Leistikow: Spencer Lee-led Hawkeyes are trending up, but can they track down Penn State?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — At the podium in the minutes following his fantastic run to a 125-pound NCAA championship as a true freshman, Spencer Lee took the opportunity to spread the word about a new era of Iowa wrestling that he felt was on the way.

“We’re a family. And we love each other,” Lee said as his press conference wound to a close in Cleveland. “We all want to be national champs, and that’s the goal. That’s what we want to be known as.”

From left, the No. 1 guys for Iowa wrestling in 2018-19: Sophomore Spencer Lee (at 125 pounds), head coach Tom Brands (in his 13th year) and senior Sam Stoll (at heavyweight).

Those words were befitting of the offseason that was to come. The Hawkeyes landed instant-contributor transfers, like Drexel's Austin DeSanto at 133 pounds, and some of the top high school talent in the country in the recruiting classes of 2019 and 2020.

And so, we arrive at Hawkeye wrestling media day to understand that the pieces are coming together, that the culture inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex is strong.

“We just kind of kept propelling everyone up, and now we’re getting these great recruits, young guys committing,” Lee said Monday. “I think the whole shape of the program is getting to the spot where we want to be, and how we want to be perceived.”

► More from Monday's media day:Austin DeSanto came to Iowa to win — both individually and with a team

The program’s arrow is pointing up.

Recent talk of tracking down Penn State  was just talk. The Nittany Lions have been curb-stomping the competition, with seven NCAA titles in the last eight years.

Now there’s something to the talk — and if not this year, maybe the next.

As you might imagine, Hawkeye wrestlers bristle at the idea that they’ll have to wait two more years for a realistic run at hoisting the first-place NCAA team trophy for the first time since 2010.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, maybe next year, maybe next year,’” said Michael Kemerer, a two-time all-American at 157 pounds who has bulked up and starts his junior season as the sixth-ranked guy at 174. “The thing is, we’re ready to win right now.”

In his 13th year, head coach Tom Brands has assembled a lineup packed with star power and potential.

He’s got hammers at both ends — with Lee ranked No. 1, of course, at 125; and No. 1 Sam Stoll at heavyweight.

Lee will be an overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champion; top wrestlers (including reigning runner-up Nick Suriano) have scattered to 133 to avoid him.

Stoll’s No. 1 ranking is largely based on him being the top returning wrestler at his weight (he was fifth in Cleveland). We'll know more after seeing how he's recovered from a gunshot wound to his surgically repaired left knee in June.

Stoll said Monday the knee feels “great” and he’ll be "ready to go" after he serves a one-match suspension.

Sophomore Alex Marinelli, at 165 pounds, is the only other Hawkeye ranked in TrackWrestling’s preseason top five (at No. 4).

Iowa's Alex Marinelli talks with reporters during Hawkeye wrestling media day on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

By comparison, Penn State has three two-time national champions returning in Jason Nolf (157 pounds), Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Bo Nickal (moving up to 197) and another one-timer in Mark Hall (174). At least three other Nittany Lions have a realistic shot to wrestle for an NCAA title on Saturday night in Pittsburgh in mid-March.

Those are big-time answers.

Iowa still has questions about whether it's ready to make a credible run for the top.

How high on the podium can transfers DeSanto (133) and Pat Lugo (149) climb? Both have looked good behind the scenes.

How big will the splashes be from highly regarded red-shirt freshmen Max Murin (141) and Jacob Warner (197)? Warner has the potential to make the NCAA finals.

Will Kaleb Young (157), Kemerer (174) and Cash Wilcke (184) scuffle or thrive at their new weights?

Consider the lineup’s lone senior encouraged by what he’s seen in the offseason.

“When you have an off day — not a structured workout — and you have 30 or 40 guys in the room, scrapping hard, without a coach over top of them telling them what to do,” Stoll said, “you know you have a good thing going on in the room.”

The Hawkeyes are excited to see what’s next. The early NCAA math suggests they’re roughly 35 points behind Penn State in projected finishes. But much can happen over the next four months.

Iowa is banking on its upside — its freshened culture.

The only lineup spots for Iowa that are the same from last year’s third-place team at NCAAs are Lee, Marinelli and Stoll.

“The challenge is great,” Brands said, responding to a Penn State question. "They try to win a national title by as large a margin as possible every year. We try to do the same. We've (been) on the short end of that stick. We know we have work to do. We're doing it.”

The common thinking is that Iowa is among the teams battling for second this year, and that after Penn State loses Nolf and Nickal, then maybe 2020 will be the year for Iowa to reclaim its spot on top. That assumes Lee doesn’t take the year off to train for the Olympics (something he said he hasn’t yet discussed with Tom and Terry Brands).

But that’s the outside talk.

“That’s their opinion," Lee said.

On the inside, the Hawkeyes believe their time is coming sooner.

“I think we’re good enough to win the nationals if everybody does their part,” Warner said. “I think a lot of people write us off and look at Penn State, but I think we’re right there. We’ve got a great team.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.