Wrestling: Here’s why Iowa’s Spencer Lee should win the Hodge Trophy

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

The 2019-20 college wrestling season did not get the ending it deserved.

There were supposed to be record-shattering crowds inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for the NCAA Championships. It was supposed to be Iowa truly contending for its first team title in a decade. It was supposed to be followed by the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, which was shaping up to be the greatest American wrestling tournament ever, two weeks later at Penn State.

There was a real chance that the Hawkeyes, Iowa State and Northern Iowa could have all finished in the top 10 at this year’s national tournament, which hadn't happened since 1992 — Tom Brands was a sophomore at Iowa then, Kevin Dresser was coaching Grundy High School to Virginia state titles and Doug Schwab was in middle school.

Instead, this season will be remembered as the year the novel coronavirus pandemic kept Iowa from a shot at its 24th national team title. The Hawkeyes’ season ends with a 13-0 dual record and team crowns at both the Midlands and Big Ten Championships.

“We will process this and move forward, as we always do,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said last week. “Our guys have a lot to be proud of and much more still to accomplish.”

But there’s still one more award that Iowa could win.

Since 1995, Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine has annually awarded the Hodge Trophy. A wrestler’s record, number of pins, overall domination, quality of competition and more are factored in each season. The award is essentially college wrestling's Heisman Trophy.

Despite the lack of a national tournament, W.I.N. announced it will still be awarding a Hodge Trophy for the 2019-20 season — and Iowa’s Spencer Lee might have the strongest case.

Iowa 125-pounder Spencer Lee went 18-0 this season with 17 bonus-point victories. The junior earned the 1-seed at the 2020 NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, which were canceled because of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The junior 125-pounder produced one of the more dominant seasons in recent memory. He went 18-0 with 17 bonus-point wins: four pins, nine technical falls, three major decisions and a seven-point victory over Michigan’s Jack Medley (plus a win by forfeit).

That’s a bonus-point rate of 94.4%. The only Hodge Trophy winner with a better bonus-point rate was Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, who went 40-0 with 38 bonus-point wins in 2001-02 for a rate of 95%.

Of Sanderson's other two decision victories, one was against Lee Fullhart, who went to the Midlands Championships as a post-graduate (the other was Lehigh’s Jon Trenge).

In 17 contested matches this year, Lee outscored his opponents his opponents 234-18. He recorded 12 wins over wrestlers who qualified for NCAAs. Four of his nine technical falls came in the first period, and the other five came less than a minute into the second. He gave up just two takedowns and a reversal all year. The rest were escapes, many of them gifted.

“Keep scoring points,” said Lee, who was also named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year. “Don’t stop, no matter what. Even if the other guy doesn’t want to score points, keep scoring points.

“I don’t really gameplan for anybody. I just go out and wrestle.”

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The Pennsylvania native also won the U.S. men’s freestyle senior national title at 57 kilograms (125 pounds), blazing through a field that included six total NCAA champs, dozens of past All-Americans, a Junior world silver medalist and a U-23 world-teamer, in addition to several other credentialed wrestlers. Lee went 5-0 and outscored his opponents a combined 52-6.

That may not get factored into the Hodge decision, but it helps with perception about the kind of year he had.

Lee was one of nine wrestlers who ended the season undefeated, but none scored bonus points at near the same clip he did. The closest was Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, who went 27-0 with 20 bonus-point wins (four pins, six tech-falls, 10 majors for a 74.1% bonus rate), plus 17 wins over NCAA qualifiers. Minnesota’s Gable Steveson (73%) and Princeton’s Pat Glory (70.8%) weren’t far behind.

W.I.N. also lists past credentials, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart as other criteria. It is hard to quantify some of those, but there is no doubting Lee’s ticker.

It would’ve been easy for the three-time age-level world champion to take an Olympic redshirt this season. It would’ve preserved his NCAA eligibility while he focused exclusively on wrestling freestyle (his favorite style) and chased his Olympic dream. Many of his peers did that, such as Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, both NCAA champions a year ago.

Instead, Lee opted to wrestle a mixed schedule this season, and he was instrumental in the Hawkeyes’ dominant campaign. He balanced folkstyle and freestyle and didn’t lose a match. The two-time NCAA champ was the heavy favorite to win a third this week, and a strong contender to make the U.S. Olympic team two weeks after.

“He’s a competitive guy,” Brands said after Iowa won the Big Ten Championships. “Make no mistake about that.”

From left: Alex Marinelli, Spencer Lee and Pat Lugo celebrate after winning individual titles at the Big 10 Wrestling Championships March 8, 2020; Piscataway, NJ, USA.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but the cancellation of the NCAA Championships means Lee is now in danger of losing his shot at winning four Division I national titles, something only four other wrestlers have ever done and no Iowa wrestler has ever accomplished. He is only in this situation because he decided to put his team first (and, also, because of a virus).

But it should not diminish what he accomplished this season. Only two Iowa wrestlers have won the Hodge Trophy: Mark Ironside in 1998, and Brent Metcalf a decade later.

Spencer Lee should be the third.

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

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