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Consider the HWC Showdown Open the unofficial start of Iowa’s 2020-21 wrestling season

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Alex Marinelli is on one knee, holding the Big Ten Conference's championship trophy in his left hand and giving a thumbs-up with his right. Spencer Lee is on his left, smiling and holding up one finger. Pat Lugo is beside him, a gold medal around his neck.

That was the scene in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 Big Ten Wrestling Championships at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey. Iowa won the tournament by 25.5 points, and Marinelli, Lee and Lugo all won individual titles.

That was the last time the Iowa wrestling program competed — 238 days ago when Sunday arrives.

“I was talking with (Iowa senior Michael Kemerer) after the Big Ten tournament,” Marinelli said this week, “and he didn’t want to say this, but if he had known nationals wouldn’t have happened, he may have wrestled a little bit harder and smarter.

“It would’ve been in the back of your mind, like this will be the last time. So going out to wrestle this Sunday, you have to treat it like the most important match, because it could be the last match you ever have.”

Yes, for the first time in eight months, Iowa wrestlers will compete this weekend. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s Showdown Open is scheduled for Sunday at Coralville’s new Xtream Arena. The undercard begins at 4 p.m. The main card will follow at 6 p.m.

Between the nine-match undercard and the eight-match main, all 10 of Iowa’s presumed starters for the 2020-21 season, and a handful more, will be in action. Consider this the unofficial beginning of the Hawkeyes’ 2020-21 campaign.

“It’s like a home opener,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “Don’t call it the official home opener, but it’s like a home opener.”

The 2020-21 college wrestling season began this month with practices, but competitions aren’t expected to begin until January because of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic — the same one that nixed the 2020 NCAA Championships last March.

Iowa was the favorite to win the national team title, which would’ve been the program’s first since 2010. But COVID-19 squashed those plans, leaving the Hawkeyes to instead face comprehension rather than celebrate inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“These guys have been very professional in their handling on the situation they were put in,” Brands said. “They handled it well, but now it’s time to compete.”

The Hawkeyes will be among the favorites again this season. Nine of the 10 starters from last year are back. Lugo is the one loss, after going 21-1 and winning titles at the Midlands and Big Ten Championships. But then there’s the addition of Jaydin Eierman, a three-time All-American from Missouri who transferred to Iowa last year.

Sunday’s exhibition will be the first opportunity for them all to compete together again since mid-March. Lugo and Eierman both have wrestled recently — Eierman at the U.S. Senior National Championships this month, Lugo at the Rumble on the Rooftop exhibition in June — while the rest have waited patiently.

“It’s been a while,” said Lee, the winner of the 2020 Hodge Trophy. “I’m just ready to get out there, do what I love and wrestle hard.”

►Listen to the latest episode of the In The Room wrestling podcast

Normally, Iowa’s home-opener usually features lesser opponents. Last year, a 39-0 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga. The year before, the Hawkeyes went to the Kent State duals and beat both Kent State and Cal-State Bakersfield by a combined 81-3. The year before that, the Iowa City Duals, where Iowa went 3-0 and won 27-of-30 matches.

On Sunday, however, the Hawkeyes are getting some gnarly tests out of the gate.

Between the 17 matches, all of which will be freestyle, 19 total Iowa wrestlers are slated to compete Sunday. The undercard, which will be streamed for free on Trackwrestling, boasts 13 of them, including four of last year’s starters: Max Murin (141), Kaleb Young (157), Abe Assad (184) and Jacob Warner (197).

Murin will wrestle Minnesota All-American Mitch McKee. Young has Iowa grad Jeremiah Moody. Assad will wrestle Nelson Brands, who competed for the starting spot at 184 last season alongside Assad, and Warner will wrestle redshirt freshman Zach Glazier.

The undercard also features three highly-touted true freshmen: Patrick Kennedy, a junior national champ from Minnesota, will wrestle junior Myles Wilson; Jesse Ybarra, a standout from Arizona, will wrestle Nodir Safarov, of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club; and Florida native Bretli Reyna will wrestle redshirt freshman Cobe Siebrecht, from Lisbon.

“We’re going to test their freestyle skills, but wrestling is wrestling,” Tom Brands said. “These young guys, they’re craving it, they’re loving it, they need it. Onward.”

The main card, which will only be streamed pay-per-view, will boast the other six, and each of them will be tested by an opponent they wouldn’t normally see during the regular collegiate season.

Lee, a two-time NCAA champ, will wrestle Zach Sanders, a grizzled veteran from Minnesota who was a four-time All-American for the Gophers. Eierman will wrestle Vladimir Khinchegashvili, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist from Georgia.

Marinelli has James Green, a Nebraska grad and two-time world medalist. Kemerer has Tommy Gantt, an All-American from North Carolina State. Austin DeSanto and Tony Cassioppi are the other two current Hawkeyes scheduled to compete. DeSanto has Bryce Meredith, a two-time NCAA finalist from Wyoming. Cassioppi has Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA champ and two-time world medalist from N.C. State.

“Just blessed to be able to compete again,” DeSanto said. “This is an awesome opportunity to get back on the mat and improve. I think both of us are ready to get out there and score points.”

A lot of firepower, yes — but also an opportunity for some guys to flash their freestyle chops against some of the best in the country.

“A guy like Cassioppi, being able to wrestle Gwiazdowski, that’s real important for his development,” Brands said. “He did not come to Iowa to only get a good education toward a meaningful career and wrestle collegiately. He wants to wrestle internationally.

“With COVID and the way things have been delayed, it was a no-brainer to come out of the gates strong with these matchups.”

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi, left, 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.

► RELATED: Tom Brands explains how the HWC Showdown Open came together

Lugo will also compete, against Princeton All-American Matthew Kolodzik. There are also two women’s matches — one between Sarah Hildebrandt, a 2018 world medalist, and Erin Golston, a three-time junior world medalist; another between Precious Bell, a U.S. Open champ, and Jordan Nelson, a talented senior from Life University.

But most every eye will be on the Hawkeye wrestlers as they unofficially begin their 2020-21 season. They are hungry to compete, no doubt, but the long layoff may have also shifted perspective.

It was just four days after the Big Ten Championships that the pandemic forced the shutdown of the national tournament. Now, 238 days later, the Hawkeyes are back wrestling again. They plan on taking full advantage.

“This is a big opportunity, and I’m super thankful,” Marinelli said. “But I’m also excited. We get to compete, finally. It’s been way too long. We’ve been doing things right, training and being safe and getting what we need and getting ready.

“We’re not just putting on an event and just doing it just to do it. We’re doing it for intent and to get better and to show what we have.”

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

HWC Showdown Open

  • When: Sunday, Nov. 1
  • Where: Xtream Arena, Coralville, IA
  • Watch: Trackwrestling

Undercard, 4 p.m.

  • Jesse Ybarra vs. Nodir Safarov
  • Justin Stickley vs. Carter Happel
  • Bretli Reyna vs. Cobe Siebrecht
  • Max Murin vs. Mitch McKee
  • Kaleb Young vs. Jeremiah Moody
  • Patrick Kennedy vs. Myles Wilson
  • Nelson Brands vs. Abe Assad
  • Jacob Warner vs. Zach Glazier

Main Card, 6 p.m.

  • Spencer Lee vs. Zach Sanders
  • Sarah Hildebrandt vs. Erin Golston
  • Austin DeSanto vs. Bryce Meredith
  • Jaydin Eierman vs. Vladimir Khinchegashvili
  • Pat Lugo vs. Matthew Kolodzik
  • Jordan Nelson vs. Precious Bell
  • Alex Marinelli vs. James Green
  • Michael Kemerer vs. Tommy Gantt
  • Tony Cassioppi vs. Nick Gwiazdowski