Hawkeye wrestling: Inside the decision to pull Spencer Lee’s redshirt

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Long before the big news Jan. 3, there was a moment that a young Spencer Lee would never forget — one that showed him just how special Carver-Hawkeye Arena could be during the cold winter months.

The Hawkeyes were wrestling Penn State that night, and Lee was in middle school at the time. He sat with Jody Strittmatter, his coach at Young Guns Wrestling Club and a former Iowa wrestling All-American, when former Iowa star Tony Ramos pinned his Nittany Lion opponent.

“It got so loud that I couldn’t even hear myself think,” Lee said Wednesday afternoon. “I was sitting next to my coach, and I told him, ‘I think I’d look pretty good in black and gold.’”

Iowa's Spencer Lee chats with teammates before practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.

That was the first time Lee envisioned himself running through the tunnel inside Carver for a wrestling dual. Jan. 3, that vision will come true. Lee, a true freshman, is expected to wrestle at 125 pounds on Friday when No. 4 Iowa hosts Michigan State. The dual is set for 7 p.m.

DOMINANT DEBUT:Lee gets pin in 1st Carver-Hawkeye match as Iowa blasts MSU

Lee will be the first true freshman to compete for the varsity squad under head coach Tom Brands, a decision that, after conversations with both, was more a matter of when than if. The discussions first began during Lee’s recruitment, and ended during the first day of competition at the Midlands Championships last month.

“We’ve had our eyes on this process for a while,” Brands said. “This isn’t something that you just decided a couple of days ago, or we ramped up the conversations or whatever. This has been an ongoing communication.”

After that Iowa-Penn State dual, Lee returned home to Murrysville, Pennsylvania, and grew into one of the most sought-after prep wrestling prospects in decades. At Franklin Regional High School, he won three state championships, as well as three age-level freestyle world titles.

Iowa's Spencer Lee chats with Matt McDonough before practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.

As many as 28 college coaches called Lee the day NCAA rules allowed them to contact 2017 recruits. He ultimately picked Iowa over Penn State, but it was during his hectic recruiting process that conversations about Lee possibly wrestling as a true freshman first began.

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A handful of Iowa wrestlers have competed as true freshmen, including Randy Lewis (1978), Rico Chiapparelli (1983), Jim Heffernan (1983), Bart Chelesvig (1988), Lincoln McIlravy (1993), Jeff McGinness (1994) and Joe Williams (1994). All but Chelesvig won NCAA titles.

Brands has faced this predicament before with other wrestlers — Derek St. John, Brandon Sorensen and Michael Kemerer, among others. For those three, Brands chose the redshirt. St. John became a four-time All-American. Sorensen and Kemerer are on pace to do the same.

Lee was different. He was the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the 2017 class, the first such recruit to choose Iowa since Mark Perry in 2003. He was Daniel Dennis’s training partner ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Brands and his staff believe he is capable of contending for a national title each year.

“He’s a unique talent,” Brands said. “He reminds me of me, socially. Not wrestling. He would’ve whipped my tail when I was his age.

“And he didn’t come here to just win individual titles. He came here to impact the team at a high level as well.”

Shortly after his senior season ended, Lee had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He arrived on campus in the summer, and didn’t wrestle live until October. Nobody would’ve blamed Brands for choosing the redshirt to allow more recovery time.

At the team’s media day came in November, Brands hinted that Lee may wrestle in 2017-18. He watched him through controlled workouts and then in live goes. His aggressive rehab regimen worked, but the 12-year head coach remained cautious. He continually discussed the situation with Lee, his parents and the coaching staff behind the scenes.

“That probably made his (situation) a little more unique, where you’re holding off,” Brands said. “You’re just seeing how he’s going to look and how he feels and how he’s going forward. That’s the only thing that’s maybe a little bit different.

“There was really no hesitation, except you want to make sure you do it right. There’s really no rush in this sort of thing … we were having multiple conversations along the way.”

Justin Stickley started at 125 in the interim, going 8-6, but Brands said Lee was undoubtedly Iowa’s best option at the weight. Lee went 3-0 — two pins and a technical fall — at the UNI Open against less-than-elite competition. The conversations continued, and by the time the Midlands rolled around, confidence from everybody reached its peak.

Before Lee wrestled Edinboro’s Sean Russell in Friday’s quarterfinals — he won his first two matches by pin, then tech’d Russell, 15-0 — Brands told Lee he would wrestle against Michigan State after the New Year. Sounds good, Lee responded.

ANALYSIS: Evaluating Spencer Lee's Midlands performance

“I just don’t think sitting on the bench is the best thing for me,” Lee said Wednesday. “Maybe we could’ve pulled it earlier. I don’t know. That was a decision where we were still waffling back and forth. But it’s done now, a done deal, and I’m ready to wrestle.”

Added Brands: “One of our goals is to put our best team on the mat. When there’s a redshirt option, we have to make sure that’s the best thing for the individual. It’s a no-brainer that it’s the best thing for the team. Both parties think it’s best for the individual.”

The news spread quickly, both in Iowa and beyond. Inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex on Wednesday, a palpable buzz filled the air. Michael Kemerer, who was also a teammate of Lee’s at Franklin Regional, could see the excitement on Lee’s face as well as others in the room.

“It’s huge,” said Kemerer, who won the 157-pound title at the Midlands, earning him Big Ten wrestler of the week honors. “You see the bonus-point potential that he has. We even saw it this past weekend. He can score lots of points and score them fast, then turn guys over and pin them.

“He’s not the type of kid that just wants to watch. You see how hard he wrestles, and he’s ready to be out there and compete for a national title right away … he’s ready to step in. He knows how good he is.”

Lee’s debut comes against a Michigan State (4-2, 0-0 Big Ten) team that hasn’t beaten Iowa (7-0, 3-0) in its previous eight tries. He is expected to face Rayvon Foley, a fellow true freshman, who is 18-3 this season.

He will don the all-black singlet with the block “IOWA” letters on the left leg. He will run out from the tunnel toward the mat, and wrestle for the first time as a member of the Iowa wrestling team.

And if all goes to plan over the next four seasons, Lee will use his incredible wrestling abilities to help re-create that crazy Carver atmosphere he first witnessed all those years ago.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.