Wrestling Mailbag: Midseason grades, Spencer Lee and what would an Iowa-UNI dual look like?

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

We’re officially into the second half of the high school and collegiate wrestling seasons. So let’s hand out some grades, shall we?

For Iowa, a solid B. The Hawkeyes cruised to a Midlands title and started 6-0 in duals. If you’re into the negative side of things, you’ll point to the fact that they haven’t been fully healthy yet and kept it a little too close with Iowa State. If you’re optimistic, you’ll point to that perfect record and a runaway Midlands crown and say, "Well, they haven’t been fully healthy yet."

All things considered, Iowa is right about where I thought it’d be. Having Michael Kemerer in the lineup would make them the heavy favorites for second come March, and perhaps make a head-to-head dual with Penn State interesting. Without Kemerer, it’s a real fight for second place. Others will need to step up. That’s the lens through which you should view this season.

Iowa's Spencer Lee adjusts his headgear during his quarterfinal match against Central Michigan's Drew Hildebrandt. Lee advance to the 125-pound finals at the 2018 Midlands Championships.

For Iowa State, an A-minus. I think the dual against Iowa opened a lot of eyes, but the big thing for these Cyclones moving forward — and I’m stealing a line from coach Kevin Dresser here — is to be consistent and improve. A third-place finish at the Southern Scuffle, without Willie Miklus, a 165-pounder or Ian Parker finishing, is an encouraging way to end the first half.

The Big 12 slate is up next for Iowa State, and that means many winnable duals — North Dakota State, Fresno State, Rider, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah Valley and Oregon State, plus some stiff tests in South Dakota State and Oklahoma State. If the Cyclones are truly on the upswing, like many (myself included) believe, they’ll win many of these duals, some handily.

For Northern Iowa, a B-minus. Various struggles have plagued the Panthers this season, such as health and some lineup juggling. They lost to Pittsburgh, beat West Virginia, then lost handily to Cornell, but then erupted at the Midlands Championships and took second. A mixed bag so far. These Panthers have some weaknesses, but their strengths are, well, really strong.

There’s still a lot of season left for all three teams, and only a month and a half for the high school teams here in the state. Buckle up.

Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag. Most of the collegiate duals are out of state this week. The Cyclones travel to North Dakota State on Wednesday, but then host Fresno State on Sunday. Northern Iowa wrestles at South Dakota State on Friday and Nebraska on Saturday. Iowa travels to Minnesota on Sunday.

Please give me a follow on Twitter, and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.

Had a couple of questions come in right after the Midlands, so I’ll start with those here. Thanks for your patience, Craig.

This is a hard thing to judge. There are ways we can try, of course, such as counting out the number of past All-Americans or NCAA qualifiers at each weight. We can also look at rankings. We usually use Trackwrestling, but we’re going to use Flowrestling for a moment because they did the math for us: there were 56 ranked wrestlers in this year’s competition.

That’s a lot. It would be an arduous task to go back through the years and count out the ranked wrestlers and All-Americans. But 56 ranked wrestlers, in addition to some talented redshirts and post-grads, makes for an incredibly tough competition.

We could also take the bird’s-eye view. Five years ago, in 2013, these were the top five teams at the Midlands: Iowa, Edinboro, Michigan, Illinois, Northern Iowa. Only two — the Hawkeyes and Illini — finished in the top 10 at that year’s NCAAs.

Ten years ago, the Midlands top five went Iowa, Iowa State (the Hawkeyes beat out the Cyclones for first by three points), Missouri, Wisconsin, Northwestern. At the 2008 NCAA Championships, only Iowa and Iowa State finished in the top 10. (Surprisingly, though, Central Michigan took sixth at the Midlands that year, then tied for seventh at the NCAAs.)

So, is the Midlands weaker than it was 10 years ago? That’s a matter of opinion. I think people can sometimes dismiss certain events because of who isn’t there. But Trackwrestling’s top 10 teams were spread out over the holiday tournament period. Take a look:

  • Midlands: No. 3 Iowa, No. 9 Arizona State and No. 10 Northwestern
  • Southern Scuffle: No. 1 Penn State and No. 4 Oklahoma State
  • South Beach Duals: No. 5 Minnesota and No. 7 N.C. State
  • Did not compete: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 Nebraska

When you look at it like that, the Midlands was technically tougher than both the Scuffle and the South Beach Duals. Or you can at least make that case. Either way, the Midlands remains a tough tournament. It is every year. How tough, I’ll leave up to you.

There’s a few different ways you can look at this. Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera beat Spencer Lee 7-3, in the Midlands finals. Rivera had three takedowns — one in the first, two in the second — while Lee had none. On its face, that’s a really solid win for Rivera.

But it does not tell the whole story. I went back and watched the match again to answer this question. Lee took ground virtually the entire match when in neutral, and Rivera only took about six or seven shots. But he scored on three of them. 

Rivera spent the entire match avoiding Lee’s ties, and he took shots from space and finished quickly. He did a good job defending Lee’s shots, too. Entering the third period, he had more than a minute of riding time. When Lee chose top, Rivera escaped and never let Lee work for a turn.

This was a well-executed gameplan. I wouldn’t call 7-3 lopsided, but I do think Rivera provided the blueprint on how to beat Lee. 

Here’s the thing: Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello supposedly did the same last year at the Big Ten tournament. It was very similar to how Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser beat Lee at the Midlands. Keep it close late, and capitalize on a chance in the third period.

When Lee and Tomasello faced off at the NCAA tournament, Lee not only won, but won emphatically. He adjusted and wrestled his match, and it was nothing like how they wrestled the previous two times.

Iowa wrestles at Northwestern on Jan. 27. Perhaps we will see a rematch there. If not, we’ll surely see one at the Big Ten Conference tournament. Whenever it occurs, it’ll be interesting to see how Lee adjusts. 

Iowa's Spencer Lee wrestles Central Michigan's Drew Hildebrandt in the quarterfinals of the 2018 Midlands Championships. Lee beat Hildebrandt, 18-0, on his way to the finals at 125 pounds.


"Concern" is unlikely to be the right word, but I do think people should temper expectations a little bit.

I think a lot of people had this idea that Jacob Warner would come in and be like Lee, and that’s really not a fair comparison. Warner is good. He was a ballyhooed recruit. But Lee is a three-time age-level world champion. It’s really not fair to compare anybody to that standard.

In Trackwrestling’s latest poll, Warner checks in at No. 6 at 197 pounds. In front of him are Penn State’s Bo Nickal, Princeton’s Pat Brucki, Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, Iowa State’s Willie Miklus and Army’s Rocco Caywood. Stanford’s Nathan Traxler and Virginia’s Jay Aiello finish off the top eight.

Outside of Nickal, I’d say Warner has a fair shot against any of them. He’s already beat Miklus twice, and he lost to Caywood 5-3 at the Midlands. Generally speaking, after Nickal (and maybe Moore), 197 is open. Those last six spots are up for grabs. I believe Warner is capable of being on the podium this season.

That said, the one troublesome thing about Warner’s Midlands performance was that, in his quarterfinal loss to Tanner Sloan, he let a simple tilt beat him.

Warner was wrestling really well in that match. Came back after giving up an early takedown. Was riding tough in the second period until he he got a little careless attempting a tilt on the edge. It wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of it all. Sloan only led 4-3 at that point.

Warner got to his feet, and when Sloan brought him back down, Warner tried to roll and Sloan caught him for two backs. Warner kind of put his head down after that. Sloan then locked up wrist control and turned Warner for four.

Warner never picked his head back up afterward, and a 4-3 lead ballooned into 14-3 in about a minute.

If Warner picks his head up after that first tilt and remains calm, it’s only 6-3 and still a match. He did a nice job of bouncing back with wins over Wisconsin’s Beau Breske and Fresno State’s Josh Hokit the next day, then ran into Caywood, who’s tough as nails.

Warner may win a national title before he leaves Iowa. I think he has the talent for more. But, like all young wrestlers, he still has some learning and growing to do before he gets there. He’s only a redshirt freshman, after all.

This came in response to Iowa and Northern Iowa’s 1-2 finish at the Midlands, and I agree, it looks like a lot of fun. Let’s go weight-by-weight:

  • 125: Lee over Jay Schwarm, with bonus; 5-0, Iowa
  • 133: Austin DeSanto over Jack Skudlarczyk, with bonus; 9-0, Iowa
  • 141: Josh Alber over Max Murin; 9-3, Iowa
  • 149: Max Thomsen over Pat Lugo; 9-6, Iowa
  • 157: Kaleb Young over Pat Schoenfelder, with bonus; 13-6, Iowa
  • 165: Alex Marinelli over Bryce Steiert; 16-6, Iowa
  • 174: Taylor Lujan over Mitch Bowman; 16-9, Iowa
  • 184: Drew Foster over Cash Wilcke; 16-12, Iowa
  • 197: Warner over Tyrell Gordon; 19-12, Iowa
  • 285: Sam Stoll over Izaak Shedenhelm, with bonus; 25-12, Iowa

So Iowa takes 6 of 10 matches and scores bonus in four of them, at least on paper. I’d love to see this dual. Iowa and Northern Iowa haven’t wrestled since the 2011-12 season. It’d be nice to see them come together and do it again.

I’ll say 5.5.

I think you can confidently say Lee, Young, Marinelli and Stoll are the solid All-American picks. I do believe DeSanto is wrestling well enough to get there, too, but 133 is loaded.

Then there’s Murin, Lugo, Wilcke and Warner. With any of those guys, it wouldn’t surprise me either way.

This could easily change over the next two months. Iowa’s January schedule features Minnesota on the road, Rutgers at home, then two roadies at Illinois and Northwestern. In February, it’s at Nebraska, home against Maryland and Indiana, then at Wisconsin and Oklahoma State.

Perhaps my opinion (and yours) will change in that span. But for now, that number seems like a good debating point.

My gut says Aaron Costello.

Tom Brands has some level of consistency when it comes to keeping his guys fresh and choosing spots to wrestle them when they’re dealing with stuff. I anticipate we’ll see Sam Stoll more frequently during this half of the season, but not Sunday.

But who knows. Maybe we will see Stoll against Gable Steveson. That’d be a lot of fun. I think, at this point, you’d call that a bigger test for Stoll, because Steveson is ripping through this heavyweight field right now. He’s 19-0 with 10 bonus-point wins and is currently ranked No. 1 by Track.

Steveson wrestles like a smaller guy but is strong as an ox. He’s so fluid and savvy, and he will test Stoll’s athleticism and quickness. I’m intrigued by that matchup, and I think Stoll can definitely learn a lot by wrestling him.

But I just don’t think we’ll see it on Sunday.

I hope I’m wrong, though.

That’s not nice.

I do think Marlon Mack rushes 40 times for 200 yards … but in a 48-38 loss.

Because, you know, the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.

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