Spencer Lee becomes third Hawkeye wrestler to win prestigious Hodge Trophy

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Spencer Lee did not get the opportunity to win a third straight national title this year, but Iowa’s talented junior wrestler did earn a historic distinction for his tremendous 2019-20 season.

Lee was named the winner of the Hodge Trophy on Monday, an award given annually by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine to college wrestling’s most dominant competitor. He is the third Hawkeye to win the award in its 25-year history.

"I was excited. It was the next best thing for me," Lee said on a teleconference Monday afternoon. "I couldn’t win my third national title, but this was a silver lining throughout all these crazy times."

The Pennsylvania native earned 52 first-place votes out of 57 from the Hodge Trophy Voting Committee, beating out Ohio State senior Kollin Moore, who finished second with 3, and Northwestern's Ryan Deakin, who finished third with 1. Those three emerged from a field of eight total finalists.

Iowa's Spencer Lee has his hand raised after winning a 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.

Criteria for the award included a wrestler’s record, number of pins, overall domination and quality of competition. A fan vote has been included as part of the Hodge Trophy formula in recent years. In much the same way that Lee dominated his opponents on the mat, he ran away with the fan distinction, too, garnering 15,567 of 26,709 total votes — or about 58.3%.

Lee’s junior 125-pound season was a masterclass in dominance. He went 18-0 with 17 bonus-point wins: four pins, nine technical falls, three major decisions, plus a win by forfeit. His bonus rate this year of 94.4% was the best by a Hodge Trophy winner since Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson had a 95% mark in 2002, when he went 40-0 with 38 wins by bonus.

In 17 contested matches this season, Lee outscored his foes by a staggering 234-18. He recorded 12 wins over wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA Championships. 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.

“This is a unique Hodge Trophy because of the lopsided point differential. When you talk about 234 points to 18, that has got to be unprecedented,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said in a release.

“When you look at a guy who can dominate by taking you down and letting you up and taking you down; that is one thing. But to get on top of a guy and score 17 straight points in 2-and-a-half minutes, that is a whole different animal and tell-tale of dominance.

“Give Spencer Lee full credit.”

His performance yielded many accolades. Lee won his first individual Big Ten title in March and was named the 2020 Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, Intermat's 2020 Wrestler of the Year and the NCAA's Most Dominant Wrestler at the Division I level. He is also a finalist for the James E. Sullivan Award, an accolade given annually to “the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.”

Even more, Lee won the U.S. men’s freestyle senior national title at 57 kilograms (125 pounds), blazing through a field that included six total NCAA champions, dozens of past All-Americans, a Junior world silver medalist and a U-23 world-teamer, among others. He went 5-0 and outscored his opponents by a combined 52-6.

Winning the U.S. men’s freestyle senior national crown ensured Lee a spot at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, but was not a factor when it came to the Hodge Trophy. Still, Lee’s 2019-20 resume is not complete without its mention.

"I showed some people that I can wrestle from everywhere," Lee said. "Freestyle is my main game, the one I enjoy the most. I love folkstyle, too, but people have preferences, and (freestyle) is my preference.

"This was supposed to be a big year for me, in my mind. I was hoping to become a three-time national champ, make the Olympic team and win a gold medal, win the Hodge. I got one of them, so I have something to be positive about."

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Lee was the catalyst for Iowa’s dominant 2019-20 campaign. The Hawkeyes went 13-0 in duals and shattered attendance records along the way, won the Big Ten regular-season title, set a new scoring record at the Midlands Championships (without the full usage of both Lee and Michael Kemerer) and won the Big Ten Championships.

As such, Iowa was the favorite to win the 2020 NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, with the Hawkeyes vying for the program’s first national team title since 2010. All 10 wrestlers qualified, and nine were seeded eighth or better, including three who were seeded first: Pat Lugo (149), Alex Marinelli (165) and, of course, Lee at 125.

The spread of the novel coronavirus forced the cancellation the national tournament. It also pushed the Olympics back a year, as the International Olympic Committee announced Monday that the Olympics' new start date is July 23, 2021.

In doing so, it also halted Lee’s shot at potentially becoming a four-time NCAA champion. Only four other wrestlers have done so: Logan Stieber (2012-15), Sanderson (1999-02), Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-94) and Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-13).

"It's disappointing, you know?" Lee said. "But what can you do about it? If I'm a three-timer, I'm a three-timer. At least I know I did everything I could, and I can live my life with no regrets. There's something to be said about that."

Stieber and Dake (2013) both won the Hodge. Sanderson is the only college wrestler to win it three times (2000-02) and one of just four to win it more than once. Smith won his fourth NCAA title in 1994, the year before the Hodge Trophy was introduced.

Lee may not get to join that legendary list, but he is now forever alongside past Iowa Hodge winners Brent Metcalf (2008) and Mark Ironside (1998). He is also the first 125-pounder to win the award, and the first lightweight to take it since Stieber (who won titles at both 133 and 141 pounds).

"It's pretty special to be named the Hodge Trophy winner," Lee said. "It's an honor. I'm glad I get to represent my university in a good light and represent my team and my friends. It's fun."

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

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