Hawkeyes end conference final skid, Penn State reigns
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The big board hanging at one end of the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex has become as much of a shrine as it is a documentation of Iowa’s wrestling past.
Look around the practice room and you’ll see no mention of the 23 national championships the Hawkeyes have won. But their individual feats are trumpeted prominently in bold, black capital letters on a yellow backdrop.
Listed on one side is every Big Ten champion to pass through the program. There’s 111 of them now, to be exact.
"I'm in that wrestling room so much," junior Sam Brooks said. "Every time I walk in I see those names.”
But study them closely and it becomes apparent they haven’t been going up lately at the rate they once were.
That’s because the Big Ten finals had recently turned into a big time buzzkill for the Hawkeyes. They wrestled a league-leading 13 conference championship matches during in the previous three years. They won just one.
Though nobody inside the Iowa camp recited those stats Sunday afternoon, the Hawkeyes knew they needed to buck the recent individual trend.
Iowa didn’t win a team title Sunday. But the Hawkeyes didn’t go another year without adding to their individual championship count, either.
Cory Clark and Brooks cashed in on title-bout opportunities by avenging mid-season losses. Clark rode out Zane Richards of Illinois in the first tiebreaker session to win a 2-1 decision at 133 pounds. Brooks fended off a late attack by Nebraska’s T.J. Dudley to win 6-4 at 184.
“That’s a badge of honor,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said of the wall space that soon will include Clark and Brooks. “It’s not the badge of honor, but it’s a badge of honor. It’s a tribute to those two guys, for sure. We probably left some off the table with the way we think, right?”
Penn State clinched its fifth league crown in six years when Zain Retherford handed Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen a 4-0 defeat in a battle of 149-pound unbeatens.
The Nittany Lions momentarily wobbled Sunday prior to reeling off three title-bout victories to tally 150.5 points.
The Hawkeyes finished second with 127, one more than third-place Ohio State.
“I feel like I feel every other time we’ve gotten beat,” Brands said. “There’s a lot of things to be said for positives and it’s an individual sport, so that’s how you go forward going into the nationals because this isn’t the final. But I give congratulations to Penn State. Job well done. And we’ve got to get ready for New York.”
Minutes after standing on top of the awards podium, Clark’s mind was already on Madison Square Garden and the NCAA Championships.
“This isn’t how I want to define my season. The NCAA's is,” last year’s 133-pound national runner-up said. “This is just kind of moving in the right direction. It’s easier to move forward with a Big Ten championship than a second, third, fourth or whatever at Big Tens. It’s easier to move forward knowing you’re closer, you’re in the right spot.”
In one match, the conversation about Isaiah Martinez suddenly shifted from the possibility of a four-year unbeaten run to what’s wrong.
“People were like, ‘Is he sick? Is he hurt? What’s going on? Has he lost his confidence?’ ” the Illinois sophomore said of the response to his January defeat against Penn State’s Jason Nolf. “I’m fine.”
Martinez underlined that point Sunday by avenging the only defeat of his college career. It might not have been peak-form IMar, the guy who ripped through the 157-pound weight class last year as a freshman. But the defending conference and national champion appears to be rounding into title shape.
Martinez outlasted the top-ranked Penn State freshman Sunday in an 11-minute slugfest, winning 3-3 by virtue of a 22-second riding time advantage after the second tiebreaker. It was Nolf’s first loss in 30 college matches.
"Not to take anything away from Nolf, he's a fantastic competitor, he’s great and those guys are going to have war after war, I’m sure … but it’s more about Isaiah,” Illinois assistant Mark Perry said. “Isaiah has had an extremely tough year. There’s a lot that’s happened to the kid. This was good for him.”
Perry said Martinez has had to deal with more behind-the-scenes tribulations than just the death of his stepfather. In October, Alfred Garcia passed away after a bout with liver cancer.
Martinez used his mentor’s battle last year to help fuel one of the best freshman seasons in college wrestling history. His 34-0 rookie run ignited a buzz that maybe he could run the table in college, but that talk ended in January when he got pinned by Nolf.
“It was nice for a while,” Martinez said. “It was cool. That was definitely a goal. Every kid comes in wanting to be a four-time undefeated national champ. That’s the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling, and I definitely thought about it a lot. Sometimes people say, ‘Did that wear on you?’ It really didn’t wear on me because the way I wrestled didn’t change because of that. I’m still going out there trying to score a lot of points, shooting and being aggressive. I enjoyed it while it lasted.”
Headlocks, arm-throws and roundhouses
Nathan Tomasello hasn’t had many scoring opportunities during his two conference championship matches. But such is life at 125 pounds in the Big Ten, where points come at a premium when the top three seeds clash.
Tomasello made an early takedown stand in last year’s title tilt when he pulled out a 3-2 win against Iowa’s Thomas Gilman. The Ohio State sophomore used a score at the end Sunday to clip Penn State’s Nico Megaludis 3-1 in overtime.
“Those are the ones that you wake up early in the morning and you sprint or do an extra workout for,” Tomasello said. “You know that every match with those kind of guys is going to be hard-fought. Those are the matches you remember when you’re 30, 40 years old.”
What does Megaludis need to do to break through and score points against the top 125-pounders at the NCAA Championships?
"We're thinking headlocks and arm-throws and roundhouse whatevers,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “No, he’s got to go get on the legs and finish his shots. But Tomasello’s a tough kid and it’s a tough weight class. Nico’s going to be fine. He gets up for these big matches. We lost in a scramble on the edge, but he’s right there. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to win the nationals.”
The waiting game
Iowa secured seven automatic qualifying spots for the NCAA Championships and could add two more to its tournament pool when at-large tickets are announced this week.
Sam Stoll, who hadn’t lost to a wrestler outside the top five in the national rankings prior to Saturday, figures to be a cinch for an at-large bid at heavyweight.
Senior Patrick Rhoads strengthened his case by beating Penn State’s Geno Morelli 4-2 in overtime to place seventh at 165. Morelli was ninth in the last NCAA RPI rankings at the weight.
All 11 of Rhoads’ defeats this season have come against opponents in the top 10 of the coaches panel rankings.
“Patrick Rhoads certainly helped his cause by winning that last match,” Brands said. “That was a big win for him."