What Iowa's recruiting bombshell means for college wrestling
Cael Sanderson hoarded so much young wrestling talent in recent years that another shiny piece atop his pile of blue chips might have made Penn State’s empire too big to topple.
The good news for fans of Iowa wrestling and NCAA team tournament scoring suspense: That shiny piece is Iowa City-bound with another incandescent lineup fixture at his side.
A double recruiting bombshell dropped Wednesday when the Hawkeyes pulled mega-talented prospects Spencer Lee and Gavin Teasdale from Sanderson’s area code and altered the complexion of future team races with one swoop.
Lee became the first American to win freestyle World titles at the Cadet and Junior level in consecutive years last summer. He’s the consensus No. 1 overall recruit nationally in the 2017 class, and he might be the most coveted high school wrestler ever. His phone bill certainly holds up as evidence to that argument.
College coaches from 28 programs dialed the three-time undefeated Pennsylvania state champion last September on the first day NCAA rules permitted them to contact Lee. Numerous others couldn’t get through. The only coaches who didn’t dial his number were the ones who probably figured they didn’t stand a chance.
At the end, it was Iowa and Penn State. Olympic gold medalists Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson. The program Lee first grew attached to and the powerhouse closest to home.
Lee said Sanderson “really could not have done any more than he did.” And most times in recruiting — particularly with Pennsylvanians — it seems Sanderson gets who he wants.
Penn State signed three of the top seven wrestlers on InterMat’s list of the top 2016 prospects, including No. 1 Mark Hall and No. 2 Nick Suriano. They’ll join a roster with seven others who were former consensus top-10 overall recruits, two of whom were freshmen NCAA finalists this year.
That was no doubt part of the Penn State pitch. But Lee and Teasdale found themselves drawn to Brands and his twin brother, Terry, and their track record for developing lightweights.
Since 2010, the Hawkeyes have reached the NCAA finals 11 times at college wrestling’s three lightest weight classes. Ohio State, thanks to four-time national champion Logan Stieber, has five finals appearances at 125, 133 and 141 during that stint. No other program has more than three.
The tipping point for Lee and Teasdale occurred earlier this month at the Olympic Trials. They watched Daniel Dennis and Tony Ramos, two former Iowa stars, battle in the 125.5-pound finals for a ticket to Rio. They toured the campus. They felt at ease.
“I really like the coaches out there and how they train their wrestlers and I think it’s the best fit,” Teasdale said. “Best coaches in the country, in my opinion.”
Said Lee: “You’ve got Terry and Tom Brands there and they’re lightweight guys and it’s not just that. It’s their attitude, the way they coach, their attention to detail. They’re funny guys. They have a great sense of humor, believe it or not. Most people don’t believe that. They’re awesome to be around.”
Lee's statistics in three years at Franklin Regional High School are borderline absurd. He's 109-0 with 68 pins, 29 technical falls, seven major decisions, four forfeits and one decision. His 105 contested matches share two things in common: Lee has scored a first-period takedown in every bout and put each of his opponents on their back.
He would’ve been a top-of-the-line luxury for Penn State. He was a necessity for Iowa in its quest to return to college wrestling’s pedestal.
Throw in Teasdale — an undefeated two-time Pennsylvania state champion who arguably could be Iowa’s second-most decorated recruit in the last decade by the time he steps on campus in the fall of 2018 — and Tom Brands suddenly has the makings of a future lineup that can match Sanderson star-for-star.
In the last 19 months, the Hawkeyes have stepped onto the home turf of their top two Big Ten rivals to assemble half of a long-term lineup: Lee and Teasdale, Pennsylvania state champions Kaleb Young and Michael Kemerer and four-time Ohio state champion Alex Marinelli.
Iowa has also collected 2017 commitments from Illinois state champion Jason Renteria, California state medalist Luke Troy and Justin Mejia, who will aim next year to become the second four-time state champion in California history.
On the surface, it seems Iowa’s approach to recruiting has changed. The Hawkeyes assembled top-ranked classes in 2010 and 2012, but those groups were built more with depth than the high-end stars that Sanderson constructed his championship teams around. Wednesday’s double-dip means Iowa will have a top-three overall recruit anchoring three consecutive classes: Marinelli in 2016, Lee in 2017 and Teasdale in 2018.
“I’m going to try to get my future team to be contenders, to be right there,” Lee said. “We have the ability. I think we’re going to be solid all around. We’ve got to get some more recruits.”