MINNEAPOLIS — The opportunity Alex Marinelli has dreamt of will arrive on Sunday afternoon. It's here because of the hours he’s put in since last season ended. It's here because of his determination and natural wrestling talent.
It's here because Marinelli, the Iowa wrestling team’s star 165-pounder, won twice on Saturday to reach the finals of the Big Ten Championships. The sophomore navigated the likes of Ohio State’s Te’Shan Campbell, 6-3, and Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, 2-1, to improve to 22-0 this season.
And now the opportunity to show he is perhaps the nation’s best wrestler in his weight class is in front of him. Marinelli, ranked second nationally, will wrestle Penn State’s top-ranked Vincenzo Joseph in Sunday’s final. Both are seeking their first conference tournament titles.
“Here’s the thing,” Marinelli said underneath Minnesota’s Williams Arena on Saturday evening. “You know exactly how he wrestles, and you know how I wrestle. It’s pretty obvious what our gameplans are going to be.”
Saturday was a big day for Marinelli. He entered as the No. 2 seed at 165 and wrestled like it, recording a combined three takedowns in wins over a pair of top-15 opponents. It was completely different from how he handled this tournament last season.
One year ago, Marinelli entered the event with much of the same credentials. He was undefeated (14-0), seeded second, and after a tremendous regular season, was a favorite to storm to the finals as a redshirt freshman.
But a quarterfinal loss to Michigan’s Logan Massa derailed all of that. Marinelli bounced back to win twice in wrestlebacks, but ended the competition with consecutive losses to Rutgers’ Richie Lewis and to Massa again in the fifth-place bout. It left a sour taste.
“I felt ready,” Marinelli said, “but I wasn’t aware of how much people get up for this tournament, you know? Dual meets, I feel like people don’t care as much.
“Then Big Tens arrive, and it’s like, oh, okay, people show up. It’s this tournament, then nationals. That’s it. That’s where, in my mind, I was like, this is just another match, but it’s more than that. It’s the Big Ten tournament. Everybody is good.”
Marinelli carried that mindset with him all season, defeating seven wrestlers ranked in Trackwrestling’s top-25 poll. He took out Campbell thanks to a pair of takedowns and riding time. He defeated Wick for a third time this season.
Now he gets another crack at Joseph, who Marinelli beat last season 9-6 when Iowa wrestled Penn State in the regular season. But then he watched as Joseph won five matches at the NCAA Championships to claim his second national title.
Marinelli has the chance to prove that could be his routine this season. If he falls short on Sunday, another opportunity will present itself at the national tournament two weeks from now.
It is a challenge Marinelli is up for. Iowa coach Tom Brands likes to tell his athletes to “win everything.” That includes the conference tournament and nationals. Marinelli took a good first step toward that on Saturday.
Hawkeyes sit 4th in the Big Ten team race
As a team, it was something of an up-and-down day for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes sit fourth after Day One. They totaled 83.5 points thanks to two finalists (Marinelli and Spencer Lee) and six other wrestlers that will finish in the top eight. Penn State is first with 131 points, followed by Ohio State (111.5) and Nebraska (84).
“Most important match is the next one in front of us,” Brands said.
It's where Iowa was expected to be, though it was something of a struggle to get to this point.
Overall, the Hawkeyes went 18-11 — 9-6 in the morning, 9-5 in the evening. Of the six alive in wrestlebacks, five have a shot at third place. Two Iowa wrestlers were eliminated during Saturday’s competition: Sam Stoll, who went 1-2 at heavyweight; and Mitch Bowman, who went 0-2 at 174. Both will have to rely on wildcard bids to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Only four wrestlers reached the semifinals: Lee, Marinelli, Austin DeSanto, who lost to Rutgers’ Nick Suriano 6-3 at 133, and Jacob Warner, who dropped a 5-2 decision to Ohio State’s Kollin Moore at 197. A series of tough matchups halted any momentum in the quarterfinals, where Iowa dropped five of nine matches, including four by 2 points or less.
“The theme is that points are hard to come by,” Brands said. “We have to make them go our way. We have to put our holds together, and good things will happen.”
It would take an incredible Sunday for Iowa to catch Ohio State. It will still take a strong day to beat out Nebraska for third. Minnesota isn’t far behind in fifth with 76.5 points and six wrestlers alive in the wrestlebacks.
It will make for an interesting Sunday, but then, this weekend was always going to be interesting. The Big Ten tournament always is.
Lee gets rematch against Northwestern’s Rivera
Spencer Lee looked like the Spencer Lee from last year’s postseason on Saturday.
The sophomore pinned Indiana's Elijah Olider and beat Minnesota's Sean Russell by an 8-0 major decision to reach the finals at 125 pounds. He was aggressive and scored points and generally looked like the guy that won a national title a year ago.
“Overall, I'm pretty happy with my performance,” Lee said. “I think I had a lot more in the tank. I was ready to keep going.”
Lee will need that on Sunday. He will face Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera in the finals, a rematch from last Decembers Midlands Championships finals, won by Rivera, 7-3. It is one of many Big Ten finals that will draw many eyeballs around the wrestling community.
It's also an opportunity Lee has eyed, but he needed to take care of business on Saturday first.
Against Oliver, he scored a quick takedown, rolled up four back points on a tilt, then ran a bar for the pin in one minute, 37 seconds. Against Russell, Lee scored takedowns in the first and third periods and added points via escape, stalling, hands-to-the-face and nearly three minutes of riding time.
“I wrestled a full match, and I wrestled hard,” Lee said. “My mindset was just, keep scoring points. Maybe I could've scored a couple more.”
Now Lee can turn his attention to Rivera, who's held the No. 1 ranking since that victory in December. Lee fell to second after that day, and is now third after a loss to Oklahoma State's Nick Piccininni in February.
He could really shake up the poll with a win on Sunday. Lee already has two wins over Rivera, including a 12-0 major decision at last year's Big Ten tournament.
“Spencer Lee is one of these guys that wants to prove something to somebody,” Brands said. “He wants to prove things to people on the outside, and maybe his opponents, but I think he's starting to prove something to himself.
“It's pride for him. There's a lot of pride.”
Five other Hawkeyes alive for third, NCAA bids secured
If the Hawkeyes are going to usurp Nebraska and hold off Minnesota for third place — or even attempt to run down Ohio State for second — they’ll need to score points in the wrestlebacks during Sunday’s opening session.
Five Iowa wrestlers will have that opportunity: DeSanto, Pat Lugo (149), Kaleb Young (157), Cash Wilcke (184) and Warner. All of them can finish as high as third, but as low as seventh. Max Murin will also go for seventh at 141 pounds.
DeSanto and Warner both fell in their respective semifinals. Lugo, Young and Wilcke all fell in the quarterfinals, but rebounded to win twice in the wrestlebacks to reach the top six.
By the end of Sunday, Iowa will know which wrestlers have automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships, set for two weeks from now in Pittsburgh, and which ones will have to rely on wildcards.
On Saturday, seven wrestlers — Lee, DeSanto, Murin, Lugo, Young, Marinelli and Wilcke — earned bids to the national tournament. Warner can join them with one more win.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2019 Big Ten Wrestling Championships
Team Scores after Day One
1. Penn State 131
2. Ohio State 111.5
3. Nebraska 84
4. Iowa 83.5
5. Minnesota 76.5