Tony Ersland was in his first year at Iowa, fresh off a pair of state championships at Humboldt and ready to continue his career in a sport that eventually would become his meal ticket.
At an influential age for a wrestler, Ersland found himself surrounded in 1993 by some of the best competitive influences, particularly two sets of twins embarking on their first year of international competition: Tom and Terry Brands and Troy and Terry Steiner.
“It’s just the work ethic and the focus those guys maintained day to day,” said Ersland, the second-year Purdue coach. “There was never a loss of focus or even intensity. Every day they operated at a high level. That consistency, in my mind, is key and we talk a lot about that with our kids.
“It’s not just putting in the work five days out of eight or nine. Your record reflects the number of days you’ve been stringing in a row. If you’ve been in there 10 days in a row operating at a high level, your record is going to reflect that. That consistency and maintaining that intensity was something I really took from those guys. There was always a focus, but it was followed by work ethic, too.”
Friday night is a reunion of sorts for Ersland. It’s the first time he’s been back to Iowa City since becoming the head coach of the Boilermakers, who take on the Brands-led Hawkeyes. He’s coming with a program that has shown marked improvement during the past year.
The Boilermakers matched a school record last year with eight NCAA qualifiers. In December, 165-pounder Chad Welch became Purdue’s first Midlands champion since 1963. Ersland has also signed five of InterMat’s top 100 recruits in the 2016 class.
“I think you’re starting to see some results that indicate there’s a belief these kids can compete at a high level and do well, but we need to take the next step,” Ersland said. “Qualifying for nationals is not the goal. We need to take the next step with All-Americans, Big Ten champs and national champs. That’s really what we’re trying to do this year.”
There’s an opening act before the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers step onto the mat for Friday night’s 8 p.m. dual.
Terry Steiner, the women’s freestyle national coach for USA Wrestling, brought a select group of Olympic hopefuls to Iowa City for a five-day training camp in preparation for April’s Olympic Trials in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Prior to the Iowa-Purdue meet, four spots will be determined for the women’s freestyle team that will compete at the Pan American Games Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
The wrestle-off lineup includes reigning World champion Helen Maroulis and 2015 World bronze medalist Leigh Jaynes-Provisor.
Steiner said part of the reason for the Iowa City trip is to acquaint the public with some of top America stars in the sport. But there are benefits for his wrestlers as well.
“It’s a great training venue,” he said. “There’s a standard in here. There’s a standard of excellence, a standard of intensity and purpose and I want them to see that and be around it and feel it. I think being around the Iowa wrestlers and Tom and Terry, I want them to witness that and be around it.”
The second-ranked Hawkeyes have won 17 consecutive Big Ten duals and 41 of their 50 individual matches in conference meets. Eight Iowa wrestlers appeared Thursday in the first NCAA coaches’ panel rankings. But head coach Tom Brands is more fixated on ironing out two weights where the Hawkeyes are still unsettled: 141 and 165.
“The biggest message I give to our guys individually is this is not about being in the lineup,” said Brands, whose team also wrestles Sunday at No. 11 Nebraska. “This is about performing at your highest level in the competition arena when the referee is there and there’s an opponent from a different institution. That’s what this is about.
“Sometimes we get guys who take ownership of that class and that’s their goal because this is such a storied tradition. But you can’t forget why it’s a storied tradition. It didn’t become a storied tradition because guys were excited to be in the lineup and that’s where it ended. It’s a storied tradition because guys whipped some serious tail and owned some pretty exciting moments in the history of the sport at the collegiate level.”