Tony Cassioppi and Nelson Brands, Iowa's true freshmen stars, to compete at Midlands

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — True story: Tony Cassioppi tried to compete at the Midlands Championships last year, as a senior in high school.

“I contacted who I knew, and they said they weren’t allowing high-schoolers last year,” said Cassioppi, Iowa’s star true freshman heavyweight. “With the rule that high school kids could wrestle in college tournaments, I thought I might have a chance to get in.

"But they weren’t letting high-schoolers in."

What a story that would’ve been.

But Cassioppi will finally get his chance this weekend.

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi (right) and Aaron Costello wrestle at 285 during the wrestle-offs on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

The Midlands is considered one of college wrestling’s toughest midseason meets, but one unique aspect is that it operates similar to an open tournament. That allows unattached true freshman and post-graduate wrestlers to compete alongside their collegiate counterparts. Dan Dennis, a 2010 NCAA finalist for Iowa, competed there in 2012 alongside then-true freshmen Cory Clark and Thomas Gilman, for example.

In the case of Iowa, which is ranked second nationally by Trackwrestling, the Midlands is where the team can take its temperature in a tournament setting and for some weights to get settled. It’s also arguably the biggest folkstyle competition for freshmen wrestlers who are redshirting.

Enter Cassioppi and fellow redshirt Nelson Brands, who are a combined 24-0 this season. Cassioppi has been the headliner, at 11-0 with 10 pins. Brands, the son of associate head coach Terry Brands, has been dominant, too, at 13-0 with seven bonus-point victories at 165 pounds.

The most challenging part about the redshirt season so far?

“Paying for stuff isn’t a whole lot of fun,” said Cassioppi, who came to Iowa from Hononegah High School in northwest Illinois, about an hour from the Sears Centre Arena, where the Midlands will be contested this weekend.

“That last tournament (UNI Open), I wrestled for like three minutes and paid $70 for the hotel and $30 for the entry fee.”

That answer may change after this weekend.

The Midlands will feature a bevy of ranked teams and individuals. The field will be tougher than the Grand View Open, Lindenwood Open and UNI Open, three tournaments both Cassioppi and Nelson Brands have won this season.

At heavyweight, Cassioppi will get to test himself alongside the likes of No. 6-ranked Youssif Hemida, of Maryland; No. 8 Trent Hilger, of Wisconsin; No. 12 Jake Gunning, of Buffalo; and his teammate, No. 3-ranked Sam Stoll.

“It’s going to be the biggest tournament I’ve had yet,” Cassioppi said. “I’m ready to go out there and see what I can do and wrestle my hardest. Hopefully I can win the tournament.”

► RELATED: Iowa's Mitch Bowman is down at 174 pounds for the Midlands

Nelson Brands will face a similar gauntlet at 165. The field includes Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, who’s ranked No. 2 nationally; Arizona State’s Josh Shields, who’s No. 5; Northern Iowa’s Bryce Steiert, who’s No. 12; and, oh yeah, Iowa’s Alex Marinelli, who’s ranked fourth.

A three-time state champion out of Iowa City West, Nelson Brands made a name for himself as a takedown artist who piled up points. He has brought that same firepower to the Division I level. In his 13 matches, he’s outscored his opponents by a combined 98-29.

“Being in the room, I’m working on literally everything,” Nelson Brands said. “In high school, during my freshman year, Mark Reiland said it best — I was not consistent at all. But now, I’m in there every day and I’m getting better and more consistent in my matches.

“I’m loving it. I love wrestling Marinelli and (Kaleb) Young and those guys. Sometimes I’ll get the crap kicked out of me, but that’s part of wrestling, and I love it.”

Nelson Brands has long attended the Midlands as a spectator. He remembers watching Charlie Falck, a two-time All-American for Iowa, compete there a decade ago. He said he’s excited to finally get a chance to compete there this weekend.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands — Nelson’s uncle — is ready to see where his his star freshmen stack up, too.

“The good thing about the Midlands is the competition is at level where they have to get ready to go at another level,” Tom Brands said. “This isn’t something where you just throw your hat in the ring and see how it goes. These guys are as serious as our number one guys.

“That’s the philosophy for our redshirts. When you’re redshirting, you don’t act like you’re redshirting.”

Here are some other storylines to follow and things to watch at the Midlands Championships:

Many Hawkeye reserves in action: In addition to the usual starters, a number of other Iowa wrestlers will also compete this weekend — Perez Perez (125), Paul Glynn(133), Keegan Shaw, Jeren Glosser (both 157), Jeremiah Moody (165), Connor Corbin (197) and Aaron Costello (285).

Iowa sending four at 141: Max Murin, Vince Turk, Carter Happel and Justin Stickley are all expected to compete for Iowa this weekend. Murin has been the starter since the team’s wrestle-offs in November, and is 5-1 overall. But Tom Brands hinted that performances could dictate who mans the starting spot for the second half of the season.

“Still being contested,” Brands said. “This is more than just finding out who’s going to be the number one guy in our lineup. This is about guys competing at a higher level and proving yourself again.”

Hey, Northern Iowa will be there, too: The Panthers, ranked 20th by Trackwrestling, will also compete at the Midlands Championships. Northern Iowa hasn’t been at the Midlands since 2015. The Panthers’ best Midlands finish is fifth, in 2013. 

They also brought some familiar redshirts: A handful of former Iowa high school wrestling stars will be competing at the Midlands for the Panthers — Kyle Biscoglia (formerly of Waukee), Michael Blockhus (New Hampton), Drew Bennett and Cayd Lara (both of Fort Dodge).

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

Midlands Championships

WHEN: Dec. 29-30, Saturday-Sunday
WHERE: Sears Centre Arena, in Hoffman Estates, Illinois
WATCH: Flowrestling/BTN Plus