Austin DeSanto came to Iowa's wrestling program to win — both individually and with a team

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — True story: Terry Brands wanted to recruit Austin DeSanto when he was in high school.

DeSanto first made his name as a senior at Exeter Township in Pennsylvania. That season, he beat Spencer Lee, then the No. 1 overall 2017 recruit who came to Iowa and won an NCAA title last year as a true freshman, in the state finals at 126 pounds.

The match, a 6-5 decision, was Lee’s only loss of his high school career. He wrestled that match on a torn-up knee. But that mattered not to Terry Brands, the Iowa wrestling team’s associate head coach. DeSanto had already signed to wrestle at Drexel by then, but Brands was intrigued.

“There was something with him that caught his eye,” recalls Tom Brands, Iowa’s head coach.

Austin DeSanto stands for a portrait during Iowa wrestling media day Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.

Fast forward a year and a half, and DeSanto is standing inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, smiling from ear to ear. After a solid freshman season at Drexel, he transferred to Iowa in the offseason, and will bolster an already-strong Hawkeye lineup for the 2018-19 season.

“I like to score points and I heard (Iowa fans) like points put on the board, so that will be a good thing,” DeSanto said. “This is the place to be. This is the perfect spot for me. Everybody has the same mindset and the people are good. It is everything I dreamed of.”

DeSanto made waves as a true freshman last season, wherein he went 30-7 at 133 pounds and came just one victory shy of earning All-American honors. His high-pace wrestling style became appointment viewing — of his 30 victories, 11 were by technical superiority.

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But after a year in the Drexel room, DeSanto sought a change, and announced shortly after the season his intent to transfer. Iowa immediately jumped into the mix, and brought DeSanto out for a visit during the UWW Freestyle World Cup in April.

Later that month, DeSanto declared he would join the Hawkeyes. They fit like a puzzle. DeSanto would provide Iowa with an immediate All-American contender at 133, the lone weight the Hawkeyes didn’t qualify for last year’s NCAA Championships.

Iowa enters the 2018-19 season ranked third nationally by Trackwrestling, and returns four All-Americans form last year’s third-place team finish at the national tournament — Lee, the returning champion at 125 pounds; Alex Marinelli, who took sixth at 165; Michael Kemerer, a two-time All-American at 157 who’s now up at 174; and heavyweight Sam Stoll, who took fifth.

As many as five new faces are expected to join them in this year’s lineup, guys like Max Murin at 141, Pat Lugo at 149, Kaleb Young at 157 and Jacob Warner at 197. Cash Wilcke, a two-time NCAA qualifier at 197, is now down at 184. The expectations are high, as all 10 presumed starters are currently ranked at their respective weights by Trackwrestling.

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DeSanto is among them, checking in at No. 9 at 133. He arrived in Iowa City over the summer and immediately fit in with the rest of the team. His addition now makes five Pennsylvania natives on Iowa’s roster. The others: Lee, Michael Kemerer, Max Murin and Kaleb Young, all of whom figure to contribute to the Hawkeyes this season.

“He is the most wild dude,” said Lee, Iowa’s starter at 125 pounds. “He’s the first person running in the circle. First person on the ropes. When we’re doing our 6 a.m. lifts, our trainer says to get going, and he’s already got a lap in. He’s very energetic. He kind of wakes everybody up.

“He brings great energy to our program. He’s perfect for here. This is the perfect place for him. We’re hoping to score a lot of points as a one-two punch. That’s the plan we joked about before he even committed here. We’re going to have a lot of fun. That’s the plan.”

Iowa volunteer assistant coach Bobby Telford (left) jokes around with Austin DeSanto during Hawkeye wrestling media day on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Here’s the wet blanket: DeSanto brings with him a less-than-stellar reputation after last year’s NCAA Championships. At times, his aggression spilled over into frustration, most notably against Michigan’s Stevan Micic, when, in the midst of a lopsided loss, DeSanto cart-wheeled into an arm-bar that resembled fighting more than wrestling.

Brands was aware of that perception, and acknowledged as much during the team’s media day on Monday. But it was not enough to stop him from recruiting DeSanto — remember, this is the guy that recruited Pat Downey last season. 

More than anything, Brands believes in his ability to bring out DeSanto’s best consistently while also ensuring that aggression doesn’t get out of hand. Brands himself became a star in college for wrestling an aggressive, in-your-face style that led to three national titles under Dan Gable.

“He’s a new face that brings an energy and a competitiveness that is contagious,” Brands said. “There’s a lot out there about, maybe there's only one program for him, that's this program. There's one coach for him, that's this coach.

“The way that he competes, sometimes he takes it overboard a little bit. We have to temper that. At the same time we're going to temper that without taking anything away from him edge-wise. We want him to have that edge. We want him to have that competitive fire.

“I think he’s going to be a fan favorite right away.”

DeSanto said he feels like he’s already made gains, specifically in his mental toughness. He’s practiced with Lee and Murin and Lugo since he’s been in Iowa City. He’s enjoyed the upgrade in talent that surrounds him, and feels he’ll be much better this season than he was last season.

That’s good news for Iowa, which is now eight years removed from its last national team title. DeSanto chose to join the Hawkeyes because he feels like they’ll help him reach his individual goals, and Brands recruited DeSanto because he feels like he can help the team reach theirs.

“You have to be mentally strong to deal with these guys every single day,” DeSanto said. “You can’t be freaking out and getting your butt whooped. Because you’ll get your butt whooped even more in here. Just being tough and mentally strong in here is what I’ve learned the most.

“It’s been awesome. The team’s awesome. The people around here are awesome. It’s kind of like a dream come true. And there’s so much more competition in the room, and it’ll make me better and get me to where I need to be.”

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