IOWA CITY, Ia. — Austin DeSanto joined the Iowa wrestling program for moments like this, to wrestle matches like this in front of crowds like this. He came to get better and win national titles. He came to chase his wrestling dreams.
On Sunday night, before an announced 10,603, DeSanto provided another example that he’s closer than ever to achieving those dreams. The junior beat top-ranked Seth Gross, 6-2, the highlight of the Hawkeyes’ 32-3 win over the Badgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That crowd, that arena, being in this spotlight, wrestling those top-ranked guys and competing at the highest level out there,” DeSanto said afterward. “I knew what I wanted when I came here.”
This victory pushes second-ranked Iowa to 3-0 on the young season, and is the Hawkeyes’ second straight over a team ranked in Trackwrestling’s top 10 (the other: a 29-6 trouncing over No. 9 Iowa State last week).
Against the sixth-ranked Badgers, now 6-1, the Hawkeyes showed the rest of the country why they are considered national title contenders. They dominated Wisconsin, taking nine of 10 bouts. They held distinct advantages in total takedowns, 22-3, and total match points, 76-32. The Badgers scored just eight offensive points all night.
“The most important time of the year is March,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, who notched his 100th career conference dual victory. “But you can make statement wins anytime — Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Just have to keep getting better as you go forward.”
The bonus points came from the usual suspects. Spencer Lee opened the dual with a 16-0 technical fall over Michael Cullen at 125 pounds, using three tilts to build a 14-0 lead after the first period before scoring a walk-off reversal in the second. At 174, Michael Kemerer scored five takedowns, the last of which led to a third-period pin over Jared Krattinger.
Iowa also won the dual’s biggest matchups. At 165, in a battle of two-time All-Americans, Alex Marinelli scored two takedowns in a 4-2 win over Evan Wick. Marinelli, who entered the match ranked fifth nationally by Track, has now won four straight over Wick, who was No. 2, dating back to last season. He punctuated his victory with an emphatic mat return in the third period.
“Score first, score fast and keep scoring,” Marinelli said. “That’s what (associate head coach Terry Brands) always says.”
At heavyweight, Tony Cassioppi further cemented his case as a big-time point-scorer with a 3-2 win over second-ranked Trent Hillger. The redshirt freshman scored a takedown in the first period and piled up one minute and 16 seconds of riding-time, then fended off a multitude of Hillger shots in the third period to bring the crowd to its feet once more.
“This Cassioppi guy gets up for big matches,” Brands said. “I was on the radio, and (former Iowa wrestler Mark Ironside) said, ‘What kind of kid is he? Is it just no big deal to him?’ It’s a big deal.
“He gets ready to wrestle these matches. He goes out there and he performs, then it’s not a big deal anymore. He knows, just like you, Ironside, that there’s more fish to fry.”
Elsewhere, Kaleb Young was a takedown away from a major, but ended up with a 12-6 win over Garrett Model at 157. Max Murin (141), Pat Lugo (149) and Jacob Warner (197) all recorded decision victories. Cash Wilcke got the nod at 184, but after scoring a first-period takedown, he gave up two and ultimately fell to Johnny Sebastian, 7-5, in double overtime.
There will be a buzz that follows this Iowa wrestling team all season long. It is perhaps Brands’ best collection of talent since the 2009-10 season, when the Hawkeyes last won an NCAA team title. Sunday’s performance only bolstered that claim.
But much of Sunday's attention was centered on the star 133-pounder. DeSanto, who entered ranked second nationally by Track, has piled up plenty of big victories during his time in an Iowa singlet, but the striking thing about his latest masterpiece was both how dominant he looked and how nonchalant he was about it.
Gross, a one-time Iowa wrestler, is plenty credentialed, a two-time NCAA finalist and 2018 NCAA Champion. Last month, he ran through three past national champs on his way to a first-place finish at the Bill Farrell International, which qualified him for the 2020 Olympic Trials in April. He is a hammer on top, and his long-and-lanky frame allows his funky style to flourish.
None of that mattered Sunday. DeSanto struck early with a first-period takedown, which was sandwiched between some excellent defensive sequences wherein he defended many Gross shots — some by scrambling to a stalemate, others by simply stepping out of the attacks.
In the second, DeSanto opted for neutral, a nod to Gross’s exceptional top wrestling. The decision paid off, as DeSanto rolled up two more takedowns for a 6-2 lead. Gross was noticeably gassed, but rode out DeSanto in the third period. By then, the damage was done, and the crowd showered DeSanto with the kind of praise reserved only for big, meaningful wins.
“Not perfect, of course, but this is a sport where perfect doesn’t happen,” Brands said. “We have to move our feet. That guy gets free shots at your ankles, and that’s where he likes to make a living. But we did a good job making adjustments after he got in on us.
“After that, he didn’t really sniff us.”
Afterward, DeSanto was very straightforward about what he had accomplished. It’s only Dec. 1, of course. He will likely see Gross again — at the Midlands Championships later this month, then at both the Big Ten and NCAA Championships in March. He will cross paths with many of the nation’s top 133-pounders along the way.
But a year ago, DeSanto knocked off Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, the eventual national champ, and erupted with emotion. On Sunday, he just smiled, raised his hands to the crowd, then ran off, as if it were scripted. That’s growth, both in the form of maturity and expectations.
“I work on it every day,” DeSanto said. “You work on it, and you get better at it, and you keep getting better at it. You expect things, then do it right in the room, prepare for it, and the outcome is what it is.”
Added Brands: “You have to admit, fan or not, that there’s progress there — testament to him.”
During his short time in Iowa City, DeSanto has provided the rabid Iowa fanbase with many memorable moments. He came here craving these kinds of opportunities, and he knows the biggest ones are still ahead of him, too.
With every big victory, DeSanto shows that he is capable of reaching his biggest, brightest goals. He proved it once more on Sunday. Come March, it will be up to him to do it again.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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No. 2 Iowa 32, No. 6 Wisconsin 3
- 125: No. 1 Spencer Lee (IA) tech. fall Michael Cullen (WI), 16-0
- 133: No. 2 Austin DeSanto (IA) dec. No. 1 Seth Gross (WI), 6-2
- 141: No. 10 Max Murin (IA) dec. No. 11 Tristan Moran (WI), 3-2
- 149: No. 3 Pat Lugo (IA) dec. No. 22 Cole Martin (WI), 5-3
- 157: No. 3 Kaleb Young (IA) dec. Garrett Model (WI), 12-6
- 165: No. 5 Alex Marinelli (IA) dec. Evan Wick (WI), 4-2
- 174: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (IA) pinned Jared Krattinger (WI) in 5:47
- 184: Johnny Sebastian (WI) dec. Cash Wilcke (IA), 7-5 (SV2)
- 197: No. 4 Jacob Warner (IA) dec. Taylor Watkins (WI), 5-2
- 285: No. 12 Tony Cassioppi (IA) dec. No. 3 Trent Hillger (WI), 3-2
*Rankings from Trackwrestling