Leistikow: Season-defining 28 days are here for Hawkeye wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Welcome to the only month of college wrestling that really matters.

These 11 months since the last NCAA Championships? Sure, all of them were important in a grueling sport built around tireless training and rigid self-discipline.

But for the fans and the athletes themselves, they've all been pointing to this.

“It’s a great time. March is a fun season,” undefeated Iowa 165-pounder Alex Marinelli said. “They call it March Madness, but I call it 'March Mat-ness.'”

Spencer Lee, Iowa's reigning 125-pound NCAA champion, can make a statement Sunday by dominating unbeaten Nick Piccininni of Oklahoma State.

Marinelli, a sophomore, said he’s ready for his second go-round. The message inside the Iowa wrestling room, no matter the point on the calendar, is to focus on the next day, the next match. But now the stakes raise for the Hawkeyes — who overpowered a mundane schedule to date but now dive into the defining 28 days of their season.

“It’s going to ramp up real quick,” said fourth-ranked 197-pounder Jacob Warner, a freshman who went unbeaten in Big Ten Conference matches. “I’ve just got to make sure everything else is in line, too — my schoolwork, my social life … so I can focus as much attention on wrestling as I can.”

All that remains for the third-ranked Hawkeyes until November …

Sunday’s 2 p.m. dual at second-ranked Oklahoma State …

The March 9-10 Big Ten Conference championships in Minneapolis …

And four weeks from Saturday night, on March 23 in Pittsburgh, 10 hands will be raised as weight-class winners and one first-place team trophy will be hoisted at the NCAA Championships.

So … the Hawkeyes say they're ready. But how ready?

“The thing about this time of year vs. early is funny to me. Because every match is important,” 13th-year head coach Tom Brands said in the usual Iowa company line before acknowledging, “we’re certainly getting to the part of the year where we are peaking.”

If you’re the type of Hawkeye wrestling fan who cares but doesn’t obsess about it until this time of year, here’s the main stuff you need to know:

With knee injuries holding back two of Iowa’s four returning all-Americans from a team that delivered a bonus-point-filled run to third place at the 2018 NCAAs, this is unlikely THE year that Iowa (or anyone else) dethrones Penn State. (Michael Kemerer, up to 174 pounds, is out for the year; and heavyweight Sam Stoll is scuffling through a knee injury.)

But the Hawkeyes have shown to have loads of individual firepower — led by three credible national-title contenders in Spencer Lee (125 pounds), Austin DeSanto (133) and Marinelli (165).

The readiness for March for all three high-octane sophomores — remember, sophomores — will get major measuring-stick tests Sunday in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in a dual that can only be watched in Gallagher-Iba Arena or online with a FloWrestling subscription. (Yeah, that stinks.)

Second-ranked Lee will face unbeaten (No. 4) Nick Piccininni. Hawkeye fans want to see their beloved NCAA champ, who pinned Piccininni in the 2018 NCAA quarterfinals, do more than just win. They want to see him dominate — as he has lately, with five pins in his last six bouts.

Third-ranked DeSanto draws No. 2-ranked freshman Daton Fix in the must-see matchup of the day. The two exciting wrestlers have never met. Fix’s hype out of high school resembled Lee’s, making this a major opportunity for 16-1 DeSanto.

“Just having this match, a tough opponent like him, shows me what I need to work on before the big tournament,” DeSanto said, “when it gets really serious.”

Second-ranked Marinelli has No. 10 Chandler Rogers. Marinelli beat Rogers last year, 5-2. But if Marinelli is to conquer a stacked weight class in Minneapolis then Pittsburgh, he’ll need to show he can completely control these types of opponents.

One more bout that will dictate the Hawkeyes' March readiness is Warner vs. sixth-ranked Preston Weigel at 197. Warner was dealt two humbling losses at the Midlands Championships, but hasn’t lost (or faced a top-10 opponent) since. Can Warner unleash the type of run Lee — his roommate last year — did as a freshman? He's got the potential to reach the NCAA finals.

“I was talking to Terry (Brands) and he said, 'you’re definitely not the same wrestler that was at Midlands,'” Warner said, grinning. "And I’m happy about that.”

Those are the four guys most likely to make big-time noise in Pittsburgh — and will be the nucleus of the 2020 and 2021 Hawkeye teams that should be loaded and, perhaps finally, able to make a legitimate charge at mighty Penn State.

Marinelli said in his first postseason (in which he lost six matches, four in wrestle-backs), he noticed a significant uptick in opponent urgency. He and the Hawkeyes know the time is now to bring the intensity … and show their true identity.

“Like Tom said, our best wrestling is yet to come,” Lee said. “We believe in that. We believe that we peak correctly for the right times.”

The work has been put in.

It’s go time.

“DeSanto, Spencer, myself, we’ve wrestled since we were 4 years old. We know what it’s like at that end of the season, (that) we’ve got to do well,” Marinelli said. “It’s about feeling good and your body feeling good. And we’re there.

"All you’ve got to do is make the weight and go.”

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.