Leistikow: Michael Kemerer, a fitting hero for Iowa's long-awaited takedown of Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On the day that Iowa’s wrestling program finally lifted Penn State off its back … Michael Kemerer just had to be the hero, didn’t he?

The Pennsylvania kid came to the Hawkeyes' rescue Friday night, delivering a decibel-blasting upset of top-ranked Mark Hall at 174 pounds and lifting Iowa to a 19-17 dual win before 14,905 hollering fans.

When Kemerer added a third-period takedown of Hall to take a 10-6 lead, Carver-Hawkeye Arena unleashed a 45-second long, sustained, deafening celebration.


With riding time, Kemerer had slayed the mega-recruit and three-time NCAA finalist by a score of 11-6.

“I was a freshman watching Brooks Simpson pin Iowa State to keep (Dan) Gable’s undefeated Carver-Hawkeye Arena (streak) intact, and that was pretty loud then,” a very happy Iowa coach, Tom Brands, said afterward. “But I would say (this is) at least a tie, and maybe give the nod to Kemerer.”

Michael Kemerer has his hand raised after an 11-6 upset of top-ranked Mark Hall.

To say it was fitting would be an understatement.

Kemerer became the first true blue-chip Pennsylvania recruit to pick the Hawkeyes, way back in October of 2014. He and Kaleb Young began what became the Hawkeyes’ Pennsylvania pipeline.

Kemerer led the way then for the Hawkeye program resurgence.

But to get them over the top of Penn State for the first time on the mat in five years, he had to lead them again. A relentless pace caused Hall to visibly run out of gas. It was the match of the year for Iowa and maybe the match of Kemerer’s life (so far).

“It’s a blur to me right now,” said Kemerer, who is the type of high-character guy you’d want your daughter to marry. “I’d have to go back and watch the match. It’s just believing in what God’s given me and just letting it happen.”

Kemerer said he didn’t notice the crowd’s booming crescendo at the end of his match. But when he does rewatch it, he’ll notice what was perhaps the biggest celebration of all, occurring right behind Brands.

Assembled Iowa wrestlers were jumping with mat-side jubilation. There might not have been two more happy Hawkeyes than Spencer Lee and Max Murin, two more Pennsylvanians from the Young Guns Wrestling Club who followed Kemerer and Kaleb Young to Iowa City.

Alex Marinelli, whose 165-pound loss to top-ranked Vincenzo Joseph had No. 1 Iowa in a 14-10 team hole to the No. 2 Nittany Lions, was the first to greet Kemerer after a win that’ll make him the new No. 1 at 174.

“People have been talking about how close we are all year,” Kemerer said. “It’s not an act. It’s real.”

There certainly are things to be worried about from an Iowa perspective. The knee injury suffered by 133-pounder Austin DeSanto looks concerning.

Kemerer took notice of that, too. He earlier felt a lot of negative energy in Carver-Hawkeye. Terry Brands’ argument with officials that cost Iowa a team point, DeSanto’s medical forfeit and Carter Happel’s loss by technical fall turned Iowa’s 5-0 lead into an alarming 11-4 deficit.

Kemerer retreated to the second-floor wrestling room, rather than watch things unfold. Upstairs, he hung out with friends and tried to clear his mind, ahead of his upcoming showdown with Hall.

“You care so much about these guys. You see them lose and whether you know it or not, you can kind of wear that,” Kemerer said. “For me, it was, ‘Hey I am going to get out of there and relax,’ and be ready when the time came.”

It worked.

And it proved to be an important act of maturity that reflects the growth of this Iowa team.

This was just one night. Kemerer knows that. So does Brands.

Penn State, winner of eight of the last nine NCAA titles, didn’t go down without a fight Friday. And you know Cael Sanderson's guys will bring their "A" game in March. They always do.

But this was worth a celebration.

For the first time since 2015, Iowa got the better of mighty Penn State on the wrestling mat.

"It means a lot. If anything, it’s just (about) respect to Penn State with how good they’ve been, how dominant they’ve been,” Kemerer said in a deferential, classy quote. “We beat them in the dual meet today, but we’re going to have to beat them at Big Tens and we’re going to have to beat them at nationals."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.