IOWA CITY, Ia. — Each time Spencer Lee stepped on the mat during the NCAA Wrestling Championships in March, one of his biggest fans would scream from his seat inside Quicken Loans Arena.
“That’s my roommate!”
And while celebrating Lee's domination through the 125-pound bracket that ended with a stirring national title, Jacob Warner also kept a watchful eye on what would unfold at 197 pounds; his weight.
Warner saw North Carolina State senior Michael Macchiavello get his hand raised as NCAA champion on that Saturday night in Cleveland.
And he thought — rather, he knew: That could’ve been me.
“In my eyes, I think I could have won the tournament. And I think I would have,” Warner says from inside the otherwise empty Iowa wrestling room on a quiet June morning. “But it was my year to redshirt. So I’m not going to sit back and dwell on it.”
Warner doesn’t have to be patient much longer.
The latest young phenom from the Iowa wrestling room will soon be let out of his cage.
'There was no gamble' in recruiting Jacob Warner.
Warner was a fan of the University of Illinois, having grown up in a town of about 3,400 called Tolono — just nine miles south of Champaign. By age 8, Warner was training with his kids club in the wrestling room at Illinois, where former Hawkeye NCAA champion Jim Heffernan is the head coach.
Yet despite the potential uphill recruiting battle, Iowa's coaching staff came to a consensus: They needed Warner to become a Hawkeye.
In fact, lead recruiter and Hawkeye assistant Ryan Morningstar, says now: There was no Plan B.
“He was our guy. We didn’t really recruit anyone around him,” Morningstar says. “A lot of these other programs have backup plans, which can be pretty smart, too. But we knew he was the one that we needed.”
It was Warner or bust.
Iowa, trying to play catch-up with Penn State and Ohio State on the national scene, already had secured a commitment from the nation’s No. 1 pound-for-pound recruit in Lee.
That was big; program-changing.
But one top recruit, even a three-time age-level world champion in Lee, wasn’t alone going to put a dent in Penn State’s recent dominance.
Warner was ranked No. 8 nationally by InterMat; Morningstar says Iowa rated Warner “much better” than No. 8.
Warner checked all the boxes in Iowa’s refurbished recruiting approach.
A dominant, high-paced wrestler at an upper weight.
A clean lifestyle.
And a set of parents, in Sean and Denise Warner, who instilled accountability.
“We knew from the intelligence that we got on him that he’s the real deal,” Iowa 13th-year head coach Tom Brands says from a chair inside his Carver-Hawkeye Arena office. “It’s not one of these things where, man, we were taking a little gamble on him. There was no gamble. That was the right guy for our program.”
A few days before signing day in November 2016, Warner made his decision: He would be a Hawkeye, over the pushes from Ohio State, Illinois and Arizona State.
“I was an Illinois fan first, and Iowa was second,” Warner says. “But as I got older and really got into wrestling, I really started liking Iowa more, just everything about it.
“When they started recruiting me, it was, ‘This is going to be easy.’”
Suddenly, the Hawkeyes had assembled a dynamic recruiting class headlined by Lee, Warner, Max Murin, Myles Wilson and Aaron Costello.
“Not only did we land the big fish (in Lee)," Brands says, "we landed two big fish. And some pretty dang good guys along with them.”
Two tournaments changed everything for Warner.
Warner coming aboard to complete the 2017 recruiting class, Brands says, “was kind of a turning-the-corner thing. That’s when it’s time to start putting the other pieces of the program together.”
First, the building blocks.
While there was little hesitation internally that Lee (once recovered from ACL surgery) would become the first straight-from-high-school freshman in Brands’ 12 years to compete in the varsity lineup, there was equal conviction that Warner would remain a caged redshirt.
He was a dominant wrestler, sure. In high school, he had traveled to Vladikavkaz, Russia, for a pair of multi-week training opportunities, where he learned "out of your box" techniques; and he was a bronze-medal world medalist at the cadet level (ages 16-17).
Plus, he tore through the Illinois high-school ranks, which he described as the easiest segment of his ambitious wrestling calendar, for three state titles. As a senior at Washington Community High, the only points he allowed were intentional escapes. Really.
But Iowa already had a returning NCAA qualifier at 197 pounds in sophomore Cash Wilcke, and while coaches saw immense upside in Warner they understood he needed refinement.
Still, his elite skill quickly became apparent to everyone inside the Iowa wrestling room.
While preparing to compete unattached at the Lindenwood Open in Missouri in mid-November, Warner remembers encouragement from Matt McDonough, then a part of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club (he's now a Wisconsin assistant).
“I remember sitting here,” Warner recalls, “… and McDonough goes, ‘Oh, you should win the bracket.’”
Warner figured a two-time NCAA champion would know better than him.
So he believed McDonough. Yeah, I should win this.
“I just kind of went there and wrestled my tournament,” Warner says.
He charged into the 197-pound finals, where he met third-ranked Willie Miklus of Missouri — a three-time all-American from Southeast Polk who has since transferred to Iowa State. Warner got taken down early but responded to win by major decision, 16-7.
It was a decisive, eye-opening performance.
“That was the moment,” Warner says, “where I was (thinking), ‘Man, I wish I wasn’t redshirting right now.’”
Get him in a Hawkeye singlet now, some pleaded.
Brands stuck to the plan.
“He definitely needed the redshirt," Brands says. "I think there were a lot of people on the outside giving us advice."
The coaching staff thought Warner needed mental toughening, as evidenced a month later at the Midlands Championships in Evanston, Illinois.
Warner let an overtime loss to Wilcke (who would eventually rise to No. 2 in the national rankings) turn into two additional setbacks and a sixth-place finish.
“I wasn’t mature enough to wrestle back and get third,” Warner says. “I was just worried about myself. I was thinking, ‘Poor me.’”
The next week, he saw his ultra-talented roommate get his redshirt pulled.
You can imagine, it was equal parts humbling and challenging for Warner.
That's about the time Warner adjusted his mindset; that if he got taken down in practice, he would shake it off and keep wrestling. When that happens now, he calls those "reps of adversity."
Four weeks after the Midlands losses, Warner went to the 50-degrees-below-zero outpost of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, to compete in the legendary Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix — considered by many to be the toughest freestyle tournament in the world, outside of the Olympics.
There, he won a first-round match.
In May, he absolutely dominated his competition to qualify for the U.S. world junior team (ages 18-20) at 92 kilograms (202 pounds). In just over nine minutes, he won six matches by a combined score of 62-0.
Up next: the World Junior Championships in Trnava, Slovakia, in September.
“In my eyes,” Warner says, “(and) I’m sure McDonough would tell me the same thing … I should win it.”
'Everybody's got a breaking point.'
A quote in Warner’s Twitter bio provides a window into his wrestling mentality.
"In the end, everyone breaks. It’s biology."
That comes from a torture scene in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" and was something his high school coach, Bryan Medlin, would repeat.
"Everybody’s got a breaking point, where they’re going to break," Warner says. "You just have to make sure yours is further along."
Anyone familiar with Warner’s style will start by describing his relentlessly intense hand-fighting.
Going back to age 10, he still remembers his father yelling two words from the corner.
That stuck with Warner, who has made that a centerpiece to his attack. He not only maintains an active pace, but he’ll beat you up, too — trying to pull you down to the mat, where (like Lee) he then goes for knockout moves.
“If you’re snapping for 5½ minutes, that last minute and a half, that guy’s going to be feeling it,” Warner says. “That’s big for me and my wrestling, being able to move and move my hands and keeping that hand-fight high. I know guys can’t hang at that level.”
Maintaining that pace didn’t happen in his early days in the Iowa wrestling room.
Now, he’s challenging veterans of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. And they're feeling pain from their 19-year-old counterpart.
Sammy Brooks, a recent under-23 world team qualifier and two-time all-American for Iowa at 184 pounds, has been a great measuring stick for Warner. Brooks is still getting the better of Warner, Morningstar says, but the young freshman is "catching him."
Warner's also going toe to toe with Nathan Burak, a three-time all-American for Iowa at 197.
“If he’s getting beat, our best guys in the room are having to throw everything they have at him to beat him,” Morningstar says. “And even if they do beat him, they pay the price to beat him. And he moves forward.”
The goals are bold, as they should be.
This is a somewhat shocking, yet telling, fact: Iowa wrestling hasn’t had anyone in the upper (five) weight classes reach an NCAA final since Jay Borschel won the 174-pound title in 2010.
That also happens to be the last time the Hawkeyes were on top of the NCAA team race.
Coincidence? Not really. Penn State, with titles in seven of the last eight years, has demonstrated that multiple, high-scoring national champions is the new norm. It’s the combination Iowa must crack.
Under Brands, Iowa has been a lightweight factory: Daniel Dennis, McDonough, Tony Ramos, Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark and Lee have been either NCAA champions or U.S. world team members.
Producing upper-weight title contenders has been a program shortfall under Brands.
Make no mistake, he is charging into Iowa’s 2018-19 lineup at 197 pounds. During a recent podcast with Trackwrestling.com, Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands said as much: “The communication in the room has been, ‘Jacob Warner is going to be in our lineup.’ That message is clear. … That means somebody’s going to be out of the lineup.”
Wilcke, a two-time NCAA qualifier, plans to make the cut to 184 and figures to compete with Mitch Bowman, who contributed four team points in Iowa's Lee-led third-place NCAA finish in Cleveland, for a lineup spot.
At 197, the national door is open for an elite talent like Warner.
The two 2018 NCAA finalists at 197 were seniors.
Absolutely, Warner could finish atop the all-American stand at the 2019 NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.
“He’s going to step in next year and a be a contender right away, no question,” Morningstar says. “… He beat all-Americans throughout his redshirt year. And he’s done nothing but get better since he’s been here."
The best NCAA finish by a 197-pounder in Brands’ Iowa tenure is fourth.
Warner knows Hawkeye wrestling fans have higher expectations than that. They’re hungry to get back on top of college wrestling.
His message to them: So are we.
“Their expectations aren’t going to be any higher than mine,” he says.
While he preps for a world freestyle championship, the Brandses are making sure he's staying sharp in folkstyle, too. After Warner returns from Slovakia in late September, the college season will be right around the corner.
When that begins in November, Warner confidently says that he’ll be the man to beat at 197 pounds — even as a freshman.
Why not? His freshman roommate showed it can be done.
While the Hawkeyes don’t have another Spencer Lee on the roster, Warner might be the closest thing to it.
“I want to be a four-time, undefeated national champ," Warner says. "That should be everybody’s goal. That’s what I’m going out to do.”
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.