Hawkeyes searching to solidify lineup around 6 stalwarts
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The cameras swarmed around recognizable faces Thursday afternoon inside Iowa’s wrestling room.
All-American Thomas Gilman walked onto the back mats and a media herd instantly surrounded him. National finalist Cory Clark stepped out of the locker room and into a sea of voice recording devices.
NCAA medalists Brandon Sorensen and Nathan Burak and returning fan favorites Alex Meyer and Sam Brooks attracted a throng of reporters as well during Iowa wrestling’s annual media day gathering.
These are the Hawkeyes you know. They’re the ones ranked in college wrestling’s top dozen at their respective weight classes. They’re the ones who collectively compiled a 172-35 record last season.
They’re primary reasons Iowa is ranked fourth. They’re integral parts of the lineup for sure, but they don’t hold the key to the Hawkeyes' title hopes in 2016.
Six solidified weights aren’t enough for Iowa coach Tom Brands. It’s not enough when Penn State has nine wrestlers in the national rankings and Oklahoma State has eight.
“You have to have 10,” Brands said. “Those days (of winning with less) are old. I believe that we’ve got to get better every day to make sure we have 10 solid weights. That’s been a common theme the last couple years that we haven’t won. You’re giving tournaments away when you give weight classes away.”
Iowa has been college wrestling’s steadiest program since 2008, finishing fourth or better at the national tournament in each of the last eight seasons. With the exception of 2011, when the Hawkeyes faced a massive overhaul in the wake of a three-year national title run, Iowa’s list of preseason lineup questions has often been short and sometimes easy to answer.
This is a more complex issue.
The Hawkeyes open the season Nov. 14 against top-ranked Oklahoma State. Weather permitting, the two superpower programs will compete inside Kinnick Stadium in front of a record-setting crowd in excess of 31,000.
Brands held hope that answers to Iowa’s lineup questions would surface prior to November. But the Hawkeyes are still searching for someone to separate from the pack at 141, 157 and 165 and Brands said he’s looking for freshman heavyweight Sam Stoll to demonstrate his upside on an “every time out” basis.
Brody Grothus, an NCAA qualifier at 149 pounds, could be an option at 141 or 157 later in the season, but Brands said the senior is recovering from an offseason surgery and won’t be ready to compete until late December at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Iowa is sending three leading contenders at 141 — junior Topher Carton and freshmen Logan Ryan and Vince Turk — to Saturday’s Grand View Open with hopes that the competitive arena will sort out the battle.
“We’re looking for someone to emerge,” Brands said. “(We’ve) been looking for someone to emerge throughout the fall. That really hasn’t happened.”
Brands used similar terminology when asked about 157 and 165.
“You want someone to emerge and be the world-beater,” he said. “We like world-beaters, and we have a ways to go before those guys prove that they’re world-beaters.”
There weren’t many grand declarations coming from the Iowa camp Thursday.
“It’s just time to do it,” Brooks said. “It’s pretty simple.”
Clark said he’s ready to get his junior season started after spending the summer replaying his NCAA finals defeat in his mind.
“Regardless of how big the stage is or the platform is, I have to have my mind set and ready to perform at my best level,” he said. “I felt ready to go, but I kind of fell apart in that match. That’s a pretty big lesson I took away.”
Gilman said he’s “on a mission” after finishing fourth at last year’s national tournament, but the junior 125-pounder also acknowledged the need “to wrestle seven minutes at a pace that hasn’t been seen out of me yet.”
The tenor inside the Iowa practice room Thursday pointed toward a team more intent on actions than words.
Asked if any of his team’s unproven wrestlers have stood out in the practice room, Gilman didn’t dance around the question.
“Not yet,” he said. “That should be encouragement for them that they need to step up and stand out.”
MEET THE WRESTLERS
125 pounds — Thomas Gilman, jr.: Registered a 31-6 record in his first full season as a starter that included appearances in the Big Ten and Midlands finals, a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships and eight victories in 12 bouts against 2015 All-Americans.
133 — Cory Clark, jr.: Followed up sparkling freshman season by reaching the NCAA finals and compiling a 30-6 record that also included a Midlands title.
141 — Topher Carton, jr.: Compiled a 35-11 record primarily as a reserve during the past two seasons.
Or Logan Ryan, fr.: Two-time state champ from Bettendorf posted a 22-6 record while competing unattached as a true freshman.
Or Vince Turk, fr: Two-time Illinois state champ has created a buzz during his first semester at Iowa.
149 — Brandon Sorensen, so.: Produced a brilliant rookie season that included 40 victories — one short of the school freshman record — a Big Ten finals appearance and a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
157 — Edwin Cooper, sr.: The 2014 Division II runner-up spent most of last season in a backup role after losing out in the race for the 149-pound job, but compiled a 12-5 record with five pins and three major decisions.
165 — Burke Paddock, fr.: Two-time New York state champ compiled a 19-5 record and placed third or better in four of his five college tournaments last year while competing unattached.
Or Patrick Rhoads, sr.: Posted a 25-9 career record in his first three seasons with the program.
174 — Alex Meyer, jr.: One of college wrestling’s top reserves last year, Meyer went 18-3 with wins against two top-six opponents and another All-American.
184 — Sam Brooks, jr.: Posted a 29-7 record last year in his first season as a full-time starter and reached the NCAA quarterfinals before a pair of losses prevented him from earning All-America honors.
197 — Nathan Burak, sr.: Took a small step forward as a junior, earning All-America honors for the second time and compiling a 24-7 record that included a victory against 2015 World champion Kyle Snyder.
Hwt. — Sam Stoll, fr.: Greco-Roman specialist finished 18-5 with 11 pins and claimed titles at the Luther Open and Grand View Open as a redshirt competing unattached.
BREAKING DOWN THE HAWKEYES
Last season: The Hawkeyes won their first 17 dual meets, surging to the top of the national rankings and maintaining a hold on the No. 1 spot with wins on the road at Ohio State and Oklahoma State and claiming the Big Ten dual crown. Iowa, though, slipped from the No. 1 spot after a loss to Missouri in the National Duals finals and the Hawkeyes never regained their spot at top. They tied Ohio State for the Big Ten title and finished second to the Buckeyes at the NCAA Championships.
Strengths: No team in college wrestling has a better 1-2 punch at the top of the order than Iowa possesses with Gilman and Clark. The juniors have combined for a 99-19 record during the past two seasons. Throw in Sorensen and the Hawkeyes have three wrestlers back who finished fourth or better a year ago. Meyer, Brooks and Burak form one of the country’s best 174-184-197 combinations. Senior Brody Grothus, who beat the top four NCAA finishers at 149 pounds in 2014, could help the lineup for the stretch drive, possibly at 141 or 157.
Concerns: The Hawkeyes are unranked at four weight classes and Iowa’s national title hopes could hinge on the development at those spots. Though there’s upside at 141, 157, 165, and heavyweight, the Hawkeyes are unproven at college wrestling’s highest level.
November — 14: vs. Oklahoma State; 20: vs. Maryland, Grand Canyon, Iowa Central and Cornell College at Iowa City Duals; 29: at Iowa State.
December — 4: vs. South Dakota State; 10: vs. Rutgers; 29-30: at Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill.
January — 8: at Illinois; 10: at Northwestern; 15: at Wisconsin; 22: vs. Purdue; 24: at Nebraska; 29: vs. Minnesota.
February — 5: vs. Indiana; 12: at Montana State-Northern; 21-22: at National Duals, site TBD.
March — 5-6: Big Ten Championships in Iowa City; 17-19: at NCAA Championships in New York City.