PITTSBURGH, Penn. — The big stage does not scare Spencer Lee. It does not make him nervous. It does not intimidate him. More often than not, the Iowa sophomore rises to the occasion, and he did again here inside PPG Paints Arena on Friday night.
Lee continued his march through the 125-pound bracket here at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. He recorded two more dominant victories to reach the finals for the second-straight season. He is one victory away from defending his national title.
“You've just got to believe in your coaching staff. They believe in me,” Lee said. “They tell me every day that I have the ability to do whatever I want to do as long as I believe in myself.”
In the semifinals, Lee defeated Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni, 11-4, avenging his loss to Piccininni last month when the Hawkeyes visited the Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena. That afternoon, Piccininni pinned Lee before a sold-out crowd in Stillwater.
On Friday, Lee completely flipped the script. He scored two takedowns in the first two periods for a 5-1 lead. Piccininni reversed Lee, but he escaped just before the buzzer to lead 6-3 entering the third period. Piccininni closed within 6-4 after an escape, but Lee added a late takedown with two back points, an emphatic exclamation point on yet another brilliant run to the national finals.
A year ago, Lee tore through the bracket en route to an NCAA title. You know how it went — two technical falls, two pins, and a 5-1 decision over Rutgers’ Nick Suriano in the finals. This week has not been quite on that level, but make no mistake, Lee has been mighty impressive.
On Thursday, Lee turned in a technical fall and a major decision to reach the quarters. During Friday morning, he pinned Minnesota’s Sean Russell in the third period, when he was already up 11-2. In his first four matches, Lee has outscored his opponents a combined 50-7.
“I've just got to be able to go out there and do what I do,” Lee said. “Just focus on scoring points, and I think that's it. I have to score the next score.
“The next score is the most important score, and that's the mindset that my coaches have instilled upon me, and that's what's got to matter to me.”
That attitude served Lee well a year ago, and it’s served him well this week. On Saturday night, he’ll wrestle Virginia’s Jack Mueller, who handily defeated Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera, 8-2, in the other semifinal.
A chance at a second-straight title is in sight. The rest is up to him.
Hawkeyes in fourth heading into Saturday
After a nearly perfect Thursday, the Iowa wrestling team got caught in the throes of the chaotic, rollercoaster-esque madness that is Friday of the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
So much goes on — the quarterfinals and semifinals, plus four rounds of wrestlebacks, which includes the always-emotional bloodround. The steady, consistent teams are the ones who emerge with hardware within their grasp.
When the dust settled on Friday, Iowa sat in fourth place with 68 points. Penn State is in first, with 120.5. Ohio State sits second with 88.5, followed by Oklahoma State with 73.5. Missouri rounds out the top five with 54. Northern Iowa is 13th (36.5) and Iowa State is 15th (31).
Six Hawkeye wrestlers will finish on the podium. It is the fourth time in the last six seasons that six wrestlers earned All-American honors.
Seven Iowa wrestlers began Friday in the quarterfinals, but only two — Lee and Kaleb Young (157) — advanced to the evening session’s semifinals. The other two qualifiers came through the wrestlebacks. Jacob Warner won three in a row to reach the podium at 197 pounds. Cash Wilcke won one, but fell to Illinois’s Emery Parker in Friday’s first session and was eliminated.
Two other Hawkeyes — Max Murin (141) and Sam Stoll (285) — faced the same fate in the bloodround, finishing just one win shy of joining their other six teammates as All-Americans. Of the five others behind Lee, Young and Austin DeSanto (133) remain alive for third. Pat Lugo (149), Alex Marinelli (165) and Jacob Warner (197) will all wrestle for seventh.
“You know what, sports is a metaphor for life, and wrestling more so than any other sport,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said after Friday’s first session. “You get your heart ripped out. It’s an individual thing. There’s a lot of pride, but you still have a chance to come back.
“You’re not going to be where you want to be on the stand, but you still come back. That’s where we’re at.”
With a strong finish and a little help, the Hawkeyes could catch Oklahoma State for third. The Cowboys have two in the finals, two alive for third and one wrestler going for seventh.
Young reaches semifinals, podium
As it turns out, Kaleb Young dropping down to 157 pounds was a pretty good decision for the Iowa wrestling team.
Young continued his run through the national tournament on Friday, defeating Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin, 7-5, to advance to the semifinals. He ultimately fell to Nebraska’s Tyler Berger, 5-3, on Friday night, but has secured All-American honors for the first time in his career.
After redshirting his initial season in Iowa City, Young spent most of last year as a backup. With Michael Kemerer and Alex Marinelli entrenched at 157 and 165 pounds, respectively, and with Young a little undersized at 174, he was left floating in the background, awaiting his chance.
His opportunity came in the offseason, when Kemerer made the decision to grow into 174 pounds. That opened up 157, and Young made the drop and emerged as the guy after the wrestle-offs in November.
Young’s first year was, by all accounts, successful. He reached the finals of the Midlands Championships and took fourth at the Big Ten tournament. He entered this week with a 20-5 record with 10 bonus-point wins. He earned the 6-seed at a deep and talented weight class. His run to the semifinals saw him outscoring his first three opponents by a combined 37-8.
His performance all season was a prime example of the Hawkeyes’ overall depth. As it turns out, Iowa had an All-American wrestler in the waiting a year ago. All Young needed was a chance.
DeSanto wins Cy-Hawk bloodround rematch
A year ago, Austin DeSanto lost in the bloodround as a true freshman at Drexel. On Friday, he was in the same position, only in an Iowa singlet, and across the way was Iowa State’s Austin Gomez, who defeated DeSanto, 14-9, in the dual in December.
This time around, DeSanto emphatically won the rematch, beating Gomez 16-5 to become an All-American for the first time in his career. He took Gomez down and to his back twice in the first period for a 12-1 lead, then rolled through a Gomez throw attempt in the second period — the Cyclone tossed DeSanto to his back in the dual to break an 8-8 tie.
DeSanto followed with a 4-2 win over Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak in the wrestlebacks to remain alive for third place. After that match, the Hawkeyes were deducted a team point for “athlete swearing.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships
Team Scores after Session 4
1. Penn State, 120.5
2. Ohio State, 88.5
3. Oklahoma State, 73.5
4. Iowa, 68
5. Missouri, 54
13. Northern Iowa, 36.5
15. Iowa State, 31
Saturday Schedule (all times CT)
Session V — 10 a.m., wrestleback semifinals, 3rd, 5th, 7th place matches
Session VI — 6 p.m., finals