Iowa’s star true freshman recaps his Day One performance at the Midlands Championships. Cody Goodwin / The Register
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — The most exciting part of the Iowa wrestling team's performance here on Friday wasn’t even wearing a Hawkeye singlet or scoring team points.
Everybody’s eyes were trained to Spencer Lee, the superstar true freshman who many want released from his redshirt status. Lee put on a show during Day 1 of the 55th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships, working his way to the semifinals of the 125-pound bracket.
"I just went out and did what the coaches told me to do," Lee said. "That's score points and just relax and be yourself."
Lee was, in a word, dynamic. He wrestled three times Friday, posting a first-period pin in his first bout and following it up with back-to-back displays of technical superiority. He will face Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal round.
Perhaps his best outing came during Friday evening’s quarterfinals. Lee squared off with Edinboro’s Sean Russell, who finished seventh at last year’s NCAA tournament and ranked eighth in the country at 125 pounds by Trackwrestling.
None of that fazed Lee, who took Russel feet-to-back in the first period, then added a couple of tilts for a 12-0 lead. An escape followed by another takedown gave Lee a 15-0 lead, ending the match midway through the second period.
It was not a debut, so to speak, considering Lee competed at the UNI Open earlier this month. But his performance inside Sears Centre Arena wowed onlookers who were curious what the skill and technique of a three-time age-level world champion looked like up close.
"It was good to compete at the UNI Open and have those matches," Lee said. "College really is different than high school. You have to be ready to go every match, whereas in high school, you may not have to be. That's a big difference.
"I'm just glad I had those matches in me to help prepare me for today."
Should Lee defeat Bresser, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano (Track’s No. 2 125-pounder) is the likely opponent in Saturday night’s final. That was an eagerly awaited matchup prior to this weekend.
So far, it appears to be on track.
Hawkeyes running in front
The Iowa wrestling team has won the Midlands 26 times in the 54 years of the tournament, including each of the past four. After Friday, the Hawkeyes have positioned themselves to win a fifth straight team title.
Iowa sits atop the team race with 91 points, a good amount ahead of second-place Arizona State (75), third-place Rutgers (72), fourth-place South Dakota State (64) and fifth-place Central Michigan (61).
"We're still wrestling," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "Just need to keep building."
The scoring rules this year for the Midlands are that any one team’s top 10 attached wrestlers would contribute to the total. Many teams, Iowa included, entered multiple wrestlers at the same weights, which prompted the adjustment.
In all, seven Hawkeye wrestlers reached the semifinals at their respective weights: Lee, Brandon Sorensen (149), Michael Kemerer (157), Alex Marinelli (165), Cash Wilcke (197), Jacob Warner (197) and Sam Stoll (285).
"Just need to be prepared for every match," said Marinelli, who won twice and will face Rutgers' Richie Lewis in the semifinals on Saturday, a rematch from his collegiate debut earlier this season that he won 6-4 in overtime.
"Need to be firing on all cylinders … I'm excited to wrestle (Lewis). I'll wrestle whoever is ahead of me. He's the next opponent ahead of me, and I'm ready."
Wilcke and Warner will actually wrestle each other in Saturday’s semifinal bout at 197 pounds. Warner, who is redshirting this season and wrestling unattached this weekend like Lee, won the wrestle-off between the two 4-3 back in November.
"That's what you want to see," Brands said. "You want to see that in the finals, but they're seeded on the same side. Now they're going to meet, so let the best guy win."
When asked if the result of the match might alter Iowa's lineup moving forward, Brands said: "I'm not going to address that, but Wilcke is doing a great job, and no matter what happens, we like both of those guys. We're happy with both of them.
"I'll say this, let the best man win. They're both from our stable. We're not going to pick favorites there."
Many of Iowa’s points came from Sorensen, Kemerer and Stoll. Sorensen, the Hawkeyes’ senior 149-pounder, secured a pin, a technical fall and a 12-2 major decision en route to the semifinals.
Kemerer topped it, locking up four pins on his way to the semifinals at 157 pounds. The sophomore spent a grand total of 9 minutes, 54 seconds on the mat all day, contributing a team-high 18 team points (Sorensen scored 14.5).
"Sorensen and Kemerer are doing a good job of leading the charge," Brands said. "Sorensen, if he just keeps wrestling that high pace, that in-and-out stuff, it doesn't matter if they know what he has. Just open it up and let it fly.
"The deepest (Kemerer) has gone is a minute into the second period. We like that as well."
Stoll, a junior heavyweight, added another 15 thanks to two disqualifications and a 17-5 major decision over Ohio’s Zack Parker in the quarterfinals. Both of his DQ victories came because he forced his opponents into too many stalling calls (yes, this is a real rule).
In addition to seven wrestlers still on the front side, Iowa also has another seven still alive in the wrestlebacks in Paul Glynn (133), Carter Happel (141), Max Murin (unattached, 141), Pat Lugo (unattached, 149), Jeren Glosser (149), Kaleb Young (165), Joey Gunther (174) and Mitch Bowman (184).
The Iowa wrestling coach discusses his team’s performance on Friday. Cody Goodwin / The Register
Other freshmen show out
Lee wasn’t the only true freshman to perform well. Warner also competed well, stringing together a decision, major and another decision en route to the semifinals at 197 pounds.
Murin, at 141 pounds, also remains alive. He reached the Round of 16 before losing to Cal Poly’s Colton Schilling by fall after attempting to roll through to a tilt. Murin bounced back with two victories in the wrestlebacks. One more win on Saturday will earn him a spot on the podium.
No Cyclones left competing
Iowa State brought five wrestlers to the Midlands this year. None of them advanced to Day 2.
Markus Simmons (133), Dante Rodriguez (149), Colston DiBlasi (157), Danny Bush (174) and Gannon Gremmel (285) all wrestled on Friday with head coach Kevin Dresser in the corner. All were eliminated by the end of the evening session.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
The 55th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships, Day Two
WHEN: Saturday, Session III, noon; Session IV, 7:05 p.m.
WHERE: Sears Centra Arena, Hoffman Estates, Illinois