Wrestling takeaways: 18 thoughts from the Hawkeyes’ record-breaking Midlands team title

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — For the seventh straight year, and 29th time in the last 57, the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships ended with the Iowa fight song blaring through the speakers as Hawkeye wrestlers and coaches gathered around the first-place trophy.

The Iowa wrestling team dominated its way to another Midlands team title on Monday night here at Sears Centre Arena. The Hawkeyes won with 196.5 points, a new tournament scoring record, outpacing their 2014 mark of 189.

In the process, Iowa nearly lapped the field — Northern Iowa scored 101 to take second for the second-straight year, followed by Illinois (94.5), Wisconsin (93) and Princeton (84.5) — thanks to five individual champions and all 12 medalists finishing sixth or better.

This was to be expected, of course. The Hawkeyes are the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, and put that talent on display this weekend. Here are 18 thoughts from Iowa’s record-breaking Midlands performance:

1. Iowa set a new tournament scoring record without the services of Michael Kemerer all weekend, and without Spencer Lee wrestling on Monday (he recorded two pins and a technical fall on Sunday).

This team is, like, really good.

2. About Lee: He medically-forfeited out of the tournament after reaching the semifinals at 125 pounds. Iowa called it a “coaches' decision.” Same with Kemerer. Both were in the arena during Monday's final two sessions. Both looked fine. 

3. Remember: These are guys Iowa wants healthy and fresh in March. Iowa coach Tom Brands has rested guys/held them out of tournaments/duals in recent years, and it has paid dividends when it mattered. 

4. The five champs: Max Murin (141), Pat Lugo (149), Kaleb Young (157), Alex Marinelli (165) — who nearly swept all the post-tournament awards, too — and Tony Cassioppi (285). Abe Assad (184) and Austin DeSanto (133) were also finalists.

Pat Lugo won a Midlands title at 149 pounds on Monday night.

5. The version of Lugo who showed up this weekend is good enough to win an NCAA title.

He went 6-0 with a pin, technical fall, two major decisions and two wins over previous All-Americans — Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen and North Carolina’s top-ranked Austin O’Connor. He outscored all six by a combined 59-13.

It was the best he’s looked since coming to Iowa.

6. His finals match against O’Connor was very impressive. It was a dominant 8-4 decision where he scored on his offense, off re-attacks and when O’Connor threw everything at him in the third period in a last-gasp effort to rally.

► MORE MIDLANDS: Two former SEP wrestlers finish on Midlands podium

7. The Austin DeSanto-Seth Gross final at 133 pounds was incredible. Wisconsin's Gross won, 6-5. He led 4-1 after a takedown and cradle in the first, but DeSanto stormed back on an escape in the second, then a takedown and stall point in the third. Nearly had a match-winning takedown in the final seconds, too.

The series between them now stands at 1-1. They could cross paths twice more this season — at the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. 

Sign this writer up for both, please.

8. Marinelli looked like the Marinelli of yesteryear this weekend. He scored the most team points of any individual wrestler (29), the most pins (4), and was named the Midlands Champion of Champions (an award voted on by all 10 individual champs)

The only award he didn’t win was the Dan Gable Most Outstanding Wrestler (which was voted on by the media). That, understandably, went to Gross.

Marinelli went 6-0 this weekend, including two strong victories over Bucknell’s Zach Hartman and Virginia Tech’s David McFadden. In the finals against McFadden, Marinelli won, 5-3, but he dominated that match from start to finish. McFadden never truly threatened.

(That was also the first time they had wrestled since McFadden pinned Marinelli in the fifth-place match at the 2018 NCAA Championships.)

9. Cassioppi also secured some revenge. The redshirt freshman heavyweight is now 9-0 this year after five more wins this weekend. He recorded two pins and outscored his five opponents by a combined 36-6. He beat Central Michigan’s Matt Stencel, 5-1, in the finals. Stencel pinned Cassioppi at last year’s Midlands. Huge growth.

10. Abe Assad’s tremendous run at 184 ended in the finals. The true freshman lost to Northern Iowa’s Taylor Lujan, 4-0. Lujan scored a takedown in the first period and piled up enough riding-time for the extra point. Assad nearly had a takedown in the second, but Lujan is just funky and savvy enough to evade it, preserving the shutout.

Still, Assad went 4-1 and looked great all weekend. He followed up Sunday’s stellar performance with a first-period pin over Illinois’s Zachary Braunagel in Monday’s semifinals thanks to a mean, mean headlock.

This is not the only thought on Assad, or Iowa’s situation at 184 pounds. Buckle up.

11. Cash Wilcke won the all-Iowa bloodround match over Nelson Brands, 4-2 in the second sudden victory. Nelson took ground the entire match, but struggled fully getting to his offense. Wilcke nearly had a takedown late in the third, then again in the first sudden victory. He finally scored off a scramble to win.

12. Wilcke then went on to take third at 184. He won six-in-a-row in the wrestlebacks, outscoring all six by a combined 41-16. That's enough to earn the starting opportunity moving forward. It’s now up to him to seize it.

13. But then … Tom Brands said this after Monday's finals session:

“We’ve got three options there. We’ll see. There’s a certain Midlands factor for weight classes. It was important for (Vince Turk and Jeren Glosser) at 149. That’s why, you know, we don’t make it all about the wrestle-off. We always say, ‘Hey, you’ll get your shot at Midlands.’

“It’s not about making the team. It’s about performance. If you don’t like where you’re at, look down the road to Midlands. Then after that, even if you don’t like where you’re at, you still have to be about your role — like a guy like Paul Glynn right now, at 133.

“There’s definitely a Midlands factor.”

Yes, he said “three” when referring to 184 — Wilcke, Nelson Brands and Assad.

Here’s more Tom Brands:

“I mean, you’ve got three guys there now … we have a good lineup. We have a good 125-pounder, a good heavyweight, a lot of good in between there. We just have to put those final hammer pieces in there. It’s not just that easy.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, you made the team.’ You have to perform. This is Division I athletics.”

This will be something worth monitoring moving forward.

Cash Wilcke, in the red, and Abe Assad, blue, finished third and second, respectively, at the 2019 Midlands Championships at 184 pounds. Wilcke defeated Nelson Brands on his way to third. Iowa coach Tom Brands will have a tough decision to make when it comes to naming a starter for the rest of the year.

► MORE MIDLANDS: Tom Brands' coaching tree on display at Midlands

14. Kaleb Young also had an interesting quote. He won at 157, winning both matches on Monday thanks to takedowns in sudden victory to defeat both Purdue’s Kendall Coleman in the semifinals and Army’s unseeded Markus Hartman in the finals.

When asked about scoring late, Young came back with this gem:

“I think there’s confidence. I’m comfortable there. Probably more comfortable than I should be, because that’s not where I want to be. I don’t want it to come down to overtime or sudden victory.

“Because what if I slip on a banana peel? Or a guy from Army in the stands throws a banana down on the mat and I slip and give up a takedown? If I’m up 8-2 at the end of the match, or 13-1 at the end of the match, then it doesn’t have to come down to that. I don’t have to worry about slipping on a banana peel. If I do slip on a banana peel, I still win 13-3 and get the major.

“So I think there’s confidence, but that’s not where I want to be. It’s good to be comfortable in those situations, but it’s even better being comfortable whipping tail.”

This season might be remembered for pickles and banana peels.

15. Lujan’s win over Assad was another indication that the jump to 184 is no issue. He’s now 14-2 with six pins after going 5-0 this weekend. He’s looked every bit like someone who can place high at that weight in March.

16. On the whole, Northern Iowa again flashed their top-10 potential, and did so despite leaving some points out there. The Panthers finished with just four medalists, and all finished fifth or better, but will need more from other weights in order to truly push for a top-10 finish come March.

17. Bryce Steiert also made the finals for the Panthers, at 174. He lost to Purdue’s Dylan Lydy, 3-2, on a third-period takedown.

Lydy seems to have Steiert’s number — he won that same matchup at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational earlier this month by a 3-1 score in sudden victory.

18. Carter Isley continued to impress. The Panthers’ heavyweight finished fifth. He matched up with Iowa’s Cassioppi in the semifinals. He scored two early takedowns for a 4-1 lead, then Cassioppi stormed back for an 11-5 victory.

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

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57th Ken Kraft Midlands Championships

Final team standings

  1. Iowa, 196.5
  2. Northern Iowa, 101
  3. Illinois, 94.5
  4. Wisconsin, 93
  5. Princeton, 84.5

Individual champions

  • 125: Pat Glory, Princeton
  • 133: Seth Gross, Wisconsin
  • 141: Max Murin, Iowa
  • 149: Pat Lugo, Iowa
  • 157: Kaleb Young, Iowa
  • 165: Alex Marinelli, Iowa
  • 174: Dylan Lydy, Purdue
  • 184: Taylor Lujan, Northern Iowa
  • 197: Christian Brunner, Purdue
  • 285: Tony Cassioppi, Iowa