Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow and Cody Goodwin look back at how Friday turned out for Iowa and UNI.
CLEVELAND — Tom Brands expressed cautious optimism after Thursday’s opening session of the NCAA Wrestling Championships. The Iowa coach sought consistency from his wrestlers — more bonus points, more wins, continued toughness, sharp mentalities.
On Friday, his team delivered in sterling fashion. As the other trophy contenders seemingly stubbed their proverbial toes, the Hawkeyes flourished, staying steady and continuing their bonus-point barrage. They sit third entering Saturday with 86.5 points, behind Penn State (120.5) and Ohio State (109.5).
“There was a lot of wrestling left after this morning,” Brands said, “and there was a lot of wrestling left after yesterday. Now we’re getting to the end. We’ve got our guys in position for placing.”
It was not a banner day, but it was encouraging from nearly all angles. After a rough Thursday evening, where just three Iowa wrestlers advanced to the quarterfinals, the team held serve during Friday’s morning session, then took off in the evening.
In all, five Hawkeye wrestlers will leave Quicken Loans Arena as All-Americans. Spencer Lee will have a shot at a national title, reaching the finals at 125 pounds. He secured two pins on Friday — a second-period fall over Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni in the quarterfinals, and a third-period pin over Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello in the semifinals.
“I think it has everything to do with it, just believing in yourself and your training and focusing on wrestling every position as hard as you can," Lee said, "because if you don't against an opponent as good as that one, he'll capitalize on you. And I knew I had to step it up for today.”
Alex Marinelli, Iowa’s 165-pound redshirt freshman, joined Lee in the semifinals, but fell to Illinois’s Isaiah Martinez, 5-2. He remains in the top six and remains alive for third. Michael Kemerer, the Hawkeyes’ third quarterfinalist, lost to eventual finalist Jason Nolf of Penn State. He bounced back with a 6-2 win over Arizona State’s Josh Shields to move into the top six at 157.
Iowa coach Tom Brands recaps session three at the NCAA championships.
As Lee blazed his way to Saturday night, his teammates barreled through the wrestlebacks, anchoring Iowa’s third-place standing.
Senior Brandon Sorensen won four matches on Friday, including three by major decision, to become Iowa’s 20th four-time All-American. He’s into the top six at 149 pounds and remains alive for third.
Sam Stoll contributed a pin and a major decision en route to an All-American finish at heavyweight and remains alive for third. Even the guys that eventually were eliminated on Friday — Vince Turk at 141, Mitch Bowman at 184, Cash Wilcke at 197 — combined for two more bonus-point wins.
“Stoll and Sorensen, they came back strong,” Brands said. “You throw Kemerer in there, he came back strong. We’ve got five all-Americans.”
As Iowa piled up points, its competitors faltered. Michigan entered Friday night with a six-point advantage over the Hawkeyes with five semifinalists and none in the wrestlebacks. The Wolverine wrestlers combined to go just 2-3 and watched as Iowa surpassed them.
North Carolina State, which sat fifth after Friday morning and is in fourth with entering Saturday, lost one of its two wrestlers on the back side and pushed two of its three semifinalists to Saturday night. Only two N.C. State wrestlers can score points on Saturday morning.
Even Missouri rebounded from a rough Thursday morning to be within 12.5 points of a trophy entering Friday night, but will enter Saturday with just four wrestlers, all of whom are on the back side of their respective brackets.
Plenty of wrestling remains, of course, as there are points still to be had for Iowa, Michigan and N.C. State. But the Hawkeyes have firmly put themselves in position to bring home not just a trophy, but the third-place trophy, an idea many thought might not be possible after the conference tournament showing in East Lansing, Michigan.
Lee blazes into the NCAA finals
The future became the present the moment Brands decided to remove Spencer Lee’s redshirt. On Saturday night, Lee could potentially make history.
Iowa’s star true freshman continued his miraculous tournament by pinning through the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the NCAA finals at 125 pounds. He will face Rutgers’ Nick Suriano on the center stage Saturday night.
“I mean, at this point I don't think it really is like a question,” Lee said. “It’s more of, what can I do to better myself and hope to represent my university the best I can?”
Lee’s performance is something worthy of an NCAA tournament's most outstanding wrestler award. After back-to-back technical falls, wherein he outscored his opposition a combined 36-0, he followed up with back-to-back pins. He’s scored 23 of Iowa’s team points.
He’s yet to wrestle a full match this tournament.
“I know about him,” Suriano said. “(But) it’s another match. I really believe I'm the best, and we're going to scrap tomorrow. And hopefully Rutgers is fired up.”
Iowa’s Spencer Lee is headed to the NCAA Finals at 125 pounds.
Marinelli falls to Martinez in the semifinals
Alex Marinelli continued his hot wrestling by reaching the semifinals at 165 pounds on Friday, but his run on the front side was cut short thanks to an otherworldly — and historically great — Big Ten opponent.
Illinois’s Isaiah Martinez downed Marinelli, 5-2, to reach the finals for the fourth consecutive season, sending Marinelli to the wrestlebacks. Martinez connected on takedowns in the first and second periods, and used stellar defense to stifle Marinelli’s offense throughout.
“He's a good wrestler, real good wrestler, good hand fighter, strong,” said Martinez, who become just the 16th wrestler to win four Big Ten titles two weeks ago. “Yeah, those matches are good, right? They remind you of how to grit things out.”
The loss came after Marinelli’s miraculous comeback to even reach Friday night’s semifinal round. He surrendered two first-period takedowns to Rider’s Chad Walsh and trailed 4-2 entering the second, but rallied with two takedowns of his own to win 7-6 and advance.
Marinelli’s trek for third begins with Wisconsin’s Evan Wick on Saturday. Win, and he’ll go for third. Lose, and he’ll go for fifth.
The fifth-seeded freshman discusses his 7-6 win against Rider’s Chad Walsh.
Sorensen makes history, Saturday’s wrestleback matches
Brandon Sorensen made a little Iowa wrestling history on Friday night.
In beating Ohio State’s Ke-Shawn Hayes, 9-0, in the bloodround at 149 pounds, the Hawkeye senior become the 20th in program history to earn All-American honors four times. He is just the third to do so and not win a national title.
Sorensen remains alive for third, though, and will wrestle Princeton’s Matthew Kolodzik Saturday morning. Win, he goes for third; lose, he goes for fifth. (For what it's worth: Lock Haven's Ronald Perry, who beat Sorensen in the second round, reached the finals at 149 and will wrestle Penn State's Zain Retherford on Saturday night.)
Iowa’s other wrestleback matches on Saturday include: Michael Kemerer against Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo at 157 pounds and Sam Stoll versus Duke’s Jacob Kasper at 285. Session Five begins at 10 a.m., central time.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships
1. Penn State, 120.5
2. Ohio State, 109.5
3. Iowa, 86.5
4. Michigan, 73.5
5. North Carolina State, 69.5