IOWA CITY, Ia. — Unless the roof is lifted off Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena and thousands of Hawkeye fans take over Stillwater, Okla., Sunday’s dual will be smaller than last season’s.
But it should be a better gauge of third-ranked Iowa’s contender status than the “Grapple on the Gridiron.”
The Hawkeyes (7-0) open their tough January slate at No. 1 Oklahoma State in a 2 p.m. start, with a chance to learn just how close they are to the country’s top lineup.
“This means a lot to everyone involved,” Iowa 174-pound senior Alex Meyer said.
“Last season, outside, was something I’ll remember for my whole life. People on campus still talk about it. But that dual didn’t go the way I wanted, and I’m excited to get another chance. We’re all excited for this.”
The Cowboys (5-0) have ranked wrestlers at all 10 weight classes and are ranked higher at 165 pounds and heavier. They’ll challenge Iowa’s three-dual win streak in this series and 21-dual win streak on the road.
It’s a mutually beneficial test; Iowa has yet to have a close dual, and OSU hasn’t competed since crushing the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 2.
“They know what we’re about,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said Wednesday. “We know what they’re about. This is high-stakes.
“This is probably not as important as maybe the national championship, but this Sunday, it is the most important event on probably both team’s calendars.”
Iowa’s 18-16 win at Kinnick Stadium last season came with NCAA attendance record in the first competition on the calendar. There was record-setting anticipation and excitement.
For better or worse, there’s no time to dwell on all of Sunday’s marquee matchups with No. 2 Penn State and No. 4 Ohio State coming to Iowa City over the next two weekends.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Iowa senior Topher Carton, who will likely face defending national champion Dean Heil at 141 pounds.
“Last week, before we went out to Michigan, everybody was already talking about wrestling Oklahoma State. I was, like, ‘Well, we’ve got two duals before then.’ All my energy was focused on that.
“Looking ahead, that’s just not how we approach wrestling. I focus on the first match in front of me. Now, Oklahoma State is next, so this match is getting all my attention and resources.”
So how will Iowa’s high-end talent stack up with the deep and steady Cowboys?
Records and rankings indicate the Hawkeyes will be favored, with No. 1 Thomas Gilman (125 pounds), No. 1 Cory Clark (133), No. 2 Brandon Sorensen (149) and No. 2 Michael Kemerer (157) — but Oklahoma State isn’t far behind at those weights. Clark will see undefeated redshirt freshman Kaid Brock, and Sorensen is getting a 2016 national semifinal rematch with Anthony Collica.
“I like it,” Clark said. “You’ve got to beat the best to be the best. These are the guys that push you. I enjoy wrestling people that want to beat me rather than wrestling people that want to stay alive or skate the whole match.”
Meyer and Sammy Brooks are seniors and returning All-Americans for Iowa at 174 and 184, ready for familiar faces in seniors Kyle Crutchmer and Nolan Boyd, respectively. It’s one last regular season tangle with the dual’s result likely resting on outcomes here.
Iowa gets Clark and heavyweight Sam Stoll in the lineup together for the first time this season. And avoiding pins or technical falls at the unranked spots of 165 and 197 would be a plus, too.
“This is the best time of year,” Brands said. “You’re in the meat of your season, and not only are you just hitting events, but these are big events. These are events with crowds and a lot at stake with seedings and rankings and things that will impact how the road to your championship is going to look like.
“This isn’t just for entertainment purposes, either. This is real life.”
Are the Hawkeyes true podium contenders this season? Oklahoma State will administer their first test to find out on Sunday.
“I know what this level feels like and I know what I need to do differently do get the job done,” Carton said. “It’s a big test — but every match is a big test.”
No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes (7-0) at No. 1 Oklahoma State Cowboys (5-0)
Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater, Okla.
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
TV/Radio: Fox Sports Oklahoma; AM 800 KXIC
125 pounds: No. 1 Thomas Gilman (15-0) vs. No. 12 Nick Piccininni (11-4)
133: No. 1 Cory Clark (8-0) vs. No. 6 Kaid Brock (14-0)
141: No. 11 Topher Carton (16-2) vs. No. 1 Dean Heil (14-0)
149: No. 2 Brandon Sorensen (16-0) vs. No. 3 Anthony Collica (9-0)
157: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (17-0) vs. No. 5 Joe Smith (5-1)
165: Joey Gunther (12-3) OR Skyler St. John (5-2) vs. No. 6 Chandler Rogers (10-2)
174: No. 11 Alex Meyer (13-3) vs. No. 5 Kyle Crutchmer (8-2)
184: No. 6 Sammy Brooks (14-1) vs. No. 4 Nolan Boyd (10-2)
197: Cash Wilcke (10-4) vs. No. 4 Preston Weigel (12-2)
Heavyweight: No. 9 Sam Stoll (6-1) vs. No. 6 Austin Schafer (13-1)