Wrestling Mailbag: Looking at Iowa's Big 3, hands to the face, Spencer Lee and Alex Marinelli

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

We're only a few days removed from both the Big Ten and Big 12 tournaments, so here's the early prognosis on Iowa's big three teams.

For Iowa: Nine qualifiers is a good number, especially with the wildcard addition of senior heavyweight Sam Stoll. His inclusion bumps the Hawkeyes' odds for an 11th NCAA trophy in 13 years up, though it remains to be seen by how much.

For Iowa State: Nine qualifiers seems like a night-and-day difference from a year ago, when Jarrett Degen was the Cyclones' only national qualifier. The wet blanket, of course, is that not all of them will be expected to make similar runs at the national tournament next week. We'll know more once the brackets are released.

For Northern Iowa: There are only six qualifiers, but they're UNI's six heavy hitters. Each of them could score points in Pittsburgh, and depending on their draws, it's conceivable that all of them could threaten the podium.

So things look good for the state of Iowa and its Division I wrestling programs. In all, 24 wrestlers are headed to the NCAA Championships from , and many are expected to contend, either for podium spots or national titles.

Fun times for wrestling fans here in Iowa.

Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag. The brackets for the national tournament get released on Wednesday evening. The competition begins next week. The party rolls on.

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.

They’re both pretty straightforward. The key area for hands-to-the-face is between just below the eyebrows and the mouth. The rulebook says “any part of the fingers, thumb, palm or base of the palm coming into contact in the area of the eyes, nose or mouth is an unnecessary roughness violation.”

So, don’t touch the eyes, nose or mouth with your fingers, thumb or palm, and you’re good. Seems simple enough, however silly the rule may be. 

This question was asked, I’m presuming, in response to Spencer Lee’s finals match against Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera. Rivera benefited from a hands-to-the-face point in the third period, but only after his coaches challenged it. I find the ability to challenge such a rule to be a little silly, but they allow challenges for locked-hands calls as well, which I do like. Tough situation.

Up to that point, officials were pretty lenient with calling it all weekend, at least from my point of view. That was a welcome change of pace. I don’t like the rule. Wrestling is an aggressive sport. When I first started, applying hands to the face was one of the first shot setups I learned — pop your opponent in the face, shoot a double. It’s crazy to me that that was basically legislated out.

Now, I’m not for eye-poking or gouging or any of that, and that should be penalized if it’s found to be intentional. Eye pokes happen. Wrestlers lose contacts all the time. For officials, that’s probably a hard thing to gauge, whether or not something was intentional, so I get why they applied this sort-of catch-all rule.

I watched the Lee-Rivera final mat-side, and both wrestlers applied their hands to the other's face or general area included in the rule. It’s wrestling. It happens. It looked like Rivera could’ve been called for hands to the face early in the match. I heard Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands say something to the official seconds after.

The call that gave Rivera a point came when he dug for underhooks in the third period and Lee straightened his arms out, a simple and effective defensive skill against underhooks. That technique might have been legislated out because of the rule, too, but give kudos to Northwestern’s coaching staff for challenging when they did. The rule stinks, but I won’t be upset over coaches who take advantage of it.

I’d like to see this rule done away with altogether. I don’t think it’s very good for the sport. It causes a lot of confusion when, throughout the regular season, it’s a point of emphasis, but then it’s not always called in the postseason. If you want to penalize eye-gouging, I’m all in. That’s dirty.

But hands to the face? That’s just wrestling. 

You can read the official “hands-to-the-face” rule here. You can watch Lee’s match against Rivera from this past weekend below. 


I thought Lee wrestled well all weekend. He was aggressive and attacked and generally looked pretty good. He pinned Indiana’s Elijah Oliver in one minute, 37 seconds. He beat Minnesota’s Sean Russell, 8-0, in the semifinals, thanks to two takedowns, a stalling point, an escape, a hands-to-the-face point and riding time.

Then, of course, the Rivera match. Lee was in deep on a shot in the first period, but couldn’t finish. He escaped and scored a takedown to lead 3-0 in the second and added riding time. Generally speaking, he was the better guy for six minutes, then Rivera escaped, added a point on hands-to-the-face, then scored two takedowns.

Rivera’s takedown in sudden victory was a thing of beauty from a wrestling geek’s standpoint. Lee got in deep on a double leg, but Rivera snuck his left arm under Lee’s foot, which didn’t allow Lee to cut the corner and finish. It allowed just enough time for Rivera to adjust, dig for underhooks, and turn it into his shot for two near the edge.

Iowa fans might not like it, but seriously, it was an incredible sequence of events.

I absolutely think Lee can make a second run. Remember, he didn’t win a Big Ten title last year, then was perhaps the best individual wrestler on the mat at the NCAA Championships. I’m not sure what was said or how he trained between last season’s conference and national tournaments, but it clearly worked. 

But, remember, winning an NCAA tournament is tough, regardless of how Lee made it look last season and how some other guys make it look year to year. It will take his best effort in Pittsburgh to get it done. I believe he’s capable. You should, too.

Dan Gable made this phrase famous during his tenure as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. The philosophy was simple — attack, attack and attack again. Score points. Embarrass your opponent. If one attack doesn’t work, use it to set up another. Be aggressive. Continue to wrestle hard, regardless of the score or situation. Attack.

That’s exactly what Alex Marinelli did against Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph on Sunday.

It was seriously one of the best matches I’ve ever seen Marinelli wrestle since I’ve covered the team. He basically wrestled Joseph in a phone booth in the first period, constantly stalking him and working for hand fights and inside control. That didn’t allow Joseph to work in space, where he’s extremely dangerous.

Then, of course, you guys know what happened. Escape Joseph in the second, followed by the feet-to-back move from Marinelli for a 6-1 lead. Another takedown for Marinelli in the third sealed the deal. He is Iowa’s 200th individual Big Ten champ.

The match itself was brilliant, but his interview afterward was more telling.

"After the match, it was weird, because I felt like I could keep going," Marinelli said. "I didn't realize the match had ended and never focused on the score. That's how it should be. You shouldn't worry about the score, the time, or about how you feel. I didn't know anything in that match except to just wrestle.

"Tonight was about getting to my attacks and that's it. I didn't have to be content and I went out there and wrestled."

That quote will probably make Gable smile.

They’ve been unbelievable. I love watching them compete. Bo Nickal is something of a wizard with some of his attacks. Jason Nolf is just fluid and technically sound, almost floating from one attack to the next. They both make wrestling fun.

This year, Nickal is 25-0 with 16 pins, five major decisions and three technical falls and Nolf is 26-0 with 14 pins, five major decisions and three technical falls. These two have long been held as the Hodge Trophy frontrunners. I tend to agree, though after this weekend, I think Marinelli, Rivera and Myles Martin have decent cases as well.

But it’s going to be hard to catch those pin totals. Marinelli is up to 10. Myles Martin has a handful of bonus-point wins. Rivera has nine technical falls. Depends on how you appreciate your dominance, I suppose.

For their careers, Nickal is 115-3, with his only losses coming to Martin twice and Indiana’s Nathan Jackson during his freshman season. Nolf is 112-3, losing to Isaiah Martinez twice and John Van Brill once by injury default last year. They’re both very much in line to finish as three-time champs and four-time finalists.

That’s a ton of victories and a lot of success for both guys. I’m not sure how it stacks up with other wrestling tandems over the years, but you have to think it’s among the top. I know a lot of people are who going to be excited to see them graduate. I, for one, am going to be interested to see how they fare as senior-level freestyle wrestlers.

Penn State's Jason Nolf, top, takes down Missouri's Joey Lavallee in their 157-pound championship match during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in St. Louis.

There was a twitter conversation over the weekend regarding state wrestling tournaments and the number of classes. Some states only have one class, which is excellent. Others have multiple, which is also excellent. To each their own. High five.

Could Iowa only work with two classes instead of three? Probably. It depends on where you draw the line.

One of the simple ways to do this is to cut Class 2A in half and pair the bigger schools with 3A and the smaller schools with 1A. The largest 2A school was Carlisle. The smallest was Cherokee. 

If that’s where you draw the line, schools like Clear Lake, Centerville, Solon, Assumption, West Delaware, Winterset, ADM, Independence and Ballard, among many others, would be competing with the 3A field. There’s a lot of exciting matchups that could come of that. Sign me up.

That also means teams like Crestwood, Albia, Union, PCM, Clarion-Goldfield-Dows and Osage would compete with Underwood, Don Bosco, Lisbon, Denver and West Sioux. Again, sign me up for that. You can imagine the individual matchups that could come of both of those scenarios. 

Scenario B is to take the entire enrollment list and just cut it in half. They have 365 schools listed, which means half in one and half in the other. Going that route, schools like Underwood, Missouri Valley, Interstate-35 and Van Meter would compete in the large class. 

I’m not sure that either scenario is ideal. In the first, Clear Lake, with a student population of 300 from grades 9-11, would be wrestling against the likes of West Des Moines Valley, which boasts a student population of 2,202 from grades 9-11. In the second, you’d add even smaller schools to the large class.

You’d have to get strategic about where to draw the line if you wanted Iowa to go to two wrestling classes. I’m sure a more realistic option would be to grab the upper-third or fourth of 2A and add the bigger schools to 3A and combine everybody else for the small class. Even then, people will still complain.

But it’s a fun thought, no doubt. Heck, even one class would be a fantastic show. Imagine a traditional state tournament with Waverly-Shell Rock, Southeast Polk, Fort Dodge, Don Bosco, Lisbon, Underwood, West Delaware, West Sioux and Denver? Make ‘em 32-man brackets and scheduled it like the NCAAs.

That’d be a wild, amazing wrestling tournament.

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