Iowa’s Carter Happel has chance to secure starting spot with Hawkeyes after promising weekend
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Carter Happel’s current opportunity began with an actual coin flip.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands brought 15 wrestlers last weekend, when Hawkeyes beat both Rutgers and Maryland. Among them were Vince Turk, Iowa’s early-season starter at 141 pounds, and Happel, his backup.
Turk beat Happel in the wrestle-offs last month, but opened the season with a 3-2 record. Brands sought more from that lineup spot, and gave Happel a chance against Rutgers, where he lost to Michael Van Brill, 3-2.
Iowa faced Maryland two days later, and Brands faced a tough decision.
“We flipped a coin for that match,” Brands said Wednesday. “Before we flipped the coin, we asked both guys to be professional no matter how the coin flip went. They were both professional.”
Happel got the nod, and beat 15th-ranked Ryan Diehl, 8-7, thanks to a late third-period takedown. He overcame a wild, back-and-forth second period, rode tough on top and continued attacking en route his fifth win of the season.
Now comes the fun part.
The starting spot at 141 is up for grabs, a two-person competition featuring Happel and Turk. Brands wants to see one emerge over the other, a process that will begin in two weeks at the 55th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships.
“The thing is, we’re going to find out who represents us best there and it’s going to be because of how they wrestle,” Brands said. “I think Carter Happel made the most of his second opportunity (last weekend).
“That doesn’t mean anything has changed. There’s still Vince Turk. He emerged in the early part of the season. He’s still half-a-head ahead.”
For Happel, this is an opportunity he’s long envisioned. He came to Iowa from Lisbon, just 25 miles north of Iowa City, where he won four state titles from 2013-16. He was the 25th wrestler in Iowa high school history to win state four times, and did so while compiling at 209-1 career record.
All the while, Happel frequently made the 30-minute drive south on Highway 1 to watch the Iowa wrestlers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He was enthralled by the passionate crowd and loved the Hawkeyes’ storied history. He wanted in on the action.
Happel redshirted last year and went 22-3 with eight pins, three technical falls and five major decisions while wrestling unattached. This year, his only live competition prior to last weekend was the Luther Open, where he took second behind true freshman Max Murin. Brands sensed some frustration.
“Whether you’re the head coach or the assistant coach, you have to have that patience and be able to communicate to young men who are on a mission and have high goals but things aren’t going their way,” Brands said prior to last weekend. “You have to communicate to keep working.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get your chance, but when you do, you have to be ready. These guys have kept their weight down. Their attitudes have been good. They haven’t lost any intensity in their training. They’re still having fun every day when they come in here, and we love that.”
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As such, Brands invited Happel on the weekend road trip, where he went 1-1 but showed growth from one match to the next. Happel was elated after beating Diehl, clapping his hands and high-fiving his teammates in celebration of his first victory as a member of Iowa’s starting lineup.
“It felt good,” Happel said. “It was something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time now, and getting that under my belt is nice.”
In a way, Sunday’s performance was only the beginning.
Happel knows one win over a ranked opponent doesn’t solidify anything. But a strong outing at the Midlands, set for Dec. 29-30 at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, would go a long ways in helping.
Happel knows this because, not long ago, the Hawkeyes had a similar situation at 149 pounds.
During the 2014-15 season, Brody Grothus and Brandon Sorensen were both in competition to start. Grothus beat Sorensen for the spot at the Luther Open that year, which Brands used as the team’s wrestle-offs.
But then came the Midlands. Grothus reached the semifinals, but dropped all the way to sixth. Sorensen, meanwhile, took third. He claimed the spot outright over the next few weeks, and ended up fourth at the 2015 NCAA Championships.
“He has to be consistent, keep winning and do it in a dominant fashion,” said Sorensen, now a senior with three All-American finishes and over 100 career wins. “Pull away from whoever else wants the spot.”
Sorensen has scrapped with Happel in practice and believes he is capable of starting. He can be strong and technically sound on his feet with a motor that can leave an opponent spent, all of which Happel put on display on Sunday against Diehl.
“He did some good things,” Sorensen said. “He seized that opportunity. He was putting holds together, two and three together, in the second match more than the first. There was some good stuff there.”
It will take more of that good stuff for Happel to solidify his spot in Iowa’s starting lineup. During his many years as a Hawkeye fan, he has seen wrestlers capitalize on the same opportunity he has now. He fully understands what he must do.
“Sometimes, one guy will beat another in the room, but doesn’t perform out on the mat, so coach will go with the other guy,” Happel said. “Just have to go out there, do your thing, put points on the board and do things coach wants to see.
“That’ll get you that spot.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.