Leistikow: Spencer Lee-infused Hawkeyes send an NCAA message: We're on the attack

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CLEVELAND — It’s officially eight years and counting since Iowa last stood on top of the college wrestling world.

That’s the takeaway that sticks with Tom Brands this week — not that the Hawkeyes, in what was a rebuilding year, put together an all-told terrific tournament to capture third place at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena.

“The biggest message is I’m never going to get used to third,” said Brands, Iowa’s 12th-year coach who last delivered the Hawkeyes a title in 2010. “We left points out there. No doubt.”

Iowa's Sam Stoll turns Hofstra's Mike Hughes as they wrestle for fifth place at 285 pounds at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018. Stoll pinned Hughes in 1:57.

The question again — as it has been for eight straight March interviews with Brands — becomes: How do the Hawkeyes get back to the top?

Ultimately, the answer has always been the same numbers game.

For years, Penn State has cracked the system by stacking its lineup with high-powered wrestlers and buckets of bonus points.

Now, the Hawkeyes are finally starting to show they’re ready to play that game.

Entering Saturday night’s championship bouts, Iowa — not Penn State, not Ohio State — was the bonus-point king of these NCAA Championships.

The Hawkeyes racked up 30½ bonus points — 10 pins, three technical falls, six major decisions — more than any other team. More than Ohio State’s 24, more than Penn State’s 23½.

By comparison, the 1997 Iowa team that still holds the NCAA team-scoring record registered 11 pins and 34½ bonus points. Last year’s juggernaut Penn State team that crowned five NCAA champions scored 32½ bonus.

This year’s Hawkeyes — again, in a rebuilding year after losing four key seniors including World silver medalist Thomas Gilman and NCAA champ Cory Clark — were right in that bonus-point ballpark. That's why they emerged in what was billed as an eight-team race for third place.

Just two years ago in New York City — when they had three finalists but finished without a team trophy (top four) in fifth — the Hawkeyes were limping up the scoreboard with a mere 10 bonus points. The only pin that whole week was by Gilman in sudden victory.

This week, Iowa's 10 pins (worth two bonus points each) were far and away most in the tournament.

Penn State finished with four; Ohio State three.

What’s gotten into the Iowa program, too often burned in recent years by losing stodgy, low-scoring matches?

Two words.

Spencer Lee.

Iowa's Spencer Lee wrestles Rutgers' Nick Suriano in the 125 pound national championship at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018. Lee won by decision, 5-1.

PREVISOULY:Inside Spencer Lee's endless chase for Olympic greatness

The true freshman phenom has become the leading face of the program, and a leader in character and style inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Room.

Just moments after emphatically punctuating his amazing run here with a 5-1 victory against Rutgers' Nick Suriano in the 125-pound finals, Lee was swarmed by teammates in the Quicken Loans Arena tunnel. The first thing he told them?

"Best teammates in the world," with a huge grin.

MORE:Hawkeye Twitter raves about Spencer Lee following title match

For the week, Lee's match score was 60-4. His 27 team points were the most scored by any wrestler in Cleveland.

“We have some guys that look at rankings too much,” said tell-it-like-it-is Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll, whose fifth-place week entailed three pins and a major decision. His 17 team points were second only to Lee on Iowa's roster this week. “Watching a guy like Spencer Lee can just blow that all away. It’s (really) awesome to see.”

Lee’s powerful march to the finals — tech fall, tech fall, pin, pin — is emblematic of the fearless style the Hawkeyes are developing.

Iowa's Spencer Lee gets a hug from Alex Marinelli after his 5-1 national championship win over Rutgers' Nick Suriano at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

Sophomore 157-pounder Michael Kemerer had two pins this week on his way to fourth; so did 165-pound redshirt freshman Alex Marinelli on his way to sixth.

Even 184-pounder Mitch Bowman, who barely qualified for this tournament and entered with an unimpressive 12-11 record, contributed four team points with a major decision and tech fall this week.

The best way to avoid losing close matches? Don't wrestle close matches.

Go for the throat.

That's what Lee does, from any position.

“He’s the example right now,” said Brandon Sorensen, the only senior of Iowa’s nine qualifiers here, after his fifth-place finish at 149. "He’s going out there, he’s putting points on the board, not holding anything back. That’s great freshman leadership.”

Lee leads, others follow.

He’s the catalyst of a loaded freshman class that mostly red-shirted this past season. It’s a group that includes Max Murin and Jacob Warner — two guys that should be significant contributors in Iowa’s starting lineup next year — probably at 141 and 197 pounds.

“You get a class like that, they push the older guys, too,” said Sorensen, who next year will be replaced by two-time NCAA qualifier Pat Lugo, an Edinboro transfer who has Hawkeye coaches excited. “These guys are fighting tooth and nail for everything. When you get done with practice it’s, ‘Let’s go to the weight room and hit some sets.’”

Hawkeye wrestling fans can choose to be frustrated by the eight-year NCAA title drought ... or buy into the growth they're seeing along the way.

This feels like the most encouraging spot the program’s been in a long, long time.

In terms of a positive culture, in terms of an attacking style.

“It’s just showing that’s the way want to wrestle,” Kemerer said. “Guys are going out there and doing it. It’s not just talking about it anymore.”

Bonus points matter. Iowa's 97 points outdistanced fourth-place Michigan's 80 because its 30½ in bonus crushed Michigan's 11.

Now the trick is to keep building. Instead of five all-Americans — Iowa’s count this week — Brands wants to see 10. Ohio State and Penn State had eight apiece in Cleveland.

Led by Lee, there's a united goal ahead.

“We’re a family. Every single person in that room wants the best for each other. … The whole team is just about improving," Lee said after winning his title. "The coaches are family; they tell us we’re family. Iowa’s our home.

"That’s what I want everyone to know about the University of Iowa; that we’re not these robots or whatever that stigma was. We’re family, and we love each other. We all want to be national champs. And that’s the goal.”

Penn State figures be the king on top of the mountain going into the 2019 NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.

Iowa's Spencer Lee celebrates after winning the 125 pound national championship over Rutgers' Nick Suriano at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

Cael Sanderson brings back four guys with national-title belts plus brings aboard perhaps the best recruiting class in college wrestling history.

Yeah, the challenge remains awfully steep.

Yet so is Iowa's goal.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys coming in; we’ve got one guy leaving. … We’ve got a great team,” Marinelli said. “We’re looking to win it next year."

Whether the Hawkeyes have the firepower to get there next year, we'll see.

But this week in Cleveland was clear proof that they're on the right path.

“There’s a great future ahead of us. I believe it,” Marinelli said. “The whole team believes that there’s a great future. We love to work hard. We love to get pins. We love to break guys.”

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.