‘This team can be good’: Iowa State wrestling enters 2018-19 season brimming with optimism
AMES, Ia. — This is an obvious truth, but let’s start here so there’s no misunderstanding: The Iowa State wrestling program has been bad in recent years.
Kyven Gadson won an NCAA title in 2015. The next year, the Cyclones had three All-Americans.
But the year after, just three qualifiers. And last year? Just one: Jarrett Degen, who reached the bloodround at 149 pounds.
Now, for a more nuanced truth: Kevin Dresser, now in his second year as the Iowa State head coach, believes the Cyclones are moving in the right direction — and quickly.
“I’ll tell you what, we’re real excited right now,” Dresser said Tuesday at the team’s media day. “I think this team can be good by the end of the year.
“I don’t think we’re ready to be great-great yet, but I feel like if we progress, we can make something of ourselves and make some noise at the end of the year.”
The rebuilding process in college wrestling is an arduous, frustrating task. It is an uphill battle to take a program from the bottom back to prominence, even one with a great history like Iowa State. In short, it takes work, time and patience.
Dresser asked for all three in return for results when he arrived in Ames a year and a half ago. His first year was, in a word, rough. Iowa State went 8-10 in duals, a step up from the 1-12 season in 2016-17, but at least eight wrestlers defected from the program. Even more, Dresser, in a stunning move, fired associate head coach Mike Zadick.
But the Cyclones received some good fortune in the form of strong recruiting and transfers that will impact the program both immediately and down the road. They enter the 2018-19 season with a talented lineup that brings with it modestly large expectations — not just this year, but beyond.
Consider some of the pieces for this winter:
- Alex Mackall, a talented Rutgers transfer, at 125 pounds
- Austin Gomez, a Junior world-teamer at 133
- Ian Parker, who won big matches at 133 and 141 last season when healthy
- Degen, the lone returning NCAA qualifier
- Marcus Coleman, a wildly-talented 174-pounder from nearby Ames High
- Willie Miklus, a three-time All-American who transferred in from Missouri, at 197
- Gannon Gremmel, a U.S. Open Champion at heavyweight this past spring
Don’t forget Chase Straw (at 157) and Sam Colbray (now at 184), who both made big strides last year; or Ryan Leisure and Ethan Andersen, guys who will push to start at 141 and 285, respectively; or David Carr, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit last year who could make an immediate impact.
“We’ve got a lineup that I think the Iowa State fan base is going to get excited about,” Dresser said. “There’s not many holes. If we stay healthy, there’s very few holes.
“Obviously last year, we had some holes, so you always knew when to go to the bathroom during duals. Hopefully this year, we keep them all in Hilton and where they need to be.”
Here’s the wet blanket: the Cyclones have a lot of guys who still need to prove themselves.
Mackall still hasn’t really gotten a taste of true Division I wrestling. Same for Coleman, who rolled up 24 wins — including 17 in bonus-point fashion — in various open tournaments last year. Gremmel and Gomez are both solid wrestlers, but their success this summer came in freestyle, which is similar but still different from folkstyle.
There’s more: For all the strides Straw and Colbray made, neither won more than 18 matches last year, and 165 looks like the weakest spot in the lineup — Dresser said Brady Jennings, who went 14-8 last season, will start there, but Skyler St. John will be a factor once he gets healthy.
“He’s probably a couple of weeks away,” Dresser said of St. John, adding that he’s coming back from a knee injury. “But those two will battle it out when it gets down to the nitty-gritty. You know, both of them made a lot of improvement.
“People that don’t know anything about Iowa State will look at it and say that’s our weak weight, but I think those two guys are going to have something to say about that. I’m going to challenge them and put that chip on their shoulder so they can show everybody that’s not the case.”
But if that’s the lone question mark for these Cyclones, then they’re in a much better position than they’ve been in recent years. The other thing to note — of the 10 potential starters in the lineup, only Miklus is a senior, which means that talent is going to be here for a while.
“The things that Dresser has going on, and the new guys they’re bringing into the program, like Carr and Gomez and a bunch of young guys that are tough and chomping at the bit to make a name for themselves,” Miklus said, “I mean, they want to win national titles and world titles.
“That’s an uncommon thing that they’ve got going on in here. It’s definitely exciting.”
There's an energy that maybe hasn't been there in years past. The rebuild continues, but this Iowa State team will be fun and competitive this season. Trackwrestling ranked them No. 23 to start the season with just three ranked wrestlers.
Expect the first number to shrink and the second one to grow, even if only a little, as the year unfolds.
“We know that we can be a really good team,” Gomez said. “We have the guys to be a top 15, top 10 team this year. It’s just, do we really want it? When it comes down to it, we know that we can do it.
“Coach Dresser tells us every day that this team is capable of doing a lot of great things, but we have to put in the work.”
Austin Gomez injury update
The presumed starter for Iowa State at 133 pounds, Gomez made news over the summer when he qualified for the Junior men’s freestyle world team. He made more news when he pulled out of the competition in August because of a knee injury.
“I hurt it this summer, just wrestling,” Gomez said Tuesday. “I tweaked it a little bit, but I taped it up and wrestled. Then, one practice, I was drilling and like 20 minutes in, I heard a pop. My knee went the wrong way, so did my foot. And I knew something happened.”
Dresser said Gomez is back to wrestling live and “is looking great” in practice. He expects Gomez to re-join the lineup Nov. 11, when the Cyclones host Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville at C.Y. Stephens Auditorium.
“I’d like to be back for the Cyclone Open (Nov. 3),” Gomez said, “but I’ve been told SIUE.”
Wrestle-offs? Sort of.
Among the previously-mentioned weights where there’s competition — primarily 165, between Jennings and St. John, and 285, between Gremmel and Andersen, an Oklahoma State transfer and former Southeast Polk star — Dresser said he’ll decide who starts based on the results from upcoming competitions.
The schedule features plenty of open tournaments in the first two months. There’s the Cyclone Open on Nov. 3, the Lindenwood Open on Nov. 17 and the UNI Open on Dec. 8. He plans on sending multiple guys to all of them to see how they fare.
From there, he’ll make the final calls on who’s in and out of the starting lineup.
“There’s a lot to be decided yet,” Dresser said. “We’re going to really use the Cyclone Open as the first round of our wrestle-offs. I’m a competition guy. If we have to put guys in here, toe-to-toe, later in the year, we’ll do that, but that’s probably not a move I’ll make until later in the year.
“I like to see how guys compete, and they’re going to get to compete in a couple of opens, so I got all kinds of wrestle-off opportunities here with real refs and real competitive situations.”
Will David Carr redshirt this season?
The No. 2 overall wrestler in the 2018 class (according to Flowrestling) joined the Cyclones as the crown jewel of a decorated recruiting haul. He’s a true freshman with loads of talent and potential. He’d be a strong All-American candidate at 157 pounds this season.
But Dresser said he’ll redshirt.
Well, he said he’s 98 percent sure Carr will redshirt.
“Common sense tells you that a 20-year-old David Carr as a freshman is going to be better than a 19-year-old David Carr as a freshman,” Dresser said. “That kid loves wrestling. He’s a total sponge. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
Carr will get his chance to compete (unattached) this season at a number of open tournaments. The big one comes January 1-2 at the Southern Scuffle, widely considered one of the toughest midseason tournaments of the season. Teams such as Penn State, North Carolina State and Oklahoma State, among others, are routinely in attendance.
For Carr, that means Penn State’s Jason Nolf and N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay, last year’s NCAA finalists at 157, will both be there, barring unforeseen circumstances. Carr said all the right things Tuesday with regard to his redshirt, but couldn’t hide his smile when he brought up the Scuffle.
“I’m really excited for the Scuffle,” he said. “I’m going to go out there, and like any tournament, I want to win it. If I win the Scuffle, I think it’ll show the coaches that I’m ready.
“If I win the Scuffle, don’t be surprised if they pull my redshirt.”
“The Southern Scuffle will be a good test,” Dresser said, “but it’s more to see how he competes at a real high level, and that’s the highest level. So what do you do as a coach if he goes and has a great, great weekend? Do you sit him or what do you do?
“Right now, I can tell you that we’re 98 percent sure that we’re going to keep him where we’re at — and I say that 98 percent meaning it, that we’re going to keep him as a redshirt and let him progress.”
Time will tell.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.