Wrestling takeaways: Hawkeyes struggle mightily on Day 1 of Big Ten tournament

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Brands stood in the bowels of the Breslin Center on Saturday evening and looked comprehension square in the face.

His Iowa wrestling team had somewhat rebounded form an ugly morning session on Day 1 of the Big Ten wrestling tournament. The emphasis here, of course, is on the word “somewhat.”

Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Joey Gunther vs Indiana Hoosiers wrestler  Devin Skatzka during the Big Ten wrestling championships at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center on Saturday.

Because even though nine of his 10 wrestlers have officially punched their ticket to the NCAA Championships in Cleveland in two weeks, the Hawkeyes ended Saturday looking up at one team they figured they’d be competing with, and two others that are simply much better.

“It’s about winning the tournament,” Brands said, “and we’re a long ways from that.”

Indeed, Iowa sits fourth heading into Sunday’s action after scoring just 78 points on Saturday. Ohio State surged ahead in the team race, scoring 137.5 points for the lead. Penn State is second with 124, while Michigan is third with an even 100.

The Hawkeyes trail, in part, because of an ugly morning session. They posted a collective 9-7 record with just three bonus-point wins (Ohio State had three pins and three technical falls in the morning session, while Penn State had five pins). Only four Iowa wrestlers reached the semifinals at their respective weights, while the rest fell to the wrestlebacks.

That effort put Brands’ team in a hole from the start. Within that 9-7 morning record were only 19 takedowns scored — and eight came from 157-pound sophomore Michael Kemerer in two separate matches. 

Iowa rebounded in the wrestlebacks, winning nine of 10 matches. Vince Turk (141), Alex Marinelli (165), Joey Gunther (174) and Cash Wilcke (197) all won twice to secure top-six finishes after losing in the quarterfinal round. Mitch Bowman dropped a first-round match but bulled his way into the seventh-place bout at 184 pounds.

“When you face a loss, it’s tough,” said Marinelli, whose 8-6 overtime loss to Michigan’s Logan Massa was his first defeat of the season. “It’s tough to move and progress without success. But Tom said, ‘You know, I’ll find out what you’re made of right now.’

“You either get up and move on, or he pulls you out of the tournament. My decision was to get up and move on and really take it to these guys, because the team needs me.”

But victories in the consolations aren’t worth near as many points as those on the championship side. To make matters worse, only senior Brandon Sorensen advanced to the finals, while Spencer Lee, Kemerer and Sam Stoll all lost their semifinal bouts, sending them to the backside. The mighty Buckeyes pushed seven into the finals, while Penn State qualified five.

“Of course it’s a disappointment when you don’t perform and you have competitors on your team that don’t perform,” Brands said. “I know we can do better.”

It will take a strong effort for the Hawkeyes to march back on Sunday. The opportunity remains, as seven Iowa wrestlers remain alive for third place at their respective weights.

But there is also solace in knowing that nine guys will compete in Cleveland in two weeks. Sorensen, now a three-time Big Ten tournament finalist, has preached as much to his younger teammates, five of whom made their collegiate postseason debuts on Saturday.

“This isn’t the end-all,” Sorensen said. “They have to bounce back and get the best they can get, and moving forward into the future, we have a bigger tournament ahead of us.”

Gunther punches NCAA ticket with three overtime wins

During last Friday’s do-or-die wrestle-offs, Gunther needed the help of a rideout to edge teammate Kaleb Young and seize the starting spot at 174 pounds. As it turns out, that become something of a trend for him on Saturday.

Gunther went 3-1 on Day 1 and is in the consolation semifinals, which means he officially punched his ticket to the NCAA Championships. All three of his victories came in some form of overtime. 

“I don’t like it,” Gunther said, “but when you have to win in overtime, you gotta do it. Whatever gets you there. You just have to buckle down and take it home, I guess.”

His first two victories came without takedowns, actually, but he scored two in his final match, a 5-4 win over Indiana’s Devin Skatzka, including one in the third period that helped force overtime. A rideout there helped push him into the top six at 174.

“I finally got to my offense in that match,” Gunther said. “It felt good to wrestle to the level I know I can compete at. I think giving up the first takedown, you never want to do it, but it helped me wrestle more free and open.

“Last year, I made (the NCAA tournament) off a wildcard. I didn’t have a good Big Ten tournament. But now, I’m for sure going. I don’t have to worry about that for the next few days.”

Brands sounds off on Tomasello-Lee II

Spencer Lee beat Nathan Tomasello 3-2 when the Hawkeyes wrestled at Ohio State in late January. Lee used a mean second-period rideout to secure the winning point to knock off Tomasello, then the nation’s top-ranked 125-pounder.

On Saturday, Tomasello flipped the script, using a late third-period takedown to beat Lee 2-1. Brands spoke afterward about Lee needing to score a takedown to aid his cause, something he’s yet to do in two matches against Tomasello.

But Brands also took a moment to critique some of Tomasello’s on-the-mat habits, something he feels should be noticed more by wrestling officials. 

“It’s time to bring it out,” Brands said. “The guy grabs singlets. The guy grabs headgears. The guy grabs anything he can grab, and it’s not legal. No one will say anything about it. The referees don’t call it. We’ve talked to the national leadership of referees. They just won’t call it.

“He’s done it to (former Iowa wrestler Thomas Gilman). He’s done it to (former Iowa wrestling Cory Clark). He’s done it to Lee.

“But you know what? Hey, we have to be better. We have to be better.”

Tomasello will wrestle Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak in the finals, where he will try to win his fourth individual Big Ten title. Lee is slated to wrestle Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera in the consolation semifinals on Sunday morning.

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