Iowa coach Tom Brands outlines his thoughts heading to Cleveland. Chad Leistikow / The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As he and his Iowa teammates prepared to leave for this week’s NCAA Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, sophomore 157-pounder Michael Kemerer had no trouble finding motivation.
First of all, the team angle: Iowa is coming off its worst Big Ten Conference finish (at fourth place) of the Tom Brands era. Yet the Hawkeyes see this week’s tournament at Quicken Loans Arena as a shot at redemption, having qualified nine wrestlers for the tournament.
Of those nine, six are underclassmen — four sophomores, one redshirt freshman and one true freshman.
“It’s no secret: People are down on us; fans are down on us; press is down on us — everyone’s down on us," Kemerer said. "When I’m in a position like that, I love that.”
Second of all, Kemerer enters with a No. 6 seed next to his name.
That, too, serves as motivation. The sophomore from Murrysville, Pennsylvania, carries a 22-1 record into the NCAA Championships. He is coming off his first (and only) loss in nearly a year, a third-period pin against Ohio State’s Micah Jordan in the Big Ten semifinals.
Kemerer, who has been nursing a knee injury, medically forfeited to sixth place at the Big Tens. He hadn’t lost since last year’s NCAA quarterfinals, after which we rallied for a third-place finish.
“I see that 6 by my name and I do like when people are down on you a little bit,” Kemerer said. “It’s fun to go out and prove people wrong, I guess.”
About that seed…
Iowa 157-pounder Michael Kemerer was 22-0 until he the was pinned by Ohio State’s Micah Jordan. Chad Leistikow / The Register
So, how did Kemerer end up with a No. 6 seed? And, on top of that, how did he end up with a possible quarterfinal matchup with Penn State’s third-seeded Jason Nolf, the defending NCAA champion?
No doubt, it was an unlucky draw.
“If you want to get into that debate, that’s one for the loyal fans who want somebody’s head on a stick,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said Monday. “Other than that, that’s the way it works — there’s formulas now.”
Particularly perplexing about how Kemerer was seeded is that No. 4 seed Joshua Shields of Arizona State has two losses — one of them to Kemerer, 5-2, in the Midlands title bout.
In response to the seeding questions, credit to NCAA spokesman Matt Holmes for trying to provide answers. Holmes was in the room while the six-person committee determined the seedings at each weight. He said the debate at 157 “was one of the longer ones in my five years (observing) the committee … trying to parse through and figure (out) specifically the top four.”
The committee, he said, felt fairly good about giving North Carolina State’s Hayden Hilday (22-0) the top seed. After that, there was much debate between eventual No. 2 Joseph Lavallee of Missouri (29-1), No. 3 Nolf (21-1, with an injury-default loss) and No. 4 Shields (29-2).
Holmes pointed to the committee’s seven-part formula, which weights 25 percent toward head-to-head records but also includes a 10 percent portion of conference-tournament placement. Defaulting to sixth at the Big Tens helped ding Kemerer (and Nolf, who did the same).
“We have to run the numbers with them finishing sixth,” Holmes said.
There is no appeal process. The seeds are the seeds. Regardless, 157 should be a fun, frenzied weight in Cleveland.
“We’re where we are in the bracket,” Brands said. “And it’s time to go.”
The Lee brace
Iowa freshman Spencer Lee is seeded third at 125 pounds entering this week’s tournament at Cleveland. Chad Leistikow / The Register
Will Spencer Lee shed the bulky brace that’s been affixed to his right knee all season long?
“We’ll see,” he said Monday.
The 125-pound freshman, seeded third, said he’s already made a decision. He added that he didn’t need Brands’ permission to fully free the knee, which was surgically repaired after he tore his ACL last February.
“My mind’s good; my body’s good,” Lee said. “I’m ready to wrestle hard.”
At 17-2 in his rookie season, Lee enters his first postseason collegiate tournament with tons of anticipation. The three-time world champion has a chance to become Iowa's first freshman to win an NCAA title since Matt McDonough in 2010.
“It’s been a blast watching him change our room a little bit,” Brands said. “He’s been a hugely positive impact on our entire team, and we’re looking forward to watching him compete.”
A big deal
Brands, a coach in his 12th year, said something Monday he hasn't been able to since 2015:
“We have a heavyweight who’s healthy in the postseason."
Junior Sam Stoll, who had each of his past two seasons cut short by a torn ACL in his left knee, is one of the healthier Hawkeyes heading to Cleveland. He owns at 19-4 record and No. 5 seed.
The native of Kasson, Minnesota, is wrestling well. He has a realistic shot of getting to the national semifinals against top-seeded Kyle Snyder of Ohio State.
“It’s been fun watching him in that room prepare," Brands said. "It’s one of those things where, maybe a year ago, you’re holding your breath a little bit. This year, you’re not holding your breath. I don’t know what the difference is, except there are about five things that are probably the difference.”
Stoll injury-defaulted in his first match of the NCAA Championships in 2016 in New York City. He was already sidelined for last year's version in St. Louis. Now, he hopes to step on the mat and compete ... and become the first Hawkeye heavyweight since Bobby Telford in 2015 to win a match at the NCAA Championships.
"Good for Sam Stoll," Brands said. "Now it's time for him to be at his best."
Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Cody Goodwin look at what Iowa and UNI need to do in Cleveland at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.