CHAD LEISTIKOW

Leistikow: 3rd-period dramatics from Austin DeSanto, Tony Cassioppi save Iowa's Day 1 at Big Tens

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa is still swinging at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, even without its two Murrysville sluggers.

Minus three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee (who we knew was out for the season after two knee surgeries) and now Michael Kemerer (who medically forfeited) — the duo from Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, who helped turn the program around many years ago — the Hawkeyes may be short on firepower to chop down Penn State or Michigan.

But they’re not out of it.

Michigan is in first place after Day 1 with 116 points and five finalists; Penn State has 111½ and five finalists; Iowa has 109 and four finalists in Austin DeSanto (133 pounds), Jaydin Eierman (141), Alex Marinelli (165) and Tony Cassioppi (heavyweight).

MORE: Why Iowa's Michael Kemerer medically forfeited at Big Ten Championships

Kemerer, who opened the day with a pin and later reaggravated a shoulder injury, will finish sixth at 174 pounds. The good news is that head coach Tom Brands indicated the move was precautionary. Lee’s replacement, Drake Ayala, will finish no better than seventh at 125. Considering Lee and Kemerer are defending Big Ten champions, that’s a lot of lost team points that Hawkeye backers counted on before the season.

So, give Iowa credit for qualifying all 10 wrestlers for the NCAA Championships. That’s a done deal and always a key part of the Big Ten math.

And give it credit for some third-period dramatics that helped save its Day 1 of the two-day tournament.

Austin DeSanto withstood a chippy match against Illinois' Lucas' Byrd to pull out a 4-3 win with a late takedown.

Let’s start with DeSanto, who was in a tense battle with third-seeded Lucas Byrd of Illinois — a wrestler Brands called stingy. Down 3-2 in the third period, the fifth-year senior scored a takedown with 16 seconds left on Mat 3. That was right in front of the huge section of Iowa parents and fans, and they were whooping it up after DeSanto whirled his way into the finals for the second straight year against Penn State’s top-ranked Roman Bravo-Young.

This was a good example of third-period composure from DeSanto and an ability to keep a calm head. This was a bit of a chippy match from the start, with an Illinois challenge in the opening seconds.

“He never has a plan. He just wrestles hard. He did his job,” Brands said. “The thing about DeSanto is his awareness is so good, he puts it in the bin.”

MORE: As his Iowa career nears its end, Austin DeSanto opens up in rare interview

Another Penn State-Iowa final will follow Sunday at 141, with Penn State’s Nick Lee vs. Iowa’s Eierman, who benefited from Sebastian Rivera’s medical forfeit in the semis.

But back to the heroics.

Marinelli certainly put himself in a tense situation against third-seeded Dean Hamiti of Wisconsin. Marinelli snapped a 1-1 tie with a takedown just over a minute to go in the third period, then hung of for a 3-2 win. He’ll get fourth-seeded Cameron Amine of Michigan in Sunday’s final, an opponent Marinelli defeated, 2-0, a year ago.

Marinelli entered as the No. 2 seed but has a chance to become a four-time Big Ten champion.

“Let’s put another championship in his belt, how’s that? Finalist is great. Good work on Day 1,” Brands said. “Now let’s put an emphasis on Day 2.”

And the best was last for Iowa, as Cassioppi pulled a figurative rabbit out of his singlet by forcing overtime with four seconds left in regulation. Down 4-2, he scored a reversal off a scramble against Penn State’s Greg Kerkvliet. Then, Cassioppi posted an aggressive takedown 20 seconds in sudden victory for a rewarding 6-4 win.

Tony Cassioppi delivered a dramatic finish and a 6-4 win that could mean a lot in two weeks.

Here’s how big that maneuver was: Cassioppi now is all but guaranteed to be on the opposite side of the NCAA bracket from Minnesota titan Gable Steveson, at no worse than a No. 3 seed. Also, the win was essentially a 14-point team swing for Iowa — seven extra points for Cassioppi that Penn State didn’t get. The day would’ve felt a lot different without that terrific effort from the Hawkeye heavyweight.

"He converted," Brands said. "That shot shows he can go earlier on that."

And if you want to talk about more third-period dramatics, how about Kemerer? His harnessed left shoulder got dinged in the heat of his quarterfinal match with Ohio State’s Ethan Smith. Yet he still mustered enough strength to dig up a late takedown for a 5-4 win.

The Hawkeyes have a lot to wrestle for on Sunday. Max Murin (149), Kaleb Young (157) and Jacob Warner (197) can get as high as third place. Ayala and Abe Assad (184) will wrestle for seventh. It’ll take a tremendous day, but it’s not out of the question that more heroics are yet to come as Iowa aims to win a third straight Big Ten title.

"We're not going to Detroit right now," Brands said. "We've got another day of wrestling."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.