Chad Leistikow and Andy Hamilton show the favorites for Big Ten titles
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sam Brooks packed his wrestling shoes and sweats last March and played the part as one of the Big Ten's best warmup partners.
He drilled with his Iowa teammates and prepared like he would for any other tournament, even though he knew it brought official closure to his freshman season with the Hawkeyes.
For Brooks, the hardest part of it all wasn't watching and wondering how he would've fared or seeing three wrestlers he defeated earlier in the year punch their tickets to the NCAA Championships. The hardest part was standing there at the end watching Penn State wrestlers gather for a fourth straight conference championship photo.
"I wanted the team to win pretty bad — and I think we had the opportunity to (win) last year at Big Tens," Brooks said. "We were close."
That's been the Big Ten story in recent years for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa coach Tom Brands on his team's preparation for the Big Ten Championships. Andy Hamilton/The Register
In 2011, they finished one point behind Penn State in the tightest race in conference history. They trailed by a half-point going into the final round in 2013 before the Nittany Lions raced away, and they came up 5.5 points short last year.
Second-ranked Iowa could be back in the middle of another down-to-the-wire title chase again this weekend inside St. John Arena. On paper, the Hawkeyes — with all 10 wrestlers preseeded seventh or better — are slight favorites over No. 5 Ohio State, with No. 4 Minnesota not far behind.
Even though seniors occupy half the spots in Iowa's lineup, the Hawkeyes are in the front-runner position thanks to three postseason newcomers who watched last year's tournament from the Kohl Center stands in Madison, Wis.
Thomas Gilman (125), Brandon Sorensen (149) and Brooks (184) claimed No. 1 preseeds after collectively winning 78 of their 88 bouts this season. They're part of the Big Ten's wave of new stars.
Illinois freshman Isaiah Martinez (157) and Ohio State rookies Bo Jordan (165) and Kyle Snyder (197) also earned No. 1 seeds.
"New blood's coming every year," Brooks said. "It doesn't matter what you did last year."
It's no great surprise Gilman and Brooks are in this position. They were All-America-caliber wrestlers stuck on Iowa's warmup brigade last March.
"You don't get what you want and it kicks you in the ass and lights a fire," Brooks said. "You don't dwell on it that you didn't get it, but you want to use that in a positive way, and I think I did."
Prior to losing the 125-pound lineup spot last year to classmate Cory Clark, Gilman topped six NCAA qualifiers, including eventual Big Ten and NCAA champ Jesse Delgado of Illinois. Brooks registered five wins against NCAA qualifiers as a freshman, but he couldn't wrestle Iowa's 184-pound job away from senior Ethen Lofthouse.
"There was nothing but what you'd classify as a bona fide, real emotion that pulls for your teammates," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "It's not something where they sat on the sidelines and sucked their thumb. They were both team players. Both of them had a situation where they weren't in the role they wanted to be in and they had to fill a different role and they did that. That's leadership."
Brands briefly kicked around the idea of pulling the redshirt off Sorensen last year before the freshman expressed concern about his readiness. Any lingering questions about his ability to compete at college wrestling's top level went away in January when Sorensen toppled Ohio State All-American Hunter Stieber, Oklahoma State NCAA finalist Josh Kindig and Northwestern national champion Jason Tsirtsis during a 19-day stretch.
"He's an able competitor and he hasn't reached his potential," Brands said. "He's got a lot of scoring ability and … we've just got to get him to open up a little bit more in some of these matches coming up and let that potential blossom. But he's done a good job."
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIPS
Where: Columbus, Ohio
Saturday: Session 1, 9 a.m.; Session 2, 5 p.m.
Sunday: Session 3, noon; Session 4, 2 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network will televise Sunday's finals starting at 2 p.m.