Way-too-early wrestling breakdown: Hawkeyes have flexibility for 2017-18

Chris Cuellar

Head coach Tom Brands relentlessly talks about how Iowa wrestlers have to mentally move forward. One tournament, one match, one move to the next.

Well, one week after a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships with one Iowa wrestler atop the podium, it’s time to turn one's focus toward the 2017-18 season.

The Hawkeyes will have the unenviable task of replacing four 2016-17 All-Americans, including rugged 133-pound champ Cory Clark.

“(Clark) is part of a senior class that has been vital to a culture change,” Brands said last week in St. Louis. “When I talk about culture change, I’m talking about being good leaders for our guys, our incoming freshmen. They host recruits, they do it all. They’ve been on board every step of the way, every one of those seniors.”

Michael Kemerer (left) will be a top returner for the Hawkeyes in 2017-18 after finishing third at 157 pounds as a redshirt freshman in the NCAA Championships.

Here’s how Iowa’s lineup could shake out for next season…

Key departures

The loss of Clark and Thomas Gilman (125 pounds) at the top of Iowa’s lineup will be felt immediately. The recruiting rivals turned inseparable pair combined for seven All-American finishes and a 52-4 record as seniors at the opening two weights.

Classmates Alex Meyer (174) and Sam Brooks (184) won All-American honors as well, and they helped the graduating class set an excellent example for future Hawkeyes.

“I like the culture,” Gilman said. “It’s gotten better since I’ve gotten here. No discredit to anybody that’s come and gone, but we’re a tighter-knit group of guys.”

Topher Carton will also be gone at 141, where he surprisingly stepped in during his lone starting season and finished his career by scoring at the NCAA Championships.

Heading into offseason workouts, that’s half the starting lineup — 13 NCAA appearances and five Big Ten titles — gone.

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Top returners

Brandon Sorensen (149) and Michael Kemerer (157) both finished third last week and will be entering their senior and sophomore seasons. Sorensen was the 2016 runner-up, and Kemerer entered his first NCAA tournament having only lost to eventual national champ Jason Nolf. High-end ability is clearly not an issue, but getting over those Penn State-sized humps is.

They will be expected to lead next season.

“We have freshmen that have gained valuable experience,” Sorensen said. “We have guys coming back from injuries. Really, it’s just about moving forward. A lot of it is about little things, but those little things add up so much.”

Cash Wilcke (197) and Joey Gunther (165) became NCAA qualifiers through toughness and determination, but their limited offensive capabilities could see them battling for time in 2018. Junior-to-be Skyler St. John also split time with Gunther.

Phillip Laux (133) went 10-8 filling in for Clark this season and should factor into the lightweight rotation. The return of Sam Stoll (285) from a second knee injury could dictate how the lineup is handled at the upper weights, as Steven Holloway struggled once his move up from 197 became permanent.

The Hawkeyes could choose the status quo — Stoll as the heavyweight starter and Holloway as his backup — or shuffle the group around with Wilcke included.

Fresh faces

Vince Turk was supposed to be Iowa’s starter at 141. He was 1-0 before a knee injury ended his redshirt freshman season, so he can be figuratively considered a full-time rookie if he gets backs into the lineup.

A talented true freshman class was busy during their collective redshirt years and should be raring to go if they can immediately become starters. That projection begins with Alex Marinelli (165), who went 13-2 and may have been a 2016-17 contributor if not for an early knee issue. Kaleb Young (174) went 21-6 competing at 165, but has the length and frame for a move up. Lisbon grad Carter Happel (141) went 22-3, and 16 of those wins came with bonus points. Can the Iowa four-timer battle Turk for time? Classmate Jack Wagner (133) could be in the mix with Laux and sophomore Perez Perez (125) in the lightweight committee.

And Mitch Bowman will be a junior, but has bounced around as a utility big man for the Hawkeyes. Listed at 174, he went 14-8 this season while competing at 184, 197 and 285.

Recruiting class

The 2017 high school haul understandably has Hawkeye fans excited, even if all of them will redshirt next season. The top prospects fit in at lighter weights (Spencer Lee, Max Murin), in the middle of Iowa’s lineup (Justin Stickley, Myles Wilson, Zach Axmear) and even among the big boys (Jacob Warner, Aaron Costello). Their exact weight classes are to be determined, except for Costello, Western Dubuque’s sturdy heavyweight product.

And that depth buries the headliner: Lee is a three-time world champion who remains an unquestionably elite recruit in spite of a recent knee injury.

“Spencer Lee is a competitor,” Brands said when asked about Lee at a pre-tournament press conference in St. Louis. “He’s going forward and he’ll be just fine.”

This class may not make its full impact felt until the 2018-19 campaign, but it's viewed as an able replacement for the outgoing seniors.