Leistikow: Of 11 Iowa wrestling seniors, 10 are backups. But they've left a lasting mark.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sometime around 9 p.m. Sunday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, 11 graduating University of Iowa seniors will be honored following the wrestling season’s final dual meet against Oklahoma State.
Only one, Pat Lugo, is part of the top-ranked Hawkeyes’ starting lineup. Some of the 11 never got to experience once in five years what it was like to wrestle a match in front of 10,000 fans at Carver-Hawkeye. Most of them have fought through some mental demons or physical injuries or, more likely, both.
But they all have something very important in common.
They’re finishing the Iowa wrestling race together. And, the more you understand their role in shaping the culture of the 2020 Hawkeyes, they’ve undoubtedly fought the good fight.
“They have owned and learned from their mistakes and have taken direction,” 14th-year head coach Tom Brands says, "and have grown up to the point where they’ve become strong mentors in this program.”
Ask Brands what he is most proud of with this group, and he gives you a number.
That’s a huge class, especially considering in Iowa’s last three senior nights combined have had 11 reach the end. That’s understandable, especially in a sport constrained by 9.9 scholarships to disperse among 30-plus wrestlers.
Iowa wrestling is a grueling, year-round pursuit. It's difficult to make it five weeks, let alone five years.
It’s even more of a mental challenge if you’re not in the lineup, if you're falling short of your dreams. Yet this group of mostly backups paying their own way to school somehow brought a selfless mentality to the Iowa wrestling room and changed the program for the better.
But before we get to the 11, we need to mention a 12th.
He is affectionately referred to by some as “Grandpa Mike.”
“Kemerer’s not listed on here,” associate head coach Terry Brands says, “but he’s always been the biggest leader. He’s always on the mat. He’s a mat rat.”
Michael Kemerer, the nation’s top-ranked 174-pounder, is hoping to have his senior night in 2021. He’ll apply for a medical-hardship waiver and sixth year at Iowa after a 2018-19 season that was lost to surgeries on his right knee and left shoulder.
The first of many blue-chip recruits to arrive from talent-rich Pennsylvania, Kemerer was the type of culture leader the Brands brothers were looking for after a graduating class in 2015 that fell short of expectations both on and off the mat.
Clean lifestyle, a polite-yet-relentless demeanor, a terrific student, a wrestling fanatic.
Kemerer’s infectious example was easy to follow.
As Tom Brands said, “nobody’s going to bat 1.000” in recruiting, and there were a handful of defections. But there was a belief instilled in the majority of young wrestlers that the best way they could get onto the mat was to make each other better.
And even if they didn’t make the lineup in that year’s wrestle-offs, they went back to work. As Terry Brands put it, this senior class has been admirable at arriving to practice “headgear strapped, mouthpiece in and ready to go.”
“They changed the culture of play-hard, party-hard,” he continues. “This is a group that loves to be on the mat.
“On (unscheduled practice) days, we had 30 guys in the wrestling room. You go back a recruiting class or two or three or four or five, you would have a day off and there would maybe be eight to 10 guys in the room.
“That autonomy is everything in this sport. This group really brought that back.”
It’s time to look at the 11.
Four seniors got a 'cup of coffee' … a brief taste of the big-time.
Jeremiah Moody, the team’s class clown (in a good way), is among them. The Cambridge, Wisconsin, native paid out-of-state tuition for five years and wrestled in one Big Ten dual. He won it, at Michigan State on Feb. 2 while subbing for Alex Marinelli at 165 pounds.
Moody can wrestle — he won a junior national freestyle title in 2018. But, Marinelli (ranked No. 2 nationally) is better. Still Moody's smile rarely leaves his face, even as he describes grueling freshman-year “get-tough workouts.”
“I love the grind of staying here for five years,” he says, “pretty much just staying with the fire of Iowa wrestling.”
Keegan Shaw, a Southeast Polk alum, was an admirable fill-in during Iowa’s many injuries at 174 in 2019. He blew out his knee at Nebraska, but finished his 14-4 loss to Mikey Labriola anyway. That would be his last bout as a Hawkeye.
“Great upper-body skills,” Terry Brands says. “Just a tremendous teammate from a practice and academic example.”
Steven Holloway was a 197-pounder from Burlington who became a stopgap heavyweight as a redshirt freshman when Sam Stoll was hurt. He often gave up 50 pounds, but took the mat and often a physical beating, including against guys like Olympic champ Kyle Snyder. Talk about sacrifice.
Jeren Glosser has 56 wins in college, albeit none in the actual Iowa lineup. He went 0-2 as Iowa’s fill-in at 157 as a junior. This season, the Blakesburg native lost by one point to the nation's top-ranked wrestler at 149 at the Midlands Championships.
“Massive leadership from the lifestyle point of view,” Terry Brands says, “and also a guy who could wrestle.”
Three guys never wrestled a varsity match, but each has a neat side story.
There’s Sam Cook, the football transfer from Fort Dodge. He was often injured but when coaches would ask how his knee was doing, he’d often say, “Getting better, coach.”
“Most guys in the country probably had no business being on the mat, let alone getting themselves motivated and suited up,” Terry Brands says. “He’d throw on that knee brace every single day to go out and grind with (Tony) Cassioppi or (Jacob) Warner … Every day. And not a peep out of this mouth.”
There’s Aaron Meyer, a Southeast Polk product and younger brother of former Hawkeye Alex, who never reached his wrestling goals but certainly made his collegiate mark. Aaron was Iowa’s lone male nominee (any sport) for the Big Ten’s prestigious Wayne Duke Postgraduate Scholarship “for exceptional achievement in academics, athletics and civic service.”
And then there’s Danny Murphy. Often injured, the Colorado native decided he wanted to pursue a military career after Iowa. So, he’s headed to the Naval Academy next. With those honorable pursuits in mind, Iowa coaches wanted Murphy to get healthy for his next chapter and have kept him off the mat his senior year.
“He’s been awesome. He’s a workout machine,” Terry Brands says. “He was a great fit for here. He found his path. … How could you argue with that?”
Four seniors have been regular starters; three lost their jobs but didn't pout.
Only Pat Lugo, who is ranked No. 4 at 149 pounds, has stayed in the lineup. The Edinboro transfer arrived with instant respect, having beaten previous 149-pounder Brandon Sorensen in the past, and has continued to be an asset to Iowa's NCAA title hopes and culture.
Vince Turk was within two wins of the all-American stand at 141 pounds in 2018. The Illinois product faced personal adversity and has responded to go 15-1 as a fifth-year senior in non-varsity events.
“He probably could have gone somewhere else, and he didn’t,” Terry Brands says. “He stuck it out. I think the reason why he did, in addition to believing in himself, is he knows this is the best place for him.”
How about Cash Wilcke? The three-time NCAA qualifier from Battle Creek lost his 184-pound spot to true freshman Abe Assad this season. He hasn’t been a baby about it, his coaches say. Assad is Iowa’s best option at 184, and Wilcke understands that.
And lastly, Paul Glynn.
There might not be a more respected guy in the Iowa wrestling room. The 133-pounder from Bettendorf native is 28-24 in his career that included being the varsity starter in 2018. He is one of Spencer Lee’s most reliable sparring partners. And maybe most impressively, he didn’t bail when Austin DeSanto came aboard in the summer of ’18 as a Drexel transfer to grab his lineup spot.
“It’s always tough when you don’t get what you want in this sport,” Glynn says, “but my five years at Iowa have been nothing but great. Success is something that’s earned. You get what you earn, not what you deserve. So that’s on me if I’m not the starter.”
So, what’s next?
The Brandses are going to miss these 11.
“The other night, after the Minnesota meet, one of them was hanging around and had a sadness about him … just like, ‘This is the end. And I’m not the guy,’” Tom Brands relays. “But what you can hang your hat on, stud, is that you acted like you were the guy. You were front-line support. You were there when we needed you for depth. You made weight. There was never discipline issues.”
And that, in essence, was what this senior class was about.
Showing up. Tireless support. Changing the culture.
And … maybe finishing with a national championship.
You’d better believe these guys are invested in what happens next. Most of them arrived before the 2016 season. None have experienced a Big Ten title or NCAA title.
If Iowa can finish on top in 2020, each of these 11 seniors deserve more than a spot in the team photo. They'll go down as catalysts for a culture that needed to change and did change.
“Their impressions will always have been here,” Terry Brands says. “Their personality is forever a part of this wrestling program.”
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.
No. 1 Iowa (12-0) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (13-2)
Time, TV: 7 p.m. Sunday, Big Ten Network (Shane Sparks and Jim Gibbons on the call)
Matches to watch: No. 1 Spencer Lee (Iowa) vs. No. 4 Nick Piccininni at 125 pounds; Lee was pinned by Piccininni last year in Stillwater before beating him, 11-4, at the NCAAs. … No. 4 Pat Lugo (Iowa) vs. No. 3 Boo Lewallen at 149. Each wrestler has just one loss. … No. 8 Abe Assad (Iowa) vs. No. 14 Anthony Montalvo. Assad is eyeing his first win since Jan. 24 in a battle of freshmen.
Tom Brands says: On last year’s 27-12 loss at Oklahoma State? “They beat us up in Stillwater, and it’s not lost on many people upstairs if any. We’ll be getting ready for 10 matches.”