PITTSBURGH, Penn. — Tom Brands stood underneath PPG Paints Arena here after Saturday’s morning session. By then, the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships had just 10 matches remaining — the finals — and Iowa’s head coach was taking stock of his team’s weekend.
Like usual, Brands wanted more — better finishes, better placements, more team points. The Hawkeyes scored 76 team points for fourth place in the team race, marking their 11th NCAA trophy finish in 13 years under Brands, but it was not first, which left a bittersweet taste.
“We want to be in the other placement matches,” he said, “like the one that goes tonight. That’s the pinnacle of NCAA wrestling.”
Perhaps that’s the ultimate takeaway from Iowa’s overall performance this week. Penn State ran away with its eighth team title in nine years, totaling 137.5 points. Ohio State (96.5) muscled its way to second for the third-straight season. Oklahoma State (84) edged out the Hawkeyes for third thanks to a pair of finalists and five total All-Americans.
The overall performance left Brands wanting more because of the potential shown. That is perhaps the perfect summation of the Hawkeyes’ 2018-19 campaign.
Iowa’s season was rocked from the jump when Michael Kemerer, a two-time All-American, was shut down for the year due to injuries. More injuries followed, yet the Hawkeyes marched on.
They went 14-1 in duals and earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. They took third at the Big Ten Championships. Five wrestlers were seeded eighth or better this week.
Here at PPG, the Hawkeyes came out swinging, going 16-2 in their first 18 matches on Thursday and all nine qualifiers advanced to Friday, with seven in the quarterfinals. The opportunity for more was crushed during the tournament’s third and fourth sessions when only sophomore Spencer Lee reached the finals and everybody else dropped to the wrestlebacks.
Six Iowa wrestlers earned All-American honors this weekend, second behind only mighty Penn State (7, with 5 finalists). But behind Lee, none finished better than fifth. A year removed from a performance that included 30.5 bonus points, the Hawkeyes put up just 13 this weekend. After Thursday's incredible start, they went 15-15 the rest of the way.
“A lot of frustrating things in my head, and maybe that’s me being a perfectionist,” Brands said. “Reverting back to some things. Sloppy a little bit.”
The potential shown during the first session bolstered confidence, but when the crowd emptied after Saturday morning, Iowa’s seed-to-placement deferential revealed a mixed bag.
Six wrestlers finished above their seeds: Lee, the 3-seed, reached the finals at 125; Austin DeSanto, the 7-seed, took 5th at 133; Max Murin, the 22-seed, reached the quarterfinals and was one win shy of placing at 141; Pat Lugo, the 10-seed, took 8th at 149; Kaleb Young, the 6-seed, took 5th at 157; and Sam Stoll, the 28-seed, was one win shy of placing at 285.
The other three finished below. Alex Marinelli was perhaps the biggest falloff, taking 7th at 165 pounds after earning the 1-seed. Jacob Warner, the 5-seed at 197, took 7th, and Cash Wilcke, the 12-seed, bowed out after four matches.
Fair or not, a somewhat up-and-down season was capped by an up-and-down weekend. It surely wasn’t the Hawkeyes’ strongest showing, but they are adding another trophy to the collection. Next season will mark the 10th anniversary of the last gold one.
Transfers DeSanto, Lugo show impact
Austin DeSanto and Pat Lugo both transferred to Iowa for many reasons, but primarily so they could improve as wrestlers and compete for a winner. Under that guise, this weekend was something of a small success for them both.
DeSanto and Lugo both finished their seasons as All-Americans. DeSanto went 5-2 and placed fifth at 133 pounds. Lugo went 3-3 and took eighth at 149. Both are first-time All-Americans and combined to contribute 18.5 points (13 from DeSanto, 5.5 from Lugo) to Iowa’s team output.
“Tom and Terry Brands are the real deal,” DeSanto said. “They’re men of men. They make men. The real deal. You get to wrestle with those men that they’ve made, and they’re real tough, work hard and do everything right. They don’t take shortcuts. You learn that.”
DeSanto, a sophomore, finished on the podium out of the tournament’s toughest weight. The two guys that beat him (Michigan’s Stevan Micic in the quarters, Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher in the wrestlebacks) finished third and fourth. The bracket itself featured a Junior world champion, a Junior world-teamer, three other past NCAA finalists and three other returning All-Americans.
Lugo showed toughness in winning three close matches (read: by a combined 9 points) to make the top eight. He transferred in from Edinboro, where he twice qualified for the big dance. He reached the bloodround as a true freshman but fell short. As a sophomore, he went 1-2.
Last season, Iowa didn’t even have an NCAA qualifier at 133. Now they have one of the weight’s best. For Lugo, it marks the fifth-straight year the Hawkeyes' 149-pounder earned All-American honors — last year, Brandon Sorenson capped his career as a four-time national podium finisher.
Young, Warner reveal bright future
Despite a rocky season and national tournament performance, it is hard not to see the bright future for the Hawkeyes.
Consider viewing that through the lens of both Kaleb Young and Jacob Warner. Both made their NCAA debuts this weekend, and both became All-Americans.
Young went 4-2 and took fifth at 157 pounds. A year ago, he backed up Kemerer and Marinelli and filled in at times at 174 pounds, despite being undersized. With Kemerer moving up to 174, Young took the starting spot at 157 and ran with it, going 24-7 in his first full year as the starter. Of the four guys that placed ahead of Young, three are seniors.
“I think I became more mature of a wrestler,” Young said. “More mature, more mentally in matches. I don’t let things bother me as much, and I think that paid off (this weekend).”
Warner, a redshirt freshman, went 22-6 and is on track to potentially become a four-time All-American after taking seventh at 197. After losing in overtime in Thursday’s second round, he rattled off three-straight wins in the wrestlebacks on Friday to reach the podium. Of the six guys ahead of him, three are seniors.
“My growth as a person and my mental strength is huge,” Warner said. “I’ve grown a lot. Just looking at my first match to this. Even though I left stuff out there this weekend and I’m going to regret it for probably ever, I still thought I wrestled pretty well.”
Add them to the list of Hawkeye returners, and you’re looking at an Iowa team that will now boast seven All-Americans (Lee, DeSanto, Lugo, Young, Marinelli, Kemerer, Warner), two others who have reached the bloodround (Murin, Wilcke), and a ballyhooed heavyweight who redshirted this season (Tony Cassioppi).
Marinelli falls to seventh
This was not the tournament Alex Marinelli envisioned when Iowa’s team plane landed in Pittsburgh earlier this week. The sophomore 165-pounder earned his second All-American finish but tumbled to seventh after entering the week as the 1-seed with a 23-0 record.
“Took some losses that were uncharacteristic of me,” said Marinelli, who went 4-2 this week. “I didn’t wrestle how I should’ve, and you guys probably saw it in my first match. I got taken down twice. Just super uncharacteristic of me. I need to stop being so sloppy.”
Marinelli’s losses, on paper, don’t look so terrible now. In the quarterfinals, he lost to Virginia Tech’s super freshman Mekhi Lewis, who ultimately won the whole thing, beating Penn State's two-time national champ Vincenzo Joseph in the finals. In the wrestlebacks, he lost to Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller, who finished third for his second All-American finish.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships
1. Penn State, 137.5
2. Ohio State, 96.5
3. Oklahoma State, 84
4. Iowa, 72
5. Michigan, 62.5
14. Northern Iowa, 40.5
16. Iowa State, 32
Final Iowa Placements
125: Spencer Lee, 1st
133: Austin DeSanto, 5th
141: Max Murin, 2-2
149: Pat Lugo, 8th
157: Kaleb Young, 5th
165: Alex Marinelli, 7th
184: Cash Wilcke, 2-2
197: Jacob Warner, 7th
285: Sam Stoll, 2-2