Leistikow: An understandable threat, but a stinging end for Hawkeye athletics

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Luka Garza (55) never got to experience a postseason game in what was a junior season for the ages.

INDIANAPOLIS — Working ahead for next week’s originally scheduled NCAA Wrestling Championships, I had interviewed with Dan Gable, about what it would mean for him — the grand architect of Iowa wrestling’s two-plus decades of national dominance — to see the Hawkeyes get back on top again.

“I hurt for them to win it,” he said to begin our half-hour conversation.

He went on to tell a story about the day his wife, Kathy, popped into the Iowa wrestling offices this past fall. (A legend like Gable, 71, still gets mail at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.) Tom Brands, the Hawkeyes’ 14th-year wrestling coach and Gable protégé, invited Kathy into his office and asked her if she wanted anything.

Why yes, she said, I do.

“Tom, come April, I want to walk into this office,” she said, “and I want to see a (2020) national championship trophy sitting right here on this desk.”

That scene was how this was supposed to end for Hawkeye wrestling. The long-awaited, triumphant NCAA takedown of Penn State (and everyone else) for Iowa’s first NCAA team title since 2010 would be oh-so-sweet and maybe even overpowering.

But, as we all know now, that’s not how it did end.

It instead ended with a two-sentence statement Thursday afternoon from the NCAA, that all winter and spring sports championships would be canceled due to ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

As much understanding as there is about the coronavirus threats, this is an especially painful gut punch to not only everyone associated with Iowa wrestling but all discontinued Hawkeye sports.

If you throw in football’s 10-3 record, the 2019-20 calendar year was building to be the most successful at Iowa since 1990-91 — when football reached the Rose Bowl, both basketball teams got to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the wrestlers won an NCAA title.

In women’s basketball, a storybook season was on track to continue with the Hawkeyes hosting NCAA Tournament games next week.

But now, the season ends with a 23-7 record. Seniors Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and Amanda Ollinger end their careers with the sour taste of an opening-round loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament.

Lisa Bluder’s statement was filled with grace and perspective, but she struck the right notes by saying, “It is a shocking and unprecedented way to end a season. I feel especially sad for our seniors that will not get to wear the Iowa uniform again. They have given so much.”

Men’s basketball, same deal.

As Iowa’s traveling contingent killed time in downtown Indianapolis awaiting their evening flight, the discussion themes were consistent: A feeling of emptiness, especially for seniors Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn. This Iowa team abruptly saw its upstart season end with a 20-11 record. This was a collection of players capable of reaching the program's first Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament since 1999, considering they posted a national-best seven victories against ranked opponents.

But they never got the chance.

And what about Luka Garza? The Big Ten player of the year was having a season for the ages, and that’s now over, too. Garza’s 740 points were already a school record, but the ultra-driven junior center was just about to hit the nation’s biggest basketball stage. Instead, his final moment of a phenomenal season was his shot attempt getting blocked in the last second of a two-point loss at Illinois on Sunday night.

The wrestling piece of the equation stings on so many levels.

Unless some future eligibility concessions are made, 125-pounder Spencer Lee will no longer have a chance to become the first four-time NCAA champion in Iowa history. Senior Pat Lugo’s final shot at his first title was eliminated. He was the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds heading to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Alex Marinelli was the No. 1 seed at 165 pounds for the second straight year, but now is down to one more shot at an NCAA title. Michael Kemerer didn’t compete for 20 months as he recovered from knee and elbow surgeries and was a national-title contender at 174 pounds. Now, he’ll hope to get a sixth year from the NCAA and take one more title swing.

Overall, the Hawkeyes were going to be heavily favored to win the NCAA title. They had the firepower to become just the second team in history to have 10 all-Americans.

“We will process this and move forward, as we always do,” Brands said in his Thursday statement. “Our guys have a lot to be proud of and much more still to accomplish.”

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A less-discussed part of the NCAA decision was the word “spring” — the cancellation of spring sports, too.

Rick Heller’s Iowa baseball team was off to a terrific 10-5 start against a rugged schedule with a top-40 national RPI. This was a Hawkeye team that looked to have the tools for a trip to the postseason. But Wednesday’s 3-1 win against Kansas was their final result of 2020.

Coach Renee Gillispie’s attempt to resurrect the Iowa softball program was off to a 17-5 start in her second season. That progress came to a halt Thursday.

Joey Woody’s track and field teams have been among the best in the Big Ten of late. The NCAA Indoor Championships were supposed to begin Friday.

Up and down every lineup of every sport, it all hurts.

Of course, we all should understand the coronavirus threats are bigger than sports. By taking these measures now, the hope is that sports and normalcy will have a better chance of returning sooner rather than later. 

But it’s OK to be sad about the lost opportunities, too, and an abrupt end to what was going to be one of the most successful years in Hawkeye athletics history.

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.