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Wrestling: As Iowa State hosts Bucknell, an opportunity awaits Valley grad Joel Shapiro

Cody Goodwin
The Des Moines Register

AMES, Ia. — Top-level wrestlers have always found unique ways to manage nerves before big matches. There’s music, meditation, even corny jokes right before they step onto the mat.

For Joel Shapiro, he, uh … throws up.

“I’m nervous before every match, no matter what,” Shapiro said during Iowa State’s media day last month, “I have to do it before matches, or I’ll do it during.”

Wait. During matches?

“It’s really embarrassing,” he said and laughed. “But I need to get that nervous energy out.”

However irregular, this tension-reducing technique works. Shapiro is now a redshirt freshman for the Iowa State wrestling program and is expected to start at 197 pounds when the Cyclones host Bucknell on Sunday at Hilton Coliseum in the team's first dual of the 2019-20 season.

Iowa State's Joel Shapiro poses for a portrait during Iowa State Wrestling's media day on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 in Ames.

Expectations are high for Iowa State, now in Year 3 under head coach Kevin Dresser. The Cyclones enter Sunday ranked No. 9 nationally in Trackwrestling’s Division I poll. All 10 of the projected postseason starters are ranked at their respective weights.

At the team’s media day last month, Dresser said “it’s time for Iowa State to be a top-10 team, and then, eventually, progress into a top-five team.” A solid win over Bucknell — and Iowa State is heavily favored — should be considered a strong first step.

“Bucknell is going to be scrappy,” Dresser said this week. “Those are (Pennsylvania) boys, and those PA boys know how to wrestle, especially on the mat. This isn’t a layup or a gimme. We have to understand that and be ready to go.”

Shapiro, who’s ranked No. 23 at 197, is expected to wrestle Drew Phipps, who’s ranked 19th. Phipps is 3-0 this year and is a returning NCAA Championships qualifier. He went 1-2, losing to both Iowa’s Jacob Warner and then-Iowa State wrestler Willie Miklus, both All-Americans.

As such, it’s an opportunity for Shapiro that’s been a long time coming. And he hopes it's the first of many.

Back in high school, when his puking practices first took hold, Shapiro blossomed into one of the country’s finest wrestling recruits. He won 174 matches and two state titles while at West Des Moines Valley and was a consensus top-50 recruit in the 2018 class.

While redshirting last year, Shapiro showed he belongs at the Division I level. He went 26-5 while competing unattached. He racked up 17 bonus-point wins, the most on the team — yes, more than David Carr (14), All-Americans Jarrett Degen and Willie Miklus (12 and 13, respectively) and Marcus Coleman, who led all postseason starters with 16.

“I learned that the college season is a big grind, but I think I’m a lot more prepared this year,” Shapiro said. “I also learned that you have to get out from bottom. That’s probably the toughest part of college wrestling. Everyone is so committed to riding on top.”

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Shapiro spent last season at 184. When the offseason hit, Dresser proposed a weight change, either 174 or 197. Shapiro jumped at the chance to bulk up. He saw it as an avenue into the starting lineup after Miklus's eligibility expired.

His debut at his heavier weight came in April at the UWW Junior men’s freestyle national championships. He competed at 92 kilograms (roughly 202 pounds), and went 4-2 to take fourth. It was a solid showing, though not flashy.

His decision to bump up was solidified last weekend when he defeated teammate Francis Duggan 3-1 at the Cyclone Open to earn the starting nod for Sunday. Shapiro can further cement his starting role with a strong performance against Phipps.

“For Shapiro, it’s great to have this opportunity,” Dresser said. “That’s what he needs. I tell these guys all the time, you become famous and get the high seeds only by beating the good guys.

“When you get to Hilton Coliseum and they’ve got a highly-ranked guy, you should be rubbing your hands together. That’s what’s going to get you on the podium, when you go beat somebody important. Go beat their best guy.”

Now, an important disclaimer: Shapiro said he usually only carried out his, uh, vomiting tactics before tournaments, not duals. But his varsity debut before a few thousand inside Hilton? Don’t rule it out.

It helps him wrestle well, and the Cyclones are hoping he wrestles really well all season long.

“I’m going to let it fly,” Shapiro said. “I’m only a redshirt freshman. There’s a lot of older guys out there, but I think I can compete with them all. So I’m going to show them what I’ve got.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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Wrestling: No. 9 Iowa State vs. Bucknell

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa

WATCH: Cyclones.tv/Flowrestling ($)