Wrestling Mailbag: Spencer Lee, Drew Foster, NCAAs, next year’s lineups, Olympic redshirts

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

I spent the Sunday after the NCAA Wrestling Championships re-watching every match and interview I could find. Part of me didn’t want to accept that the college season had ended, but I wanted to relive the weekend’s best moments.

There’s a lot that’s packed into those three days. We see some of the highest highs and the lowest lows. We see incredible matches. We see amazing stories unfold. We see dreams get crushed and others come true. It is an emotional roller coaster with twists and turns every session.

I tend to remember these tournaments based on those memories. In 2013, in Des Moines, the first one I ever covered, I remember that one as the one Matt McDonough lost. In 2014, the one where Tony Ramos won. In 2015, Ohio State’s year. In 2018, Spencer Lee’s first.

In the near-term, I will remember this past weekend’s tournament for many things: Spencer’s second, or the one where Drew Foster won. The one where Mark Hall ran out to a Mac Miller song before the finals. The one where Mekhi Lewis became a star.

Personally, though, I’ll remember 2019 because one of my old friends became an All-American — John Erneste, from Missouri.

I’ve known John since he was very young. I remember watching him at youth tournaments growing up. I watched him score a takedown on the edge to win the Lee’s Summit West youth tournament. He was probably 9. I remember thinking, Dang, he’s going to be good.

We both grew up and became teammates for a year at Park Hill High School in Kansas City. He was a freshman during my senior year. He took third at state at 103 pounds — he actually lost to Daniel Lewis, his Mizzou teammate, in the semifinals. I remember thinking, Dang, he’s going to be really good.

I graduated and life pulled us in different directions. We didn’t talk as much, but I watched and cheered from afar. I sent the occasional message of support. Always tried to see him and others when I crossed paths with Park Hill or Missouri over the years.

This year's NCAA Wrestling Championships was held at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

John’s story is one of perseverance and determination. He never won a state title in high school. Wasn’t a ballyhooed recruit. I’m pretty sure Mizzou coach Brian Smith talked more about John’s academic prowess than his wrestling success in the signing-day release.

But John pressed on. He became the Tigers’ starter at 133 pounds. He won three Mid-American Conference titles. He qualified for three-straight national tournaments. He made the round-of-16 in 2017, then the bloodround a year ago.

This weekend, he reached the bloodround again, and defeated N.C. State’s Tariq Wilson, 9-7, in double overtime. He finished sixth at arguably the toughest, deepest weight in the tournament. I went and found him after he beat Wilson and gave him a hug.

Everything else this weekend was icing on the cake. There was some tremendous wrestling. Records were set and history was made. As the 2019 NCAA Championships slips further and further away, we’ll remember the big moments more so than the little ones.

But I’ll remember John’s takedown in double overtime, and the look on his face when it was upheld on review. He was nearly in tears underneath PPG Paints Arena afterward. This was a lifelong goal, and there’s nothing cooler watching old friends achieve their biggest dreams.

Now, then. Onto the Wrestling Mailbag. Final one of the 2018-19 season. 😢 Thank you guys for the interaction this season. That’s one of the many reasons why this job is so fun. Keep the passion. I love it. 

Please give me a follow on Twitter, and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. (There’s still freestyle and Greco-Roman upcoming!) Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.

It’s an extremely tight class, and really, an extremely close team. You all saw the selfie afterward. There’s more to it than that. When I sat down with Austin DeSanto for a story before the tournament, he noted how Vince Turk told him it felt like he’s been part of the program for a while, and that was over the summer.

I’m not going to claim to know all the ins and outs of their “brotherhood,” but it became very apparent to me after Lee won again on Saturday night.

Flowrestling got a great clip of other Iowa wrestlers underneath PPG waiting to greet Lee afterward. When Lee went out the other side to go do his media obligations, they all ran through the hall and burst into the interview room. They cheered and clapped. Sam Stoll grabbed the microphone, and you all now what happened next.

“Spencer Lee, why are you the baddest man on the planet?” he asked.

We’ve seen Lee achieve great things over the past two years, but his smile in that moment was as big as I’ve ever seen it. Then he left the interview table to greet them and Stoll picked him up. The whole thing was heartwarming and, to me, hilarious. They’re a close-knit group.

Iowa's Spencer Lee gets carried out of his post-match press conference by Sam Stoll while being surrounded by other members of the Iowa wrestling team.


This is a question I need to ask, but I’ve always believed that Lee might take the Kyle Snyder route when it came to the Olympics. You’ll remember, in 2016, Snyder only wrestled 11 matches the whole year, and eight were at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Then he went and made the Olympic team.

If I had to guess, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee took a similar route next season. We’ll get more into this later on here and later this week, but the Hawkeyes will be in position to truly contend next season, but that includes Lee as part of the postseason lineup.

So this is a question I’ll ask soon. After winning on Saturday, Lee did say he plans on wrestling some freestyle this summer, but he didn’t get into any details.

As with anything, you all will know when I know.

I understand why people were frustrated/heartbroken when Alex Marinelli lost on Friday morning. But I think, in hindsight, people will appreciate just how tough that bracket really was as time goes on.

I mean, Marinelli ultimately went 4-2 and took seventh at 165 pounds. That’s perhaps an underwhelming performance, considering he entered at 23-0 and the 1-seed.

But he lost to Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, a Junior freestyle world champion who didn’t surrender a takedown all tournament and ended up winning, and then Chance Marsteller, a wildly talented, two-time All-American from Lock Haven, who took third.

I wrote when the brackets were first drawn that there would be no easy path in this weight. I’m not saying that now to pat myself on the back, but so that you guys understand just how tough that weight is.

I mean, Marinelli's match Thursday was against a two-time All-American who didn’t make the podium. His bloodround match was against another past All-American. No easy path.

He took seventh in a bracket that might’ve come second only to 133 in terms of depth and talent. It’s not what you guys envisioned, I get that, and it’s certainly not what he wanted. But in time, I think you guys will appreciate how tough that bracket was. 

Iowa's Alex Marinelli reacts after pinning Indiana's Dillon Hoey at 165 during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

It’s an incredible story. I’m not sure in terms of rarity, unless there’s a database out there that includes every NCAA Champion that never won a high school state title, but it’s another tale of perseverance and determination. Foster was so fun to watch this week.

He got to his offense at the absolute hardest time to get to offense. In his five matches, he outscored his opponents 36-11. He only allowed three total points in his first three bouts. He scored 10 total takedowns — four in the first period, one in the second, five in the third. 

During the ESPN broadcast on Saturday night, Cornell coach Rob Koll talked with Quint Kessenich about Max Dean’s game plan against Foster in the finals. Koll said, “He’s very, very quick, extremely technical. … We really have to worry about his technique. He’s technically extremely proficient. Very athletic, but he’s only athletic for about a period and a half.”

I don’t mean to pile on, because Koll is a good dude and a great wrestling coach, but Foster scored half his takedowns in the third period last week, including one against Dean with 27 seconds left to effectively clinch Northern Iowa’s first individual NCAA wrestling title since 2000.

The coolest thing, to me, was watching UNI coach Doug Schwab afterward. He was literally floating. I joked that ESPN should’ve put an isolation camera on Schwab during the finals match. If you rewatch the match, you can catch him in the background. He was everywhere. 

Northern Iowa's Drew Foster, right, celebrates after his win over Cornell's Maxwell Dean in their 184-pound match in the finals of the NCAA wrestling championships Saturday.

Just a few days removed from the end of the season, and we’re already talking about next season. Love it.

Here’s my guess for Iowa:

  • 125: Duh
  • 133: Austin DeSanto
  • 141: Max Murin
  • 149: Pat Lugo
  • 157: Kaleb Young
  • 165: Alex Marinelli
  • 174: Michael Kemerer
  • 184: Cash Wilcke
  • 197: Jacob Warner
  • 285: Tony Cassioppi

That’s a pretty salty lineup. I imagine some other backups will get some run from time to time, like Nelson Brands somewhere between 157 and 165, as well as Aaron Cashman and Paul Glynn at 125 and 133, respectively. But on paper, that's arguably the strongest lineup Iowa’s had in years.

Here’s my guess for Iowa State:

  • 125: Alex Mackall
  • 133: Austin Gomez
  • 141: Ian Parker
  • 149: Jarrett Degen
  • 157: David Carr
  • 165: Chase Straw/Logan Schumacher/Zane Mulder
  • 174: Marcus Coleman
  • 184: Sam Colbray/Joel Shapiro
  • 197: Kaden Sauer/Hunter DeJong/Shapiro
  • 285: Gannon Gremmel/Francis Duggan

A couple of weights are a little harder to project than others. Probably think Carr slides in at 157, which would bump Straw up. Would think Sauer is the guy at 197 at first just because of his experience, but DeJong and Shapiro are both talented guys who will push him. I expect Duggan to push Gremmel at heavy, too. I know the coaches are really high on him.

Here’s my guess for Northern Iowa:

  • 125: Jay Schwarm/Kyle Biscoglia
  • 133: Jack Skudlarczyk/Drew Bennett
  • 141: Michael Blockhus
  • 149: Max Thomsen
  • 157: Paden Moore/Pat Schoenfelder/Isaiah Patton/Keaton Geerts/Cayd Lara
  • 165: Bryce Steiert
  • 174: Taylor Lujan
  • 184: Keegan Moore
  • 197: Jacob Holschlag
  • 285: Carter Isley/John McConkey

As was the case with Iowa State, some weights are harder to project. I think Biscoglia could push, if not usurp, Schwarm at 125. Perhaps that means Schwarm will bump up. Your guess is as good as mine at 157. Moore, who transferred in from Oklahoma State, should slide in nicely at 184 after Foster. I’m also high on McConkey at heavyweight, but Isley is tough when healthy.

These are all way-too-early projections, so who knows what’ll happen.


I went to Primanti Brothers a couple of times. It’s pretty good. I’m not the biggest fan of coleslaw on my sandwiches, but I felt like I had to try it that way just to say I did, you know? I’d go there again.

That was probably the one marquee spot I hit over the weekend. The staff at PPG fed us breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. I also had Chipotle and Chick-Fil-A. (I’m lame. I know.)

I would be a huge fan of this. I know the NFL has officials in New York completely separated from the game at hand review calls when needed. Wrestling would do well to consider something similar.

I know a lot of people have mentioned the fact that it’s odd that officials get to review their own calls. I, too, find that a little problematic. There are times when they own up to their mistakes and change the call, and that’s good. More often than not, they don’t. A third-party review for challenges would help settle people’s angst, at the very least.

As for a penalty, I think something should be done. I know the rules right now are if you challenge and win, you keep your challenge, but if you challenge and lose, you lose said challenge.

In freestyle, if you challenge and lose, the other guy gets a point. I wouldn’t mind seeing that. That might keep John Smith from challenging a hands-to-the-face call in the NCAA finals.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot of freestyle I would like to see in folkstyle. 

Speaking of …

So much. So freaking much.

The thing with stalling that’s irritating is that it’s subjective. Some officials call it by the book, and others don’t.

Take DeSanto’s wrestleback match against Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher on Saturday morning. DeSanto basically walked Pletcher to the edge of the mat and shot him out … and he got hit for stalling.

A step-out rule does many things. It eliminates stalling, because a wrestler can just rack up step-out points. It also engages fans, both the diehards and casual viewers. Many casual fans stop short of joining the rest of us diehards because of complicated rules or weird habits. A step-out rule simplifies things and makes it easier for casual fans to understand.

I’d be all for adding a step-out rule and eliminating the stall call altogether. But the question then would be what to do when both wrestlers are on the mat. I haven’t fully thought through an answer for that, but if we solve that issue, we’d have a pretty solid plan to solve stalling.

There was a lot to dissect in this match.

The fact that Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, somehow, didn’t get hit for stalling until the first sudden victory. The fact that Rutgers’ Nick Suriano got hit for stalling in the tiebreaker when, I felt, he dropped to the leg with under five seconds left. The stalemate when Fix was on top after that. The fact that it looked like Suriano posted off Fix’s headgear on the match-winning takedown.

That stalemate call was a little odd, I think. I’ve seen it get called before, when a guy throws both boots in, extends his opponent, but then nothing comes of it for a while so the official calls for a restart. In that way, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary, but at that point in the match, the goal is to ride out, so Suriano maybe caught a break with that one.

I don’t know. That match was all sorts of weird but also very entertaining. We were talking with Iowa coach Tom Brands at that point, about Lee’s finals win, and when it ended, Oklahoma State’s coaching staff walked underneath PPG and they weren’t happy, as you can imagine.

But I will say this: For as much as we’re talking about the officials from that match, I will give them a small amount of credit for letting the guys wrestle in that second sudden victory.

People often comment about how they don’t want officials deciding matches, and on that night, they let them wrestle through that slide-by-to-post-up-defense-to-shot-to-win sequence. Suriano took advantage. Fix stopped wrestling. So it goes.

I wish I had a good answer for why N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay didn’t get the takedown against Penn State’s Jason Nolf on Friday night. I wish there was a rational explanation for why Hidlay was awarded two, and then it was wiped out. But there isn’t.

They emerged out of a scramble, where nobody had control, and Hidlay came up behind Nolf while Nolf’s knee and arm were on the ground. That’s two points. Every time. Or should be.

Yianni Diakomihalis’ was the same, in that, it was a textbook call. Ohio State’s Joey McKenna took a shot in the third period, presumably to kill clock, when Yianni forced him into a scramble. In doing so, he threw his leg in on the opposite side of McKenna’s hip.

Rewatch the match. He had his leg in for the better part of three seconds. That’s two points. Every time. Or should be.

It was called in one and not in the other. That inconsistency is probably the biggest gripe people have with the officiating from over the weekend. The same could be said with stalling. I don’t mean to pile on the officials, because, by-and-large, they do great at a job is that incredibly hard to do. But the inconsistency is what drives people mad.

I don’t know about God, but there are definitely moments where I’m convinced he’s not of this earth.

What’s an end-of-the-year mailbag without some way-too-early predictions?

I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again: Iowa is going to be in position to truly contend next season. They’re returning 75 of 77 points scored (not counting the deduction) and adding two-time All-American Michael Kemerer to the lineup at 174. Furthermore, the two points that are graduating with heavyweight Sam Stoll are being replaced by the wildly-talented Tony Cassioppi.

Penn State is still the mountain that Iowa has to climb, so I’m not crowning the Hawkeyes yet. The Nittany Lions return 82 points (assuming Anthony Cassar lands a medical redshirt) and could bring back even more if Shakur Rasheed gets a sixth year, too. They’ll need to replace both Nolf and Bo Nickal, but have some super recruits on deck.

It’ll be a challenge, to be sure, but it’s possible. If I had to guess right now, I’d say Iowa finishes second and that both Iowa State and Northern Iowa are both still in the top-20, with the Cyclones closer to the top-10 than they were this year.

Until Penn State finally falls, it should be presumed they’re the favorites. But next year should be a ton of fun.

Thanks for reading this season, you guys.

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