Outdoor dual could become big recruiting boon for Hawkeyes

Andy Hamilton

Reclaiming a record that once belonged to Iowa wrestling might have been the Grapple on the Gridiron’s genesis.

But Saturday’s spectacle inside Kinnick Stadium could help the Hawkeyes seize something more valuable to their future.

More than a dozen of the nation’s top high school wrestlers are expected to be in attendance when Iowa tangles with Oklahoma State in front of the biggest crowd in college wrestling history. The guest list includes four of the top 12 prospects on Flowrestling’s 2017 Big Board, Junior World champion Spencer Lee and his club mate Gavin Teasdale, one of the top wrestlers in the 2018 class.

“There’s not many times when you get to go to a place where they make history,” said Lee, the top-ranked junior in the country. “That’s the stuff I’m looking forward to.”

The Hawkeyes didn’t set out to turn this into a recruiting festival. Plain and simple, they wanted to retrieve the NCAA attendance record that fell into Penn State’s hands two years ago when the Nittany Lions crammed 15,996 into the Bryce Jordan Center for a dual against Pittsburgh.

And since the State Fire Marshal won’t allow Iowa to top that figure inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Hawkeyes thought outside the box — outside in 50-degree weather.

“You can get warm for that,” said Lee, who isn’t tipping his hand on which schools currently sit at the top of his list. “How many times are you going to be able to compete in front of 40,000 people in a football stadium? That’s pretty cool. That’d be really cool to do.”

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Iowa officials said more than 35,000 tickets have already been purchased. For perspective, the Hawkeyes led the nation in attendance last year, drawing 55,390 for a seven-event home slate. Penn State pulled in 54,221. No other program even reached the 30,000 mark.

“We’re not (doing this to) recruit, except we’re trying to run our program the best way we can run it,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “That’s the recruiting tool. I think when people look at this program, they see a program that’s constantly trying to be the best in everything they do and to be relevant.

“The (Olympic) Trials (which will return to Iowa City for the second straight time in April) are the same way. We don’t want the Trials here for recruiting; recruiting is a byproduct of that. We want the Trials here because we know we can do a better job than anywhere else in the country — plain and simple fact.”

The latest bid to shine the wrestling world’s spotlight on Iowa City comes with a possible long-term payoff for the Iowa program.

The Hawkeyes have already secured commitments from three top juniors: Californians Luke Troy (ranked the No. 17 prospect in the 2017 class by Flowrestling) and Justin Mejia (No. 20) and two-time Illinois state finalist Jason Renteria (No. 54). At least four more – No. 1 Lee, No. 7 Brady Berge, No. 9 Jacob Warner and No. 12 Austin O’Connor – are expected to be in attendance Saturday.

“The Brands brothers are all about promoting the sport and something like this will help grow the sport,” said Berge, a three-time Minnesota state champion for Kasson-Mantorville High School, the program that produced Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll. “This is awesome. Iowa is always looking for something out of the ordinary. That’s how they are, whether it’s the way they train or wrestling outside in November.”

This venture outside the norm is peculiar enough that a couple teenagers from Pennsylvania are willing to spend 24 hours in a car just to see 70 minutes of wrestling in person.

Lee and Teasdale have made the 700-mile trip across Interstate 80 before. They’ve seen the Hawkeyes wrestle Penn State in front of a packed house at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They’ve been inside Iowa’s practice room.

“They’re known for intensity,” said Teasdale, a Cadet World Team member who trains with Lee in the Pennsylvania-based Young Guns club operated by two-time Iowa All-American Jody Strittmatter. “It’s incredible going out there. I’ve been looking forward to this for the last few months. From a recruiting point of view, this is going to be an incredible experience.”