Part of what makes Abe Assad, the Iowa wrestling program's talented true freshman, so great and intriguing was on display in the final minute of his quarterfinal match at last week’s Midlands Championships.
With 30 seconds to go, Assad was tied with American’s Tanner Harvey. He cleared for a shot, but Harvey used his lanky frame to spin behind for a 6-4 lead. Assad immediately popped his hips up and his head out to reverse Harvey, knotting up the match and forcing overtime.
Then, about 20 seconds into sudden victory, Assad felt Harvey leaning and forced an underhook for a shot. Harvey stepped out, but Assad dropped to a low single, came out from behind, picked up the leg and tripped Harvey for a takedown and an 8-6 victory.
“Giving up an early takedown or something, you can’t break there,” Assad said. “You have to keep wrestling. If you have a stronger mind, you’re already at an advantage.”
Assad ultimately went 4-1 and reached the Midlands finals at 184 pounds, finishing second to Northern Iowa’s Taylor Lujan. He outplaced two of his teammates — senior Cash Wilcke, who went 7-1 and took third, and redshirt freshman Nelson Brands, who lost to Wilcke 4-2 in the bloodround.
Iowa's situation at 184: 'We've got three guys'
The Midlands have always acted as something of a proving ground for the Iowa wrestling program. Among other things, Iowa coach Tom Brands has used the tournament as a way to solve lineup battles that linger through the first half of the season. But it’s also been an opportunity for true freshmen to wrestle against tougher competition.
Both of those ideas clashed at the Sears Centre Arena last weekend. Nelson Brands and Wilcke had split time as Iowa’s starter at 184 through the season's first four duals, and Assad was eager to show the progression he’s made since joining the program.
At the tournament’s conclusion, Tom Brands said he had “three options” at 184 pounds, which suggested Assad had joined the mix with Wilcke and Nelson Brands. Here’s the quote, in full:
“We’ll see. 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.”
When asked for clarification, Tom Brands continued:
“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.”
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Tom Brands' history with redshirts
It’s an intriguing thought, inserting a true freshman into perhaps Iowa’s best lineup since the 2009-10 season. The Hawkeyes are chasing their first NCAA team championship since that squad scored 134.5 points and won what was then their third straight title.
But history suggests Assad will stay in redshirt for the rest of the year, allowing Wilcke and Nelson Brands to battle it out for the starting spot.
Assad became Iowa’s eighth true freshman to finish on the Midlands podium since Tom Brands became head coach in 2006. The others: Derek St. John in 2009; both Cory Clark and Sam Brooks in 2012; Brandon Sorensen in 2013; Michael Kemerer in 2015; Spencer Lee in 2017; and Tony Cassioppi last season. All but Lee remained in redshirt.
Some had legitimate reasons to maintain that status. Clark backed up two-time national champion Matt McDonough. Brooks was behind Ethen Lofthouse, a two-time All-American. In 2015, Kemerer took fifth at the Midlands at 149, but Sorensen was the starter. (Kemerer then earned All-American honors at 157 the next two years.)
Others had cases to come out of redshirt and compete.
St. John is perhaps the strongest example. In 2009, he finished fifth at 157 at the Midlands, outplacing Jake Kerr, Iowa’s postseason starter that year. He beat a couple of NCAA qualifiers that weekend and went 26-4 during his redshirt season. Kerr went 2-2 at that year’s NCAA Championships. St. John went on to become a four-time All-American and NCAA champion.
Sorensen also had a case in 2013. He took third at the Midlands and beat postseason starter Brody Grothus head-to-head. He outplaced Northwestern’s Jason Tsirtsis, that season’s NCAA champion at 149, but stayed in redshirt and ultimately became a four-time All-American. (Grothus, who had wins over both Tsirtsis and another All-American in Edinboro’s David Habat at the Midlands that year, went 1-2 at the NCAA tournament.)
Cassioppi may have also had an argument last year, as he backed up an injured Sam Stoll. Stoll went 2-2 and reached the bloodhound at the NCAA Championships. Cassioppi stayed in redshirt and went 20-2 overall. He’s now ranked No. 4 nationally at 285 by Trackwrestling.
Lee is the anomaly, the first true freshman one year removed from high school to start for Iowa under Brands. He’s now a two-time national champion with two years still to go. (Nathan Burak was also a true freshman starter, but, after graduating from Coronado High School in Colorado, he spent a year at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before joining Iowa.)
The door is open, but …
So Brands’ tendency to keep elite-level wrestlers in redshirt during their first college season is well-documented. The remaining reasons to keep Assad in redshirt this year are rooted in logic.
Iowa already has two capable 184-pounders this season in Wilcke and Nelson Brands. Wilcke is a three-time NCAA qualifier and has twice come one win shy of All-American honors. Nelson Brands has two wins over ranked opponents this season. Based off the Midlands, Wilcke has likely wrangled the starting position away from Brands for now.
Moreover, the Midlands field at 184 was stout — Assad beat three guys currently ranked in the top 20 of Trackwrestling’s latest 184 poll: Harvey, Princeton’s Travis Stefanik and Illinois’s Zach Braunagel — but only two of Track’s top 10 were there: Lujan, at No. 5; and Wilcke (10th). It remains to be seen how Assad fares against 184's top tier.
Currently, Assad is 15-3 with losses to Lujan, Iowa State true freshman Julien Broderson (who reached the Southern Scuffle quarterfinals last week) and Grand View’s Kendrick Jones. A year of experience will help, of course. A 19-year-old Assad with four years of eligibility remaining sounds better than a 19-year-old Assad with only three years to use.
It will take all 10 weights to win a national title in March. Penn State, winner of eight of the past nine NCAA team crowns, remains the team to beat until proven otherwise. That means this decision may ultimately be decided by this factor: does Assad give Iowa better odds at scoring more points at the NCAA Championships than Wilcke or Nelson Brands?
Tom Brands opened that door following the Midlands Championships, so it is not out of the realm of possibility that Assad could burn his redshirt and join Iowa’s starting lineup during the second half of the season. And Assad is clearly the future for Iowa at 184 pounds.
But history indicates his reign is more likely to begin next season.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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