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Wrestling: True freshman Abe Assad wins Iowa debut as top-ranked Hawkeyes roll through Indiana

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Well. Abe Assad is no longer in redshirt.

Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands inserted the true freshman into the starting lineup on Friday night in the Hawkeyes’ 41-0 road victory over Indiana at Wilkinson Hall. Assad won his debut, scoring two takedowns in a 6-2 decision over Jake Hinz at 184 pounds.

"Obviously, there were some nerves," Assad said afterward. "If I told you I didn’t have nerves, I’d be lying to you. I have nerves before every match, even matches at the open tournaments, when I’m unattached, I still get a little nervous before every match.

"Obviously, here, the nerves are heightened more. I just went out there, wrestled loose, tried to score points. Good things are going to happen."

In doing so, Assad becomes the second true freshman just one year removed from high school to start for the Hawkeyes in Brands’ 14 years as head coach. The other, junior 125-pounder Spencer Lee, has won two national titles in as many years.

But this decision was perhaps a little strange, if only because of the other options Iowa had at 184 pounds.

Iowa's Abe Assad, left, wrestles Cash Wilcke during the second day of preseason Hawkeye wrestling matches, Friday, Nov., 8, 2019, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

There’s senior Cash Wilcke, a three-time NCAA qualifier who’s twice come just one win away from earning All-American honors. There was also redshirt freshman Nelson Brands, who is undersized for the weight but has proven results with wins over some ranked foes and a gas tank that has kept him in every match.

So the reasons to keep Assad in redshirt, like most every other true freshman during Tom Brands’ coaching tenure, were sound. But earlier this week, Brands opened the possibility that the Illinois native could perhaps enter the lineup.

Assad joined the Iowa wrestling program as a credentialed commodity, a two-time Illinois state champ, a Cadet freestyle world bronze medalist, a Junior men’s freestyle national champion and a UWW Junior men’s freestyle All-American, where he took third against collegiate competition. What’s more, he had impressed with a 15-3 record this season and a finals appearance at the Midlands Championships last month.

As such, Brands listed Assad, Wilcke and Nelson Brands on Iowa’s probable lineups for this weekend’s doubleheader — the Hawkeyes, now 5-0 overall and 2-0 against the Big Ten, will face Purdue on Sunday — and made it clear he sought consistent effort from whomever got the nod.

"Number one thing is we have three guys there that can do the job," Tom Brands said this week, "and we’re not down on any of them. This is not about a young guy getting the nod because he has a lot of wrestling left. This is not about a loyalty factor and, 'Oh, we’re going to let that senior finish out his career.'

"This is about who has the best chance and shows us that they’re going to put forth their best effort every time out so when we get to national tournament time and Big Ten tournament time, we’ve got the best guy in the lineup. 

"It’s hard to predict, but it’s not hard to see desire, either, out on the mat. Competition’s good."

After Friday's dual, Brands reiterated the point.

"We have three guys there," he said. "Wilcke — he did a good job at the Midlands — Nelson Brands, and Abe Assad. We need maybe something a little bit to shake, rattle and roll this thing a little bit. We’re not just going to go with the ordinary, or what everybody’s predicting.

"That’s not why we did it. I’m saying, shake, rattle and roll. Assad is very fundamental, very explosive and very aware of his positions. And very calm. He’s out there, very calm. We need that. We need that. Everything doesn’t have to be a struggle. With him, it’s smooth and efficient."

Abe Assad celebrates after winning a match at the 57th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships. Assad, a true freshman for the Iowa wrestling team, finished second at 184 pounds.

Brands gave Assad the chance on Friday, and the Glenbard North product made the most of it. He scored a quick takedown in the first period for a 2-0 lead. He followed with an escape in the second, then another takedown in the third that secured riding time.

"This whole week, I didn’t know if I was going to wrestle," Assad said. "On the bus ride down here, my dad got the call from Tom. From there, my dad talked to me about it, and I was like, I wanted to. I actually never talked to Tom about it, then right after introductions, he told me I was going. So I was like, OK, here it goes.

"I think I wrestled good. I think the nerves played a part. I think I tensed up a little at times. That one-hour weigh-in is different, too. Had to get used to that, for sure. But the first one is under my belt. Have to keep it rolling."

Added Brands: "We wrestled well. There were three exchanges there, and two of them turned into takedowns for us. In the second period, there was an exchange, a little flurry, and that’s what we want. We want that guy to chain wrestle with good awareness and scoring ability. That re-shot in the third period won that scramble. Jumping over the hips in the first period."

The rest of the dual featured total Hawkeye dominance. As the score suggests, Iowa took all 10 weights and rolled up three pins — from Alex Marinelli (165), Tony Cassioppi (285) and Austin DeSanto (133). Lee added a technical fall.

But Assad’s entry into the starting lineup was undoubtedly the largest takeaway. These Hawkeyes are seeking their first NCAA Championship since 2010, and after some unfortunate news out of the Penn State camp earlier this week, they are firmly in the driver’s seat while the rest of the country tries to catch them.

Tom Brands believes Assad can help Iowa's pursuit, or else he would’ve stayed in redshirt. The opportunity to seize the starting spot at 184 pounds  is now in his hands.

The rest is up to him.

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

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No. 1 Iowa 41, Indiana 0

  • 149: No. 1 Pat Lugo (IA) dec. Graham Rooks (IN). 10-6
  • 157: No. 4 Kaleb Young (IA) dec. Fernando Silva (IN), 11-4
  • 165: No. 2 Alex Marinelli (IA) over Davey Tunon (IN) by fall, 5:34
  • 174: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (IA) dec. No. 27 Jacob Covaciu (IN), 9-6
  • 184: Abe Assad (IA) dec. Jake Hinz (IN), 6-2
  • 197: No. 5 Jacob Warner (IA) dec. Nick Willham (IN), 8-3
  • 285: No. 4 Tony Cassioppi (IA) over Rudy Streck (IN) by fall, :20
  • 125: No. 1 Spencer Lee (IA) tech. fall Liam Cronin (IN), 15-0
  • 133: No. 2 Austin DeSanto (IA) over Jonathan Moran (IN) by fall, 1:42
  • 141: No. 5 Max Murin (IA) dec. Eddie Bolivar (IN), 6-0

Rankings from Trackwrestling.