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‘Wrestle your match’: How the top-ranked Iowa wrestlers rallied to beat No. 2 Penn State

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This was never going to be easy.

Not against this Penn State wrestling program, winners of eight of the last nine NCAA team titles. Not against this year’s collection of Nittany Lions, still incredibly skilled in all directions despite losing generational talents to graduation. Not in a dual where both teams wanted so badly to win in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

But these Hawkeyes are tough. Gritty. Fearless. They overcame a deflating injury to one of their lightweight stars. They battled even after tough losses just before their own matches. They rallied from an early hole to defeat No. 2 Penn State, 19-17, on Friday night. Iowa, ranked No. 1 nationally, is now 9-0 overall and 6-0 against the Big Ten after its first win over the Nittany Lions since 2015.

LEISTIKOW COLUMN: It's fitting that Kemerer is the hero of this dual

“Love it,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “That’s a dual meet. That’s a heavyweight boxing match, a fistfight — and not a fistfight, because you get in trouble for saying that, but it was a fistfight, back-and-forth.

“Sixteen-thousand people, whatever the crowd was — I don’t think anybody left. Do you? I don’t think anybody left.”

Iowa assistants Bobby Telford and Ryan Morningstar react with wrestlers during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

This dual meet had it all: a technical fall in less than four minutes, an injury default, a subtracted team point, high-scoring periods, headlock attempts, body-lock throws, heavyweight scrambles and a winner-take-all match, to name a few. Those moments took the fans from ear-splitting to silent to eruption — sometimes within the same match.

“That was badass,” Iowa football star A.J. Epenesa said as he walked up the stairs afterward. “That was awesome.”

In short: this dual, which sold out two months in advance, delivered. The announced crowd of 14,905 was the seventh-largest wrestling crowd in Carver history, and they witnessed the first round of what might be a three-round tussle for this year’s national team title. 

And make no mistake, the Hawkeyes earned this one, showcasing some serious toughness — both on the mat and between the ears — along the way.

“You can’t crown us right now,” Brands said. “It doesn’t mean a lot that, ‘Oh, we’re there,’ and we’ve arrived. It means we’ve taken a step. We overcame not some adversity tonight, we overcame a lot of adversity.”

Falling into an early hole …

The first three matches pushed Iowa back against the wall, even after Spencer Lee’s 16-1 technical fall over Brandon Meredith at 125 pounds. What followed might've been the definition of a worst-case scenario for the Hawkeyes in this dual.

At 133, Austin DeSanto injury defaulted after hurting his right knee while in on a shot against Roman Bravo-Young. He  tried to keep wrestling, even after doctors tended to his knee. Bravo-Young stormed to a 5-1 lead on a couple of takedowns, and DeSanto came up limping after the second, looking right at Brands and saying, “I can’t go,” with teary eyes.

During DeSanto’s first injury time, both Tom and associate head coach Terry Brands said something to the official, who proceeded to dock the Hawkeyes a team point for “control of mat area.” In the next match, Penn State’s Nick Lee rolled up seven takedowns and beat Carter Happel by a 20-5 technical fall, turning a 5-0 Iowa lead into an 11-4 Penn State advantage.

Iowa's Austin DeSanto, right, reacts while wrestling Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young at 133 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“We have to be better than that,” Tom Brands said afterward. “(Spencer) scores five, and we’re going up to the official the wrong way, and now it’s down to four. That’s a waste of his skill and talent and overwhelming firepower. We need to not give those points away.

“But you talk to the individuals, ‘Wrestle your match’ … we grew up a little bit.”

That 11-4 hole was just the second time the Hawkeyes had trailed in a dual all year — they trailed Princeton, 3-0, after the first match, then DeSanto rolled up a technical fall right after — and they spent the rest of the dual scratching and clawing their way back out.

Climbing back out …

Pat Lugo and Kaleb Young followed with decision wins at 149 and 157 to bring Iowa within 11-10 at the break — Lugo’s 6-1 win over Jarod Verkleeren was the 100th of his career, but just his 37th at Iowa (the other 63 were at Edinboro).

That gave Alex Marinelli the opportunity to push Iowa in front to begin the second half of the dual. But Vincenzo Joseph had other plans, tossing Marinelli to his back in the second period for a 6-1 lead that ultimately became a 7-5 win. Marinelli had won the previous two meetings against Joseph — in the 2018 dual and last season’s Big Ten Championships.

It was also his first career loss at Carver, which went quiet as the score ticked to 14-10 in favor of Penn State.

“We don’t need to be going over-unders with a guy that makes a living in over-unders,” Brands said. “It’s one of those things where you have to be seasoned.”

Iowa's Alex Marinelli reacts as blood begins to flow while he wrestles Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph at 165 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Up came Michael Kemerer, who brought the building back to life with a thrilling 11-6 win over top-ranked Mark Hall.

Kemerer, who entered ranked No. 2, rolled through a first-period headlock try by Hall for a takedown in the opening minute. Here’s what followed: Hall reversal, Kemerer escape, Hall takedown, then Kemerer reversal for a 5-4 lead.

All in the first period, at that.

With gas tanks riding closer to empty, Kemerer muscled his way to two more takedowns — one in the second and another in the third, which led to a rideout that sent the fans into a frenzy. It was also Kemerer’s 69th career victory, and perhaps his most important one to date.

“Good things happen the less I think and the more I just do,” Kemerer said. “You have to stay in your match. Saw we were down big, but it doesn’t change what I have to do. I have to go out and wrestle and do what I train to do.

“If we were getting blown out or if we were winning, it doesn’t change what I have to do out there.”

Completing the comeback

That also injected energy back into the Hawkeye bench. They trailed just 14-13 at that point and won two of the final three to complete the comeback. Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi posted decision victories at 197 and 285, respectively, after Abe Assad’s 7-3 loss to Aaron Brooks at 184.

Cassioppi’s win was the first walk-off win of his young career, and featured a first-period scramble that began with his own shot, turned into Penn State’s Seth Nevills lifting Cassioppi’s leg in the air, and ended with Cassioppi hand-fighting his way to a takedown after putting Nevills on his hip. He added another in the third that spurred a primal roar from the crowd.

“I just kept wrestling the position,” Cassioppi said. “I’m just satisfied to do my part. I wrestled my whole match and wrestled hard … it was just another wrestling match. I wrestle on a black and yellow match every day. This doesn’t change anything.

“We have a great group of guys. We stayed in our matches. We didn’t let the effects of the other matches boil over into our match. We were all focused on what we had to do.”

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi, top, wrestles Penn State's Seth Nevills at 285 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Cassioppi took in the crowd noise afterward with a smile, but his mind began moving forward — both to Sunday's dual at Michigan State (12 p.m. start) and to the larger goals ahead.

The job is not done, of course. The Big Ten Championships are just 35 days away, in New Jersey. The NCAA Championships will follow two weeks later, in Minneapolis. Those are the sites for Rounds Two and Three of this heavyweight fight between Iowa and Penn State.

But on this night, Brands was pleased. The crowd brought it, and so, too, did the wrestlers, on both sides. Round One went to the Hawkeyes.

“They earned it,” Brands said. “Our fans will reward you with applause. They will shower you with applause if you do your job. They want, they crave, they love entertaining, point-scoring wrestling.

“We grew up a little bit … our guys showed what we could do even when that arena was quiet.”

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 19, No. 2 Penn State 17

  • 125: No. 1 Spencer Lee (IA) tech. fall Brandon Meredith (PSU), 16-1
  • 133:  No. 4 Roman Bravo-Young (PSU) over No. 2 Austin DeSanto (IA), injury default*
  • 141: No. 2 Nick Lee (PSU) tech. fall Carter Happel (IA), 20-5
  • 149: No. 3 Pat Lugo (IA) dec. No. 19 Jarod Verkleeren (PSU), 6-1
  • 157: No. 4 Kaleb Young (IA) dec. Bo Pipher (PSU), 6-1
  • 165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (PSU) dec. No. 2 Alex Marinelli (IA), 7-5
  • 174: No. 2 Michael Kemerer (IA) dec. No. 1 Mark Hall (PSU), 11-6
  • 184: No. 8 Aaron Brooks (PSU) dec. No. 6 Abe Assad (IA), 7-3
  • 197: No. 5 Jacob Warner (IA) dec. No. 11 Shakur Rasheed (PSU), 4-2
  • 285: No. 3 Tony Cassioppi (IA) dec. No. 16 Seth Nevills (PSU), 7-0
  • *Iowa was deducted a team point during the 133-pound match for control of mat area.
  • Rankings from Trackwrestling.