‘Forward thinking’ elevates Iowa’s Alex Marinelli into All-American conversation

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Alex Marinelli’s nickname is “The Bull.” When he was 8 years old, he hit a blast double at practice — think something like a form tackle in American football —and his coach told him he looked like a bull running through his opponent.

Fast forward 11 years, and the redshirt freshman has not changed much.

Take last Sunday, for example. Marinelli stepped onto the stage inside the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio, to wrestle Ohio State's Te’Shan Campbell. With 33 seconds left in the first period, Marinelli dropped into a sweep on Campbell’s left leg.

But instead of working any one of the sweep-single finishes he was likely taught, Marinelli picks up Campbell’s leg to throw him off balance, then drops everything and barrels through Campbell’s chest for a two-point takedown.

Alex Marinelli, 165-pounder, poses for photos during the University of Iowa wrestling media day Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Marinelli went on to secure a 4-1 win, pushing his record to 9-0 this season at 165 pounds. But the most impressive part about his successful start to his Hawkeye career, at least according to coach Tom Brands, is what came after Marinelli stepped off the stage afterward.

“He walked off the mat and said, ‘I have to get off the bottom,’” Brands recalled. “Really, as a coach, that’s how you want your guys thinking. Forward thinking.”

That forward thinking has elevated Marinelli into the All-American conversation. Entering Saturday’s dual against Michigan (5 p.m., BTN), he's ranked No. 7 nationally by Trackwrestling. He is one of just two freshmen among the top 25 (the other: Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, at No. 4).

Of his nine wins this season, five have been over other wrestlers who are currently ranked. Against Michigan, he’ll likely get No. 10 Logan Massa, followed by Minnesota’s 9th-ranked Nick Wanzek next week and Penn State’s top-ranked Vincenzo after that. He’ll see them all again, plus Wick and No. 2 Isaiah Martinez, at the Big Ten Tournament in March.

“My goals are the same,” Marinelli said. “I want to be a national champion. Every day, I wake up and say I want to be a champion. Being in the lineup is just a great thing.”

Marinelli came to Iowa from Miamisburg, Ohio. He was a four-time state champion for St. Paris Graham High School, currently the No. 5 high school wrestling program in the country, according to Intermat. He was the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2016 class.

The Iowa coaching staff was drawn to Marinelli because of his work ethic. Marinelli was impressed by the lack of a dog-and-pony show. He said Brands and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar first showed up to meet him in trucks, jeans and T-shirts. That made him smile.

“They didn’t show up in their suits and Mercedes,” Marinelli said. “They aren’t flashy. They put their noses down and get to work. They’re genuine people. They know how to work hard and they believe in you, and that’s what you’re looking for as a wrestler.”

Marinelli fit right in with the Iowa wrestling team and added in his own throwback tendencies. He often eats at breakfast at Iowa City's Bluebird Diner, where he’ll read the newspaper. Brands has said he walks and talks a little like former Iowa wrestler Thomas Gilman, except “he’s maybe not as brash,” Brands said. “He’ll laugh and smile when he’s saying it.”

Earlier this week, Marinelli said: “Seven minutes, to (our opponents), it’s a long time. For us, we try to make it a freakin’ war.”

In that same interview, he continued: “It’s an entertainment business, and if you’re sitting out there waiting for the clock to tick, it’s not going to be fun to watch. It’s not going to be fun for you.”

After his victory over Campbell on Sunday: “I told Tom, ‘I’m 16-0 in the (Schottenstein Center), so let’s just keep it going.’”

So maybe Brands is onto something.

“I love Marinelli,” the 12-year head coach continued. “Every time I watch Marinelli wrestle, I thank Morningstar for going and getting him. That’s Morningstar’s baby, like a shiny red Ferrari, except he’s a workhorse. Or a work truck. A lunch-pail guy. Whatever you want to call it.

“That work ethic happens in the practice room and carries over. I would say that he’s not very popular to wrestle with for some guys. He punishes you … he doesn’t concede anything. You saw it (against Oklahoma State). He’s in trouble a little bit, the guy is taking things away from him, and then he gets to a good, solid position. He actually ended up scoring twice that way.”

Iowa's Alex Marinelli tries to pin Michigan State's Austin Hiles as they wrestle at 165 pounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. Marinelli won by tech fall, 23-5.

Marinelli said the comparison to Gilman, a three-time All-American and senior-level world silver medalist, was “pretty cool.” Gilman always pressed forward, and his supreme ability led to 107 victories over the course of his Iowa career.

The Bull hopes to do the same, already thinking forward even as a redshirt freshman. It’s what helped lead him to Iowa, and what he believes will help him reach his goals sooner rather than later.

“Anybody can be a leader,” Marinelli said. “You just have to win. You have to produce results. I feel like you have to lead by example, and if you win, it makes it a lot easier for people to follow you.

“You have to put your best wrestling out on that mat. No matter who’s in front of you, if you wrestle your best, you can beat those guys.”

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

No. 3 Iowa (9-1, 4-1) vs. No. 7 Michigan (7-2, 4-1)

WHEN: 5 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
WATCH/LISTEN: Big Ten Network/KXIC-AM 800