Analysis: Happel, Wagner fill crucial Iowa wrestling needs

Andy Hamilton
Bettendorf's Jack Wagner wins in the finals of their 3A-113 match Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, at the State Wresting Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

When we documented Iowa wrestling’s biggest recruiting needs in July, we outlined the importance of supplementing the three lightest weight classes.

We explained how Tom Brands typically digs into his scholarship bank when a starter reaches his junior season, which meant the Hawkeyes would be in the market for long-term successors to All-Americans Thomas Gilman and Cory Clark at 125 and 133 pounds.

We underlined the need for a 141-pounder after the sudden departure of two freshmen who factored into Iowa’s future plans at the weight.

We listed Jack Wagner and Carter Happel as primary targets for Brands and his staff.

With one Tuesday afternoon swoop, the Hawkeyes landed the two in-state recruiting prizes and crossed off a pair of the top items on their 2016 wish list.

Although it’s debatable whether either falls into the must-get category, both are homegrown talents with All-America upside.

Happel has the bigger resume. The three-time state champ from Lisbon is 154-1 in his career. He’s a freestyle Cadet Nationals champion, a FILA Cadet World Team member, a Junior Nationals All-American and a top-30 overall recruit nationally, according to Flowrestling and InterMat.

He adds another layer to Iowa’s depth at a weight that’s quickly been returned to health after freshmen Logan Ryan and Seth Gross were dismissed from the team in May. Ryan has since been reinstated to the roster, and there’s a buzz around the program about true freshman Vince Turk.

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Wagner helps solve perhaps the more pressing need for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa secured a pair of commitments last fall from two top 2017 lightweight prospects: Two-time California state champ Justin Mejia and two-time Illinois finalist Jason Renteria. That won’t stop the Hawkeyes — and everyone else, for that matter — from making a play for Daton Fix and Junior World champion Spencer Lee, the crown jewels of the 2017 class. Both also will likely start their college careers at 125.

But there are no guarantees in recruiting until the ink dries on a letter of intent signature and a prospect shows up on campus the following fall. And there aren’t a lot of known in-house commodities on the roster at 125 and 133 after Gilman and Clark. That’s why securing Wagner is important.

Make no mistake, the Bettendorf senior is far more than just a warm body who’s small enough to compete in college wrestling’s lightest weight class. He’s a two-time state champ who’s been battle-tested by the Bettendorf practice room and a rugged prep schedule.

“He thinks he’s 6-foot-5 and 220,” Bettendorf coach Dan Knight said in July. “That’s his attitude. He doesn’t back down from anybody, regardless of whether he knows he’s going to get it handed to him or not. He’s going to step up to the line and say, ‘Let’s go.’”

That attitude will serve Wagner well in an Iowa room with Gilman, Clark, World Team member Tony Ramos and two-time NCAA champ Matt McDonough at his disposal as training partners.

Wagner might be the hidden gem of the Iowa class at the moment. He went 10-0 this summer at the Disney Duals but suffered an ankle injury that knocked him out of the Junior Nationals, a showcase event for college recruiters.

“I can’t stand the thought of losing,” said Wagner, who picked the Hawkeyes over Nebraska, Minnesota, Virginia Tech and Iowa State. “My past three years in high school, I don’t know if I’ve taken (former teammates) Jacob Schwarm (now at Northern Iowa) or (Iowa freshman) Paul Glynn down 10 times combined. I’ve been getting my butt kicked since I was a freshman and in middle school. I’ve taken some lumps and I learn from them, I bounce back quick. I’ve always wanted to be the kid that if I have to take a loss, I come back and get third and show my resiliency.”