Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands discusses the upcoming 2017-18 season. Cody Goodwin/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tom Brands nestled into his seat before a throng of media on Wednesday afternoon and smiled. He knew the questions that were coming. and he decided to meet them head-on.
For example: Is he Iowa wrestling team ‘rebuilding’ this season? Or simply ‘reloading?’
“This is a ...” Brands began, as if pondering the question out loud, but only for a moment.
He continued: “When you look at losing five All-Americans, five starters — when you look at that, we’re going to have to rebuild. But it’s also a reload, where we have some very capable guys that come to work the right way every day.”
Such is the Hawkeyes' approach. Only two All-Americans — senior Brandon Sorensen and sophomore Michael Kemerer — and two other national qualifiers return from a squad that placed fourth at the NCAA Championships. But plenty of youthful talent crowds the practice room inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.
Gone are multi-time All-Americans in Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark and Sammy Brooks, but star recruits such as Spencer Lee and Jacob Warner have been impressive early on. Vince Turk, healthy at last, appears to be the guy at 141 pounds. Alex Marinelli and Kaleb Young no longer have to field questions about the coaching staff potentially pulling their redshirts. Upper-weight reinforcement may come around or after December in the form of Pat Downey. Sam Stoll is also healthier.
All of it leaves Brands feeling excited, yet antsy. He brought up the word "patience" unprompted on Wednesday, so as to remind himself and his fans. There are a lot of moving parts that could affect how the 2017-18 lineup looks, both in November and in March.
“You're going to have to be patient because it's November,” Brands said. “It's November, and we have some things that are going on that you won't see our best team right away. … This is the first time where I've approached a season like this where the exciting things are the unknowns."
“And I'll say it again: There's a lot of life and energy in that room, and when you have that, good things are happening. And even on days where, you know what, an individual might be having an off-day, they look at it the right way.”
The wrestle-offs last Saturday provided some insight into what the early-season lineup might look like, but questions still linger. The unknown has caused others to expect a full-blown down year from the Hawkeyes, who are ranked no higher than seventh in any of the major wrestling polls.
Time will tell if Iowa can win an NCAA trophy — that is, a top-four team finish at the national tournament — for the 10th time in Brands’ tenure.
Could Spencer Lee wrestle this year? Possibly.
Brands was coy about whether his star recruits would strap it up this season. He hinted that there was a possibility both Spencer Lee and Jacob Warner could come out of redshirt and compete this season, but he didn’t explicitly say what was needed for either to happen.
Lee came to Iowa from Murrysville, Pennsylvania. The two-time junior freestyle world champion is one of the most electric high school wrestlers and highest-regarded recruits in recent memory. He is recovering from an ACL injury and was wearing a brace Wednesday on his right knee.
“He's fun to watch,” Brands said. “He's entertaining. He brings a lot of scoring energy, a lot of boom, boom, boom, and that's very refreshing for our fans when they know that, when they can get excited about something that they maybe haven't seen a lot of, because he wasn't in the wrestle-off and a lot of his workouts are controlled right now.
“We'll see him soon. Don't know, specifically. We'll see him at Midlands, and then we will make decisions. … in Spencer Lee's case, it might be best thing for him to compete and not sit him, not put him on the shelf. And not that he would get dusty, you know, using a metaphor there. But it might not be the best thing for him. But we're going to be very careful with what we do.”
Lee was engulfed by media shortly after Brands’ news conference, answering questions about his knee, his recovery and, above all, whether or not he would wrestle this season.
“I’m going to do whatever the coaches want me to do,” Lee said once the mob cleared. “We’re going to make the decision together. I mean, of course I want to wrestle. Why would I want to sit the bench and take a year off? I’m not that kind of guy.
“I’m not going to say, yeah, I’m going to wrestle. Of course, I want to. But we’re going to do what’s best for me and what’s best for the team.”
Warner, the nation’s top-ranked 195-pounder last year according to Flowrestling, is the other true freshman who could potentially see varsity time this winter. He toppled returning NCAA qualifier Cash Wilcke 4-3 in Iowa’s wrestle-off finals at 197 over the weekend, though Brands mentioned Warner was more likely to redshirt the season.
“I trust Tom and I trust Terry, and I trust their decisions,” Warner said. “If they think I’m ready, then I’m ready. Until then, I’m just trying to get better.”
Iowa mega-recruit Spencer Lee from Pennsylvania was a popular topic of conversation during Iowa’s media day. Cody Goodwin/The Register
Lineup questions abound
With Lee not competing in the wrestle-offs, Justin Stickley emerged at 125 pounds with two lopsided victories over Perez Perez. Paul Glynn toppled Phillip Laux 4-3 on a last-second takedown at 133. Vince Turk beat Carter Happel 6-2 at 141. Joey Gunther edged Kaleb Young 4-2 at 174.
Some of those results might change, with many of those same wrestlers attending the Luther Open on Saturday (Stickley, Perez, Glynn, Laux, Happel, Warner and Edinboro transfer Pat Lugo are among them).
The rest of the lineup seems set in stone. Brandon Sorensen and Michael Kemerer are the guys at 149 and 157. Alex Marinelli looks to be the guy at 165. Sam Stoll is back at heavyweight, despite wearing a brace during the wrestle-offs. Should Warner redshirt, Wilcke appears to have a hold on the 197-pound spot.
“I learned that we have a lot of work to do," Brands said, "and I've learned that our guys know we have a lot of work to do and we're excited to do it.”
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands explains what he learned from his team during wrestle-offs last weekend. Cody Goodwin/The Register
Stoll, Marinelli healthy
The overall health of the Hawkeyes is promising.
Stoll is back after missing most of last year with a torn ACL. It was the second year in a row where a knee injury marred the end of a promising season. The junior wore a brace while competing in the wrestle-off finals last weekend. Brands said Wednesday that it’s “absolutely essential” to have a healthy Stoll in the lineup for Iowa to be successful this season.
“I know I have a lot of areas to improve, so I just need to keep wrestling and keep getting better,” said Stoll, who beat true freshman Aaron Costello 2-0 in the wrestle-off finals last Saturday. “I feel good. I didn’t really get tired, and I don’t feel like I did enough to get tired in that match.”
Marinelli, a redshirt freshman, did not participate in wrestle-offs, mostly as a precaution. The St. Paris Graham product spent most of last season answering questions about whether Brands would pull his redshirt and let him wrestle. This year, he’s excited to put those questions to rest.
“Everything’s good,” Marinelli said. “I’m 100 percent healthy. During wrestle-offs, I had some recovery time to get in. Tom made the call, that you don’t want to push anything so as to allow my body to heal. If you push something too fast and you’re already healed, something bad could happen. And they’re just wrestle-offs.
“But I’m excited. This is what I’ve been dreaming of. I’m excited to go out there and wrestle.”
Sorensen is chasing history
Brandon Sorensen has a chance at history this season.
The senior 149-pounder enters his final year in the program as a three-time All-American. Should he earn the honor again this season, he could be the 20th Iowa wrestler to earn All-American honors four times during his Hawkeye career.
“It goes quick, I’ll tell you that,” said Sorensen, who placed fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2015, second in 2016 and third last year, all at 149. “It’s quick. I’m just thinking that, because this is my last season, I have to put everything on the line.”
Update on potential new practice facility
Back in September, it was announced that Brands signed a contract extension through the 2022 season and that the Iowa athletic department it would begin exploring the possibility of a new wrestling training center. Brands provided an update on Wednesday on the exploration:
“We are studying a location right now that's adjacent to the arena,” Brands said. “And when I say 'adjacent,' it is part of the arena. That was important to me, and we're going from there. And we're in great conversations, like I said, with some people about it, and it's important.
“It's important because our facility downstairs is 34 years old. It's not top 10 in the country anymore. It's adequate. We get by, and it's more than that, because you know what, we have what we need because, as coaches, we know what we need, and we're going to make sure of it and our administration makes sure that we have the resources.
“Right now, they have committed to getting to the next step, and that is a new facility … I don't look at it like keeping up with the Joneses. I look at it like what's essential and how we have evaluated and what we need going forward. And we need it.
“The bottom line is, that's not how the guys that we're trying to get in here, that's not how they think, and we need to show the future that is about winning national, world, Olympic Championships.
“The best kids in the country, the best athletes, wrestlers in the country, we need to show them that we are committed to them and their well-being through this process. You know, it doesn't matter how Brands trained and his methods. It's 34 years old, and 34 years old is 34 years old. It's time.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.