Wrestling Mailbag: The Chiefs, more Iowa-Penn State and the Hodge Trophy

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Before the mailbag, I have to say something about the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs — which, to be honest, is not a thing I thought I’d ever type.

I watched the game with my family in Kansas City. There was no other way I was going to watch that game. Dad put a projector in the basement, and we shared Tank 7s, ate snacks, the whole nine.

What we watched was not a miracle, because there are bigger things than sports, but it was miraculous. A 10-10 tie at half, the 49ers surged ahead, a couple of untimely interceptions by the Chiefs’ wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, then 21 straight points in less than seven minutes to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 50 years.

The whole family rode the rollercoaster of emotions that come with a back-and-forth game like that, but the whole time, I kept thinking of my grandpa.

James Goodwin was a hard-working man who spent his life building homes and businesses. He loved to eat pizza and drink a few beers and host gatherings. He took care of his family by teaching them the value of hard work, sometimes through words but most times through actions. He was no-nonsense and fearless, tough but always fair.

And he loved watching the Kansas City Chiefs.

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I ever went to Arrowhead Stadium was with my dad, and we watched the Chiefs lose to the Broncos. Many more times, I went with my grandpa. He had season tickets for years in Section 304. He took each of his grandkids, but I always felt like I went to more than the rest. I saw he cared about how they played, so I cared, too.

My Chiefs fandom came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The entire 2003 season was like one huge dopamine hit. Grandpa and I watched Priest Holmes turn in a record-breaking season behind the Greatest Offensive Line Ever Assembled.

On our drives to Arrowhead each Sunday, we talked about the team’s history. He taught me about Marty Schottenheimer, Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas, but also Lin Elliott, John Elway and Jim Harbaugh. Some day, he told me, they’d win the big one.

We thought that year was 2003. Holmes paced the Chiefs’ explosive offense. Then came the playoffs, and the infamous No Punt Game. The Colts went up 14-3 after the game’s first three drives.

I was becoming more of a football nerd by then. I tapped my grandpa on the shoulder.

“We aren’t winning this game,” I told him. (We didn’t.)

The stories you’ve heard of Kansas City football heartache are real. It’s both parts comical and frustrating. It wasn’t if the Chiefs were going to break your heart. It was always how.

I’ve seen my fair share, and rattling them off makes them sound like a list of Friends episodes. The one where neither team punted, and they lost. The one where they led 38-10 in the second half, and lost. The one where they didn’t allow a touchdown, and lost. The one where the opposing quarterback threw a touchdown to himself. The one where they scored 31 points in the second half against the New England Patriots … and lost.

► Central Iowa Chiefs fans relish rare Super Bowl moment

We cheer for our hometown sports teams for different reasons, but I think a lot do because they represent the best of us. We identify with them because they wear the name of the city we grew up in, but they also show us what’s possible when a group of people commit to one common goal. 

I think my grandpa loved watching football because the game itself shows the value of hard work and the sweet rewards that come with it. He loved the business side of things, and understood that championships are carefully constructed and then earned through execution. He viewed it through that lens while the rest of his family enjoyed the touchdowns and nutty Arrowhead crowd, and we all bonded over the experience. 

Grandpa died five years ago this month. He did not get to see some of that heartache. He did not get to see the Chiefs draft Mahomes. He did not get to see him throw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in his first full season as a starter. He did not get to see Mahomes lift the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in 50 years Sunday evening.

There are so many other important things in my life I wish I could’ve shared with my grandpa. I was his first grandkid to graduate college, and he passed three months before I walked across the stage. I couldn’t call him after I got my first job, then my second. I can hear him laughing about the fact that my national wrestling writer award is a glass mug.

But I wish so badly I could’ve shared Sunday night with him. I wish so badly he could’ve seen the way Mahomes turned arguably the worst performance of his young career into perhaps the greatest sporting moment in Kansas City history. I wish so badly I could’ve seen the look on this face after the Chiefs finally won the big one.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (4): With Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes emerging as league's primary face, newly crowned champs appear to have staying power as long as young core -– including free agent DT Chris Jones -– and HC Andy Reid remain together.

Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag. Bet you weren’t expecting that kind of opening today, were ya?

Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.

Feb. 5 Tweet 1

I kid you not, last Friday’s sold-out dual between No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Penn State was the kind of night people in attendance will tell their kids about.

I’ve witnessed many insane wrestling moments inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Tony Ramos beat Jordan Oliver and pinned both Jordan Conaway and Jimmy Gulibon. Alex Meyer beat Mark Hall. Abe Assad won his debut. I’ve seen great duals where Iowa dominated and others where the result was decided in the final matches. That place gets very, very loud.

But I’ve never heard it as loud as I did last Friday.

Michael Kemerer’s third-period takedown against Hall sparked a roar that is still ringing in my head. After Tony Cassioppi’s first takedown against Seth Nevills three matches later, the crowd returned to that decibel level for the duration of the match.

A full wrestling crowd inside Carver can be special, in more ways than one. At least once each season, I write about the crowd and the aura that comes with winning big wrestling matches and duals inside that building. I probably could’ve done that Friday.

I love witnessing moments like that. After Kemerer’s third-period takedown, I looked around. I couldn’t hear anybody near me because the crowd was so loud. I started laughing. I won’t forget that. I doubt you guys will, either.


Feb. 5 Tweet 2

Honestly, the bigger shock was the results on Friday.

One more quick note on the Chiefs — I had a feeling the game might unfold the way it did. San Francisco would take a lead, Kansas City’s defense would adjust, then Mahomes would be Mahomes and the offense would take over. It didn’t think it’d be three-straight touchdown drives in under seven minutes, but the outcome itself was not surprising.

On Friday, I legitimately had no idea how those matches would go.

I know Alex Marinelli had been 2-0 previously against Vincenzo Joseph, and their last meeting, at last season’s Big Ten Championships, was perhaps the best single match performance I have ever seen from Marinelli.

But Joseph’s résumé and wrestling style is such that you can never truly count him out. That toss in the second period to go up 6-1 was thrilling, but not unexpected, if that makes sense. I knew he was capable of that, and thought it was interesting that Marinelli decided to try and tie up with him throughout the first couple of periods.

At 174, that was the first time we’ve seen Kemerer and Hall wrestle, so I’m not sure anybody legitimately knew how it might go. We know Hall is capable of the big-move killshot, and he nearly landed one in that first period. He also know Kemerer has great hips, awareness and can finish from nearly any position. That helped him a ton.

A couple of the match’s more pivotal moments came when Kemerer actually evaded what looked like clear Hall takedowns. There was the throw in the first, but then also an ankle-pick attempt in the second that Kemerer kicked out of and forced into a stalemate on the edge. That action was thrilling, and I’m not sure you could’ve scripted it any better.

Which leads us to …

Feb. 5 Tweet 3

… man, it’s up there, for sure.

So many come to mind from this year alone. Oklahoma State’s Reece Witcraft beat Iowa State’s Todd Small in a thriller in Ames. Assad’s win over Nebraska’s Taylor Venz was excellent. Vince Turk’s win over Kanen Storr at the Midlands was amazing. There are surely more I’m forgetting right off hand.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a ton of great ones in person. Hall and Zahid Valencia’s matchups in the NCAA finals, both years, were stellar. Same with Yianni Diakomihalis and Joey McKenna. Max Dean beating Myles Martin, then losing to Drew Foster.

Before then: Both matchups between Brody Teske and Alex Thomsen were fantastic. David Taylor vs. Kyle Dake in 2013. There have been so many more in both folkstyle and freestyle, at the high school, collegiate and at various world team trials events (Aaron Pico against Jayson Ness at the 2016 Olympic Trials, for example).

A lot of what I just listed carries a wicked recency bias attached to it and others feature primarily the big names. Like I said, I’m probably forgetting a bunch.

But man, Kemerer-Hall was worth the price of admission last Friday.

The first period featured everything great about these high-level wrestlers — they were fearless and aggressive, employing great technique on both offense and defense. It was a sterling example of what wrestling can be like when both guys step onto the mat and leave everything out there. I loved it.

Here’s hoping the rematches in the future are just as exciting.

Feb. 5 Tweet 4

Oh man. So many great matches are still coming — for all three Division I programs.

We’ll go team by team.

Iowa: Cassioppi will get a crack at Michigan’s Mason Parris and Minnesota’s Gable Steveson over the next two weeks. Pat Lugo’s next three weeks feature matchups against Kanen Storr, Brayton Lee and Boo Lewallen. Very intrigued by Marinelli against Oklahoma State’s Travis Wittlake, and also Spencer Lee against Nick Piccininni. Jacob Warner against Dakota Geer.

Iowa State: Ian Parker will wrestle Oklahoma’s Dom Demas this weekend and Northern Iowa’s Michael Blockhus next weekend. Jarrett Degen will get to see both Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen and Missouri’s Brock Mauller this month. David Carr, if he’s back from an injury (Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser called him questionable for this weekend), will get to see Missouri’s Jarrett Jacques. Sam Colbray against Bryce Steiert is intriguing. 

Northern Iowa: The Panthers still get Iowa State and Wisconsin to close their season, which means the aforementioned matchups in addition to seeing Blockhus wrestle Tristan Moran, Jacob Schwarm wrestle Eric Barnett and Carter Isley wrestle Trent Hillger.

There’s a chance some of these may not materialize, for various reasons, but February has an opportunity to be such a great wrestling month. 

Feb. 5 Tweet 5

Gotta think it’s probably those two guys, right? At least for now.

I understand why Zahid Valencia might have a slight edge in the Hodge Trophy race/rankings/projections right now. He’s undefeated and has more pins, and when we’re talking about overall wrestling dominance, pins are worth more than technical falls. That matters.

But Spencer Lee is now 12-0 with 12 bonus-point wins — eight technical falls, three pins and a major decision. He’s outscored his 12 opponents this year by a combined 167-9. Of his eight technical falls, four have come in the first period and the other four have ended less than 30 seconds into the second. All three of his pins have come in the first period. 

That’s just absurd.

Iowa's Spencer Lee is introduced before his match at 125 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual against Penn State, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

There’s a level of campaigning that comes with winning the Hodge Trophy. The pure results are a huge part of it, yes, but so is just starting the conversation and getting people to pay closer attention.

Lee might be one of the most-watched and most-covered wrestlers ever, but I’m not sure people know just how dominant he’s been this season. Nobody in college wrestling has ever gone undefeated and scored bonus points in every single match along the way. So far, Lee has done just that.

Here’s the wet blanket: Another reason why Valencia might have the edge is because he has wrestled a slightly tougher schedule. He has more wins over wrestlers currently ranked in Trackwrestling’s top-25 (six) than Lee does (three). That’s one reason why I’ve held off from writing a story on Lee’s case for the Hodge.

But if Lee runs the table and scores bonus in every match, it’d be hard not to give him the Hodge, if only because it’d be an unprecedented accomplishment.

There will be a lot of wrestling between now and the end of the season, so things can always change. Other guys could overtake both Valencia and Lee, like Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher or Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin or somebody else entirely.

But yeah, I’d say Valencia and Lee are the front-runners for now. Lee’s prime opportunity will come during the postseason. If he can continue his ridiculous dominance through the Big Ten and national tournaments, there’s no question he can put his name at the top of this discussion.

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

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