A new dawn arises for Iowa at Big Ten Championships

Andy Hamilton
Iowa fans cheer during the Hawkeyes' dual against Minnesota this season.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Thomas Gilman noticed a subtle shift in the local landscape during his ventures across the Iowa campus the past couple weeks.

The product of a natural disaster? The Hawkeyes won’t go that far, though there are times around here when a single dual defeat can leave a faction of their followers looking upward for the falling sky.

Gilman can attest. The classmates who patted the 125-pound All-American on the back and chatted him up about wrestling for the first three months have steered clear of him since North Carolina State spoiled Iowa’s bid for a perfect dual record.

“Whether that’s because they’re ashamed of you or whether they’re just scared because you might rip their head off, I’m not sure,” Gilman said. “But you can’t overthink it too much. ... It’s not the end of the world.”

A new dawn arises for the Hawkeyes on Saturday morning when they step into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the part of the season that defines Iowa wrestling. The Big Ten Championships are a two-day question-and-answer session for the Hawkeyes.

Can Iowa break through and add some new names on the wall inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex that logs the program’s illustrious Big Ten successes?

How will the Hawkeyes stack up against top-ranked Penn State and defending national champion Ohio State?

Was the loss to North Carolina State — a defeat in which Iowa coach Tom Brands said his team got beat up in more ways than one — a blip on the radar or a harbinger of what’s ahead in the postseason?

The true test begins Saturday, but Brands said his team’s response in the past two weeks has been positive.

“It’s what you’d expect from a team that has confidence and that’s high-powered,” he said. “Are we OK with what happened? No. Was it a complete earthquake disaster? I don’t think it’s there, either. We’re level-headed reasonable thinkers here and our guys are level-headed and reasonable as well.

“We feel like we addressed the issues that needed to be addressed with their wrestling. Sometimes you don’t know what guys are thinking, but they are responding in the practice room and that’s how you prepare. We’re on the right track and we’re going to find out. We’ve got a very important criteria to grade them on coming up this weekend.”

Title race breakdown

Ohio State coach Tom Ryan thinks it’ll take a minimum of four finalists to claim the team title.

“Looking at it right now, objectively, Penn State has the most firepower,” he said. “They’ve got some guys that looking at it now, you’d say someone’s going to have to wrestle really well to beat three of their guys, in my opinion, and maybe four. And they’re probably thinking they have five finalists.”

The Nittany Lions are clear favorites on paper. The sum of the placement points they’d score by matching their seeds is 106. Ohio State’s is 90 and Iowa’s is 88.

Penn State put itself in this position thanks to a pair of top-seeded freshmen. Jason Nolf is 26-0 at 157 with a pin against defending Big Ten and NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez of Illinois. Bo Nickal is 26-1 at 174.

But their successes haven't silenced questions about their readiness for the postseason. Penn State coach Cael Sanderson fielded another one Friday afternoon.

"We'll find out," he said. "I don't know. We'll see. I'm excited, I'm confident. If you can wrestle well in the atmospheres we've wrestled in — in big arenas, our crowds are sold out and usually everywhere we go it's a big crowd — it's the same thing. But we'll see."

The Hawkeyes are certainly capable of hitting the four-finalist mark. Iowa has seven wrestlers seeded third or better. They also have one intangible on their side: the home crowd.

Brands said his team needs to give their fans "a reason to be a very vocal group.”

"They’re nothing but the best, they’re top-notch and there’s going to be a whole bunch of them,” he said. “That’s important for energy. Wherever we go, we’re going to be ready. But being in your home arena, it’s time to put on a show a little bit more maybe.”

Ohio State has a pair of No. 1 seeds in Nathan Tomasello (125) and Micah Jordan (141), along with returning Big Ten finalists Bo Jordan (165) and heavyweight Kyle Snyder.

“I think we have five that can do it,” Ryan said. “But Myles Martin’s going to have to step up. He’s going to have to beat Bo Nickal if they wrestle in the semifinals here. Both (previous) matches we were in position to win. We’ve got to turn that match around.

“Micah Jordan is a freshman. He’s got to do what Nate did (last year). When you have (three guys) like Bo, Kyle and Nate, you’re never really out of it. Because if those three do what they’re capable of, there’s three. Now can someone else get in there?”

Best bracket

Look across the country and you won’t find a deeper conference tournament bracket than the one at 133 pounds.

The No. 6 and 7 seeds — Wisconsin’s Ryan Taylor and Ohio State’s Johnni DiJulius — were seeded second and fourth at last year’s NCAA Championships. The No. 8 seed — Michigan’s Rossi Bruno — is a returning All-American. So, too, is third-seeded Jordan Conaway of Penn State.

Iowa’s second-seeded Cory Clark is a returning national finalist and No. 1 seed Zane Richards of Illinois is undefeated.

“It’s kind of like a mini national tournament,” Clark said. “I feel like that’s how it’s always been in the (Big Ten) brackets I’ve been in. Even at ’25 it was (two-time NCAA champion Jesse) Delgado and (two-time NCAA finalist Nico) Megaludis and some of those guys.”

No free ride

Ohio State heavyweight Kyle Snyder will get a ticket to the finals next month when he steps into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the Olympic Trials. But there are no free passes this time around for the reigning World champion.

In fact — at least for this semester — Snyder is college wrestling’s top walk-on.

Originally, the Buckeyes planned for life without Snyder this season. The sophomore was set to take an Olympic redshirt, which meant he wouldn’t be enrolled in classes and somebody else on the Ohio State roster would get his scholarship money.

Then the bombshell dropped on New Year’s Eve: Snyder was planning to join the Buckeyes for the second semester.

“He paid his own way because we gave out all the money,” Ryan said. “That was a decision he and his father made.”

Snyder re-enrolled at Ohio State, but the decision to rejoin the Buckeyes hasn’t disrupted his original plans for 2016. The youngest World champion in American history still worked in two overseas trips for tournaments in Russia.

Of the 140 wrestlers entered in the Big Ten Championships, Snyder has the fewest matches this season. He’s 3-0 and averaging 23.3 points per match.

“One hundred percent it was the right (decision),” Ryan said. “Now, it hasn’t been tested. It’ll be tested this weekend and in Madison Square Garden and back here again April 10. Despite the outcome of any one of those events, the date we made the decision, we had a lot of information. Who has he trained with?  How has he done against some of the guys at heavyweight?

“We had a lot of information and the information said, without question, wrestle him. There was no wavering. This was the smartest move for us and him. At the time, it was right, and whether he wins the Big Ten and NCAAs and makes the Olympic team, to some degree, is irrelevant about whether the decision was right or not.”