NCAA wrestling: Spencer Lee becomes national champion as a true freshman
CLEVELAND — As a roaring wrestling tournament in a roaring basketball arena faced its final 10 matches on the center stage, 20,000-plus rabid fans came to a whisper. It would not last. Spencer Lee would not let it last.
Lee, Iowa’s star true freshman, punctuated his tremendous week here at Quicken Loans Arena with one final masterful performance Saturday night. In the NCAA finals at 125 pounds, Lee beat Rutgers' Nick Suriano 5-1 for his first national title.
"I don't know if it's really set in," Lee said afterward. "I got to hug my teammates and my family — that was an awesome feeling."
The victory was the exclamation point on a weeklong performance worthy of the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler award. Lee won both of his matches Thursday by technical fall and both of his bouts Friday by fall, including a third-period pin over Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, a four-time All-American, in the semifinals.
In doing so, Lee became Iowa’s first true-freshman national finalist since Steve Mocco in 2002. His win over Suriano, who entered Saturday night with a perfect 25-0 record and hadn’t allowed a point all tournament, made him the first Hawkeye true freshman to win an NCAA title since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993 — five years before Lee was born.
This was always something of an expectation for Lee since he first gave his commitment to head coach Tom Brands and the Iowa wrestling program. He instantly became the most heralded Hawkeye recruit ever, a three-time age-level freestyle world champion before he graduated from Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania.
But as the 2017-18 season came into view, Brands faced the unenviable decision of whether to keep Lee, just months removed from surgery to repair a torn-up knee, in a redshirt, or to unleash him on the collegiate wrestling world. Publicly, he asked for patience, but behind closed doors, conversations were in full bloom.
"We had to make sure it was the right thing to do by him first," Brands said. "There was a lot of conversation between him, his family and his staff. They deferred to us, and we knew Spencer was ready."
Lee first donned the all-black singlet with the block letters “IOWA” on the left leg Jan. 5, where he recorded a 46-second pin. Over the next six weeks, he picked off returning All-Americans, national finalists and NCAA champions, causing the rest of the country to stir.
Inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, Lee slowly emerged as a leader of the Iowa wrestling program. His teammates discovered his affinity for Pokémon — his walk-out song on Saturday was the Pokémon television show theme song — was almost as strong as his love for wrestling. He takes that vigor with him to the mat each day.
"Spencer Lee is the man," Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll said. "Just watching the way he competes, the way he dominates and bundles guys up and sticks them — he’s not afraid of anybody, and that’s awesome to see."
Lee’s fearless nature was at the heart of his performance here in Cleveland. It took him less than two minutes to roll up Chattanooga’s Alonzo Allen by an 18-0 technical fall in the morning, and less than four minutes to beat Purdue’s Luke Welch by the same score in the evening.
On Friday, Lee continued his tear. In the quarterfinals, Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni had Lee’s right leg on his shoulder only to watch Lee wiggle free and score a takedown of his own. Moments later, Lee methodically flipped Piccininni, a returning All-American, to his back for a pin.
Then, in the semifinals, Lee again muscled his way out of danger against Tomasello, then dove in for a double leg. A scramble ensued, and Lee emerged on top and locked up a cradle for the pin to reach Saturday’s finals.
"Right now, we’re looking at Spencer Lee," Iowa senior Brandon Sorensen, a four-time All-American, said. "He’s the example right now. He’s doing things right. He’s going out there and putting points on the board and not holding anything back. Right now, that’s great, great freshman leadership."
On Saturday night, Lee faced a somewhat familiar opponent. Suriano, a New Jersey kid, grew up 350 miles from Lee, a Murrysville, Pennsylvania, native. They met twice at the prestigious Super 32 Challenge. In 2012, Suriano beat Lee, then just an eighth-grader, thanks to a takedown in the final seconds. A year later, Lee got Suriano back on a third-period takedown.
That was the last time they met. Suriano went 159-0 and won four state titles at Bergen Catholic, and originally landed at Penn State before transferring to Rutgers ahead of this season. Lee went 144-1 and won three state titles. He took second as a senior, losing while wrestling on a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The two were in the same bracket at the 2017 Midlands, but Lee’s 3-1 loss to Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser spoiled those plans. A potential matchup resurfaced at the Big Ten Conference Tournament, but Lee fell to Tomasello, 2-1, shortly after Suriano medically forfeited out after reaching the semifinals.
So it was here at The Q that it would either happen, and they’d make us wait another season. As Lee torched the bottom side of the bracket, Suriano went tech, pin, major, and then picked off Lehigh’s Darian Cruz, the defending NCAA champ, in the semifinals.
Saturday night’s matchup presented plenty of hype — one, a three-time age-level world champion, against another whose only college loss on two healthy legs came against a senior-level world silver medalist. The fans inside Quicken Loans salivated up until the opening whistle.
Lee scored a takedown right at the end of the first period for a 2-0 lead. He escaped to open the second period and used stellar shot defense to keep Suriano at bay. Suriano chose neutral in the third so as to avoid going underneath Lee. It mattered not. Lee ran through Suriano for another takedown, securing the victory.
"Just feeling that shot, I knew I could take him down later in the match as well," Lee said. "We haven't wrestled each other since I was a freshman in high school; he was a sophomore. So feeling each other out: What do we have? Is there really a big difference? I mean, there is. We both have improved a lot, hopefully.
"But I think that was kind of the main thing. I got the takedown. I knew it's going to be there again. And I got it in the end."
Later on, Lee took his spot on top of the podium and received his miniature golden NCAA trophy, and all manner of noise broke out. The Iowa contingent was the loudest, and they hope Spencer Lee's national title on Saturday night is just the first of many.
"Here’s the thing," said Alex Marinelli, Iowa’s redshirt freshman 165-pounder, “these guys don’t want to face Spencer Lee, but they’re stuck with him for three more years.
"And that’s scary."
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships
Final Team Scores
1. Penn State, 141.5
2. Ohio State, 133.5
3. Iowa, 97
T4. Michigan, 80
T4. N.C. State, 80
Individual Finals Results
125: Spencer Lee (Iowa) over Nick Suriano (Rutgers), 5-1
133: Seth Gross (South Dakota State) over Stevan Micic (Michigan), 13-8
141: Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) over Bryce Meredith (Wyoming), 7-4
149: Zain Retherford (Penn State) over Ronald Perry (Lock Haven), 6-2
157: Jason Nolf (Penn State) over Hayden Hidlay (North Carolina State), 6-2
165: Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) over Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), 6-1
174: Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) over Mark Hall (Penn State), 8-2
184: Bo Nickal (Penn State) over Myles Martin (Ohio State) by fall, 2:30
197: Michael Macchiavello (North Carolina State) over Jared Haught (Virginia Tech), 3-1
285: Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) over Adam Coon (Michigan), 3-2