MOUNT VERNON, Ia. — Snow flurries fell at Kroul Farms on Wednesday afternoon as Tom Brands approached the microphone. A throng of media sat before him, all armed with recorders and cameras and questions about the 2019-20 Iowa wrestling team. He smiled.
“I’m glad to be here,” Brands said to open the program’s media day. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Brands is entering his 14th season as Iowa’s head coach, equipped with his deepest, most-talented group since 2010, when the Hawkeyes won the national team title. They haven’t won since, a championship drought that’s become the longest since the program won its first NCAA crown in 1975 under Gary Kurdelmeier.
This year’s team could change that.
Iowa enters the 2019-20 season at No. 2 in Trackwrestling’s Division I rankings, trailing only mighty Penn State, winners of eight of the last nine national titles. All 10 presumed starters are ranked in the top-12 at their respective weight classes, including seven in the top-eight.
The Hawkeyes return all six All-Americans and 75 total team points from last year’s NCAA Championships (only the Nittany Lions return more with 85.5). That’s before the addition of both Michael Kemerer, a two-time All-American at 157 pounds now up at 174, and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi, a wildly talented redshirt freshman.
High expectations? Of course. The championship window is open for these Hawkeyes, and barring something unforeseen, that’s the lens through which the 2019-20 season should be viewed.
And Brands wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have the personnel,” he said. “We’re going to look at it like we do every year. We don’t look at it any different this year. Just because the media or pundits put us in a close second-ranked category with Penn State doesn’t mean that I put us there.
“I know what I think of our guys, and I wouldn’t trade our team for any other team. I love our guys.”
► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER
- IOWA STATE: Why the Cyclones are primed for another big jump in 2019-20
- NORTHERN IOWA: How Drew Foster's NCAA title has impacted the Panthers
- HALL OF FAME: Former Hawkeye Bill Zadick to enter National Wrestling HoF
- HAWKEYE RECRUITING: Bretli Reyna, Leif Schroeder, Wyatt Henson all commit
- IN-STATE: Union state champ Jack Thomsen commits to South Dakota State
Iowa has the firepower to run down that first-place NCAA team trophy come March. The lineup features seven total All-Americans, led by two-time national champion Spencer Lee at 125 pounds, along with Alex Marinelli, a two-time All-American at 165, and Kemerer. Behind them, Austin DeSanto (133), Pat Lugo (149), Kaleb Young (157) and Jacob Warner (197) all were first-time podium finishers last year.
Additionally, Max Murin returns after reaching the blood round at 141 pounds. Same with Cash Wilcke, who’s twice been a win away from All-American honors, at 184. Cassioppi, a Junior freestyle national champion last spring who’s currently ranked No. 12 by Trackwrestling, will step in for the now-graduated Sam Stoll at heavyweight. He understands the program’s expectations.
“It’s Iowa wrestling,” Cassioppi said. “There’s always high expectations. I came in here knowing that.”
Added Lee: “The sky is the limit … the goal, like it is every year, is to win a team title, so that’s the plan.”
It’s one thing to have the pieces. It’s another thing entirely to assemble the puzzle.
Penn State, until proven otherwise, remains the team to beat. The Nittany Lions are expected to have three national champions, plus four other All-Americans (and a U23 world team member), in their lineup. Iowa will match up with them three times this season — first in a dual on Jan. 31 in Iowa City; March 7-8 at the Big Ten tournament; then once more March 19-21 at the NCAA Championships.
“It definitely feels a little elevated,” Kemerer said. “We know about the expectations and the hype and everything. We’re really excited because people have been talking about this year for a long time.
“Obviously there’s Penn State, and you want to knock off a team like that. We’re really looking forward to it. We go into every year to win a national title, so this year is no different, but we have a lot of point scorers. If we keep working hard, good things will happen.”
Other teams will challenge both throughout the season. Iowa will dual eight of Trackwrestling’s top-16 teams — No. 3 Nebraska, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Iowa State and No. 16 Princeton — in addition to the Nittany Lions. The Hawkeyes will also see No. 12 Northern Iowa at the Midlands Championships in December.
That’s a gauntlet, for sure. But Brands believes that’ll only help his team.
“We're upbeat, we're excited,” he said. “We have some big dual meets early. We have March, of course. It's always March that we're about, and everything leading up to that is going to prepare us for that.”
► 2019-20 SCHEDULE: Check out when the Hawkeyes compete this season
The Hawkeyes’ past performances have offered hints that this season could be the year in which they regain college wrestling’s top position.
Two years ago, they finished third at the NCAA Championships thanks to a flurry of bonus points. Last year, the program's six All-Americans at the national tournament trailed only Penn State.
But there’s still work to do, a phrase Brands loves to reiterate each week. Of the six All-Americans last year, only Lee finished better than fifth. That won’t win team titles. Penn State, meanwhile, put five wrestlers in the finals, just like the 2010 Iowa team did.
Back at the microphone at Kroul Farms, Brands acknowledged that fact. He knows March’s titles aren’t won in October, but he knows decisions made now and in the days, weeks and months ahead will impact how his team performs in the future.
“We believe in our guys, and we’ve got to make some strides,” Brands said. “Our standards are high. Are we not supposed to be high standard? Yes, we are supposed to be high standard. It's got to show up when it's go time. We’ll take on all comers.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.