Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands recently signed a contract extension through the 2022-23 season. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Phillip Laux’s college wrestling career has been waiting for this season.
Years of patience in Iowa’s practice room — broken up by two other brief Big Ten flirtations — have the blonde senior in position to be a starter in 2017-18.
For all the expectation and speculation surrounding the Hawkeye lightweights this preseason, Laux’s time to become a steady presence at 133 pounds is now.
“I have hunger and a sense of urgency,” Laux said while helping former Hawkeye teammate Thomas Gilman prepare for the Senior World Championships in August.
“I’m just excited to continue to build and see what I can do.”
Laux got a taste of the spotlight last season while substituting in for eventual NCAA champion Cory Clark during three Big Ten duals. But just getting the quiet local product to that point was a challenge for Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands.
“He bided his time in a situation that was probably not a whole lot of fun,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “But it’s actually prepared him more, especially with how his mind-set came around.
“Just because I’m not ‘The Man’ doesn’t mean I can’t work on my wrestling every day and train hard and be the best I can be. Early on, I think he equated not being in the lineup to not being able to progress.”
Phillip Laux beat Wisconsin's Eli Stickley 6-2 on Friday night.
Laux went to Wisconsin in 2012 after winning two state titles at Iowa City West, but he changed his mind before losing a year of NCAA eligibility. He found his way back to Iowa City, competing as a freshman in 2013 and going 23-1 as an unattached Hawkeye.
Sitting behind Gilman and Clark made 2014-15 tougher sledding, even if the lightweights were friends from their youth wrestling days. Laux went 3-3 in spot duty and wanted out. A transfer to Northwestern was announced in August 2015, but he hurried back to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to continue his unheralded work as a high-level training partner.
“He had to go out and see if the grass was really greener,” Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands said. “It wasn’t. We knew it wasn’t. Even if it had worked out there, it wouldn’t have been the right decision from an academic or a wrestling point of view. He had to own that and come to terms with that.”
Last season provided Phillip Joseph Laux III — “My mom says, ‘You’re Phillip and your dad is Phil,’” — his greatest NCAA opportunity yet, as shoulder and wrist injuries held Clark out of the lineup against Wisconsin, Indiana and in a showdown with Ohio State’s top-rated Nathan Tomasello. Laux picked up two conference wins and showed toughness in a loss by decision to Tomasello, improving on early losses to ranked foes Seth Gross and Earl Hall from South Dakota State and Iowa State, respectively.
He finished what was technically a redshirt junior season with a 10-8 record. It also made him Iowa’s only returning letter-winner with dual experience between 125 and 141 pounds.
“I learned to always be ready,” Laux said. “It was an interesting and unique position I was in. Obviously, I want to start sooner. But you have guys like Cory Clark and Thomas Gilman in front of you. Yeah, they’re good wrestlers, but everything else they bring to the table is invaluable.”
Iowa’s massive question marks at 125 and 141 will fuel national storylines until the Big Ten tournament.
Will all-world talent Spencer Lee remain a redshirt?
How well can Perez Perez replace Gilman?
Is Vince Turk ready after missing last season with a knee injury?
Who else can claim the starting spot at a crowded 141?
Thus, stability at 133 essential. And the Hawkeyes are depending on Laux to make a leap forward.
“I’m always trying to improve, but I’m also working at being a leader,” Laux said. “We have some great and talented young guys. Maybe I don’t have the credentials of (Brandon) Sorensen or (Michael) Kemerer, but being able to show the younger guys how to live the right lifestyle, on and off the mat, is really important.”
Laux will fill in for injured Cory Clark in the Cy-Hawk dual meet this Saturday.
Laux has flashed his ability on the mat, but coaches want to see consistency and mental toughness from the Brighton native this season. Getting to leg attacks and fighting back from late deficits will be vital at various points of the challenging 2017-18 campaign.
“Last year, he filled in admirably,” Tom Brands said. “And I think he surprised himself. That’s what we’ve got to build on.”
Laux insists his communication with Iowa’s coaching staff has improved since his transfer stints, and the addition of Hawkeye Wrestling Club coach Mark Perry has already fine-tuned his technique. The 23-year-old feels ready to make his final collegiate wrestling season his best.
“Some people have a tendency to feel sorry for themselves. I would say at one point in my career, I was there,” Laux said. “But now, everybody is coming in hungry and wants to be here. Nobody is dragging their butt just because of the position that they’re in.”