the all-American stand for a fourth time) and Stoll in the consolation bracket.

But the real spotlight shifts to the Hawkeyes in the quarters.

The excitement of Lee is palpable. He’ll have No. 6 Nick Piccininni of Oklahoma State first thing Friday morning.

Kemerer has a biggie at 157 — a matchup against his former Young Guns teammate in Pennsylvania, defending national champion Jason Nolf of Penn State. A head-to-head win against one of the Nittany Lions' rock stars would be quite the statement.

“That’s the match everyone wants to see. That’s the match I want,” Kemerer said after he pinned Stanford's Paul Fox. “That’s the match I train for. I look forward to scoring as many team points as I can for my team.”

Marinelli draws fourth-seeded Chad Walsh of Rider, a two-time all-American. He's feeling good.

This is a long tournament. The Hawkeyes aren’t going to win the team title, but they have a chance to show they’re a bonus-point force to be reckoned with — this year and beyond.

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.