Iowa wrestling's young starters: 'We’ve got to pull our weight'

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Some were expected to be in this position; others weren’t.

But redshirt freshmen Michael Kemerer, Joey Gunther, Cash Wilcke and Steven Holloway are starting-lineup contributors nonetheless as the fourth-ranked Iowa wrestling gears up for its end-of-season push.

With a lineup highlighted by five seniors plus junior Brandon Sorensen (ranked No. 3 at 149 pounds), this quartet of freshman gym rats are important supporting pieces.

“We’ve really got to pull our weight, if we want to be NCAA champs as a team,” Gunther said. “If we take care of our part individually, the team will take care of its part.”

Gunther is a good place to start. He emerged at a crowded weight, 165 pounds, that Hawkeye fans thought would be manned by highly acclaimed true freshman Alex Marinelli. But the decision was made to redshirt Marinelli, and Gunther has become Iowa’s best option.

“(The Marinelli speculation) was in the media from last year when I started wrestling here,” said Gunther, who is 14-4 and ranked No. 22 at his weight by “It’s something that drove me to work harder every day, to make sure I was the guy."

The Libertyville, Ill., native has battled in back-to-back starts against Penn State (a 7-4 loss to No. 4 Vincenzo Joseph) and Ohio State (a 3-0 win against Cody Burcher).

He and Holloway will face the stiffest tests in Iowa’s Friday home dual vs. No. 11 Wisconsin.

Gunther will draw No. 3 Isaac Jordan; Holloway, Iowa’s newly anointed heavyweight, gets No. 2 Connor Medbery.

Holloway, of West Burlington, definitely wasn’t supposed to be here. This isn’t even his preferred weight; that'd be 197. But with starter Sam Stoll lost for the season with a torn ACL, Holloway is the Hawkeyes’ best heavyweight option.

He’s eaten his way up to 220 pounds, and Iowa wants him to get to 225. But more importantly, Brands wants to see the same type of execution Holloway showed in beating Ohio State’s Josh Fox, 6-1, to end last Friday’s dual.

“It’s a different wrestling style (than 197), and I’m kind of getting used to it,” Holloway said. “Me and (volunteer assistant Ben) Berhow have been working on it, week in and week out. I just need to learn to wrestle more like a heavyweight, I guess.”

Holloway has a 6-6 record. He’ll have to improve rapidly to become an NCAA qualifier. In facing Medbery on Friday and Minnesota’s No. 7 Michael Kroells on Sunday, he’ll certainly have a chance to prove himself.

“I don’t know if he has a choice of embracing (heavyweight),” Brands said. “His mindset it going to determine it. He’s a soldier. But we want him to love it.”

Speaking of tests, Wilcke at 197 has been deluged with them — with three straight losses to top-10 wrestlers. And he’ll get another, in Minnesota’s No. 2 Brett Pfarr, on Sunday.

The Battle Creek native has an 11-7 mark, including 0-5 against ranked opponents — though he pushed Penn State’s No. 9 Matt McCutcheon to the wire in an 8-7 loss recently.

Kemerer, meanwhile, is the leader of the redshirt freshman contributors. The Midlands champion from Murrysville, Pa., is ranked No. 2 in the nation with a 20-1 record, his only loss to Penn State’s No. 1 Jason Nolf.

But at Iowa, where Brands sets high standards, improvement can always be made.

Asked about the progress of his redshirt freshmen, Brands replied: “I know this. We’ve got to get better every day. (Football coach) Kirk Ferentz talks about it, that’s his mantra, that’s how he marches. … Some guys need to work a little harder.

“We’ve got to get better every day. That would sum up the answer to your question.”

Message received. Even for freshmen, it can feel like time is running out. The Big Ten Championships (March 4-5 in Bloomington, Ind.) are only a month away.

“This is the time of year,” Kemerer said, “we need to step it up and get a lot better.”


Friday, vs. No. 11 Wisconsin

Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City

Time, TV: 7 p.m., BTN2GO (streaming)

Notable: Iowa coach Tom Brands indicated that 133-pounder Cory Clark, a two-time NCAA runner-up who missed last week’s dual vs. Ohio State (shoulder), would be in the lineup for both duals this weekend. “We don’t really have a plan for Clark, except for day-to-day, and he’s ready to go,” Brands said. “Don’t panic, people, don’t panic.”

Sunday, at No. 10 Minnesota

Where: Minneapolis Sports Pavilion

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Notable: Iowa will be aiming to win its 21st consecutive conference road dual. Brandon Eggum is in his first year as Gophers coach, having replaced longtime fixture J Robinson, who was fired after being accused of obstructing an investigation into an alleged drug ring involving Minnesota wrestlers. … Iowa’s lone unbeaten, top-ranked Thomas Gilman, will face No. 6 Ethan Lizak at 125 pounds.