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Wrestling Mailbag: Iowa's schedule, lineups, Spencer Lee and the Hodge, top recruits, more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Tuesday became an interesting day in Iowa City.

Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands and Spencer Lee held a news conference at Kinnick Stadium, which sounds a little odd written out like that, primarily so Spencer could formally receive the 2020 Hodge Trophy, but it was also a chance for us to talk to Brands about his Hawkeyes and the 2021 season.

And, among other things, he delivered this gem about the process the Big Ten took in releasing its wrestling schedules:

"The biggest thing that I could tell them was that our frustration is with the Big Ten as the leader in sports, let alone wrestling. It's definitely the leader in wrestling. Yet, you know, these other conferences have taken the lead.

"That's what was frustrating. Not because we didn't think we weren't going to get a schedule or compete, but because the propaganda is used against us. You know what I'm talking about.

"It's hard when the propaganda is going against you. They can say, Iowa is ducking institution X and institution Y. Well, we have a policy that we can't wrestle anybody outside the Big Ten until the national tournament. How are we ducking you?

"That narrative was put out there by the nit, nit, nit minis of the world in the sport of wrestling. It hurt the Big Ten. That's my competitive edge coming out. That's where the frustration was. It wasn't with the Big Ten or the Big Ten leadership. This is real. This COVID is real. They're figuring it out every day. It's changing.

That's a lot to unpack!

Iowa head coach Tom Brands speaks to reporters during Hawkeyes wrestling media day, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the McCord Club level of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

For starters, the "propaganda" he's discussing is the people who are mad at Iowa for not having Iowa State or Oklahoma State on its schedule this year. This will be the first year since the 1992-93 season that the Hawkeyes won't wrestle Oklahoma State, and the first year since 1971-72 they won't wrestle the Cyclones. It sucks that those duals won't happen, but that's not Iowa's fault. That's the point he's trying to make.

More importantly, Brands is (was?) clearly frustrated with the Big Ten, like the rest of us. It would be nice if Iowa and every other Big Ten school received the same autonomy as, say, basketball. They all scheduled non-conference opponents like they would every other year. Not even football was allowed to do that.

At the same time, we are talking about the Big Ten here, which is the wrestling conference. Of Iowa's nine duals, eight are against teams that are currently ranked in Trackwrestling's top-25. It's still going to be a fairly tough schedule.

Those are the two prisms you can view the schedule thing. Personally, I like Iowa's schedule. The only qualm I have is that I would've like to have seen Rutgers on the schedule instead of, say, Illinois. But the Hawkeyes still get the league's heavy hitters, like Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

They're going to be plenty battle-tested, which is what you want, right? This year is going to be weird, so maybe the Hawkeyes are fortunate in that way. Things could be better, obviously, but then, I think of Cornell and Princeton and the rest of the Ivy League, and they're not wrestling at all this season.

Just my two cents, anyways.

Now, then. Onto the wrestling mailbag — on a Wednesday, too. Sorry for the one-day delay. We got pretty busy on Monday and Tuesday. We'll try and keep this regularly on Tuesday moving forward and only adjust as needed.

Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and on Instagram (@codyjgoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In The Room, each week as well.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

Three-parter to kick off this mailbag! We'll go in order.

1. Between Abe Assad and Nelson Brands … hard to say at the moment, only because the only thing I really have to go off of is last year's results, where Assad was clearly the guy and Nelson was undersized but competent. But then you throw their result from the HWC Showdown Open into the mix, and, well …

I understand why people are curious. To be honest, I am, too. Nelson still didn't look like a fully-grown 184-pounder in that November matchup, but a 9-0 score sure looked impressive.

The other thing to remember is that result was a one-off. I think it means something, but not everything. Iowa coach Tom Brands said afterward that some matches had a wrestle-off feel to them. Hard to know for sure if that was one of them, and to what degree that it was a wrestle-off.

We'll learn more this month, once the Hawkeyes start competing. The lack of a Midlands Championships this season will make things even harder on Tom when it comes to making final decisions.

But I'm sure he's got a plan.

2. I think the likelihood of extra matches throughout the year is good. Iowa State did that last Sunday against Wartburg and is planning to do it again this Sunday when they host Nebraska-Kearney and Loras.

The one thing I worry about is how stingy the Big Ten is about teams traveling — like how many are able to travel to each road competition. Will it just be the starting 10? Will teams be able to bring 12? Maybe 15 if they're going to tri- or quad-duals? These are questions I need to ask.

I would hope there's more than just the standard varsity 10 matches. There are only so many opportunities to wrestle live competition this season. Let's get as many guys on the mat as we can.

3. Maybe?

We've seen them previously. The Iowa City Duals (RIP) come to mind. The Hawkeyes went to a quad at Kent State to begin the 2018-19 season. 

I think it could be a cool way to grow the sport if you pair up the right teams. There's four Division I programs in Illinois: Illinois, Northwestern, Northern Illinois and SIUE. Why don't they do a quad dual to kick off every season? Michigan, Michigan State and Central Michigan could do the same thing.

Side note: Did you know the state of North Carolina has seven Division I wrestling programs? So does New York. Pennsylvania has 11. Imagine the two-day dual tournaments those states could have and how awesome it would be to have them all wrestle in the same spot once a year.

*Looks at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa*

Iowa's Nelson Brands, red, works a gut wrench against Abe Assad during the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Xtream Arena & GreenState Family Fieldhouse in Coralville, Iowa.

I think they'll get one. I'm not sure which one it will be — my gut says either Illinois, Purdue or Wisconsin — but one seems like a safe bet.

The problem with answering this question is that you can go through the whole schedule and find matches the other team could win.

I mean, this is literally what I wrote down in the process of answering this question:

  • Jan. 15, vs. Nebraska: Thomsen-DeSanto looks fun; Robb beat Young last time out; Taylor Venz and Eric Schultz at 184 and 197.
  • Jan. 22, at Minnesota: Gable Steveson, but Blockhus-Murin looks fun and intrigued by Brayton Lee at 157.
  • Jan. 31, vs. Illinois: maybe!
  • Jan. 31, vs. Michigan: hello, Stevan Micic, Logan Massa, Myles Amine, Mason Parris.
  • Feb. 7, at Purdue: maybe! but also, Kendall Coleman.
  • Feb. 7, vs. Ohio State (at Purdue): Echemendia-Eierman looks fun; Sammy Sasso is back.
  • Feb. 12, at Penn State: lol no chance at a shutout
  • Feb. 19, vs. Northwestern: hello, Ryan Deakin.
  • Feb. 21, at Wisconsin: maybe!

Consider this, too: Iowa went 13-0 last year and only posted two shutouts against Big Ten opponents, against Purdue and Indiana. 

So, yeah. Probably one this year.

But maybe none!

Iowa's Max Murin celebrates his win against Oklahoma State's Dusty Hone at 141 pounds during the Hawkeye's last home dual of the season, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

Nope. Circle back after I've seen them wrestle a few matches.

Literally tech-fall everybody.

I'm only half-joking.

Assuming Spencer wrestles the entire schedule, and then factoring in bracket placement at the Big Ten and NCAA Championships and assuming he runs the table, he's in line to wrestle exactly …

*checks math*

… 17 matches.

*double checks math*

Nine in the regular season, three at the conference tournament (assuming a first-round bye), then five at the national tournament.

Which, hey, he only wrestled 18 matches last year, with 17 bonus-point wins — four pins, nine technical falls, three major decisions, plus a win by forfeit. That's a 94.4% bonus rate, the best by a Hodge Trophy winner since Cael Sanderson had a 95% mark in 2002, when he went 40-0 with 38 wins by bonus.

The other thing to consider is who Spencer's top competition for the Hodge might be.

Honestly, the first wrestlers that came to mind were his teammates — specifically Jaydin Eierman, Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer.

Outside of them, maybe Roman Bravo-Young or Nick Lee, Ryan Deakin or Hayden Hidlay. Gable Steveson. There's a lot of guys who could emerge and potentially make a run at it.

But if Spencer just destroys everybody again with the same level of dominance — in 17 contested matches last season, he outscored his opponents 234-18 and recorded four first-period technical falls — then I think he'll give himself a chance.

Iowa's Spencer Lee gets ready before his match at 125 pounds against Wisconsin during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Rough guess:

  • 125: Brody Teske
  • 133: Jack Skudlarczyk/Kyle Biscoglia
  • 141: Drew Bennett
  • 149: Triston Lara/Kaleb Olejniczak
  • 157: Keaton Geerts/Cayd Lara/Derek Holschlag
  • 165: Austin Yant
  • 174: Lance Runyon
  • 184: Parker Keckeisen
  • 197: Jacob Holschlag/Tyrell Gordon
  • 285: Carter Isley

The big disclaimer here is that I'm not sure how Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab will choose to employ his freshmen with the NCAA's freebie year. Cael Happel could maybe make a run at 133 or 141. Ethan Basile and Julian Farber are both listed at 141, too. Adam Allard might push at 149. Wade Mitchell could factor in at 165, Nevan Snodgrass at 174, Dajun Johnson at both, and on and on and on. There are options there.

The other thing to remember to is that guys grow and weights change, so maybe I guessed too heavy for some and too light for others. The Panthers have 10 duals this season to sort out their lineup ahead of the Big 12 Championships, starting with a pair of duals this weekend. I'm excited to watch them compete.

Brody Teske gets ready before a match at 57 kg during the USA Wrestling Senior National Championships, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

I feel inclined to say Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen.

He's a top-20 national recruit, two-time state champ, three-time finalist. Multiple-time All-American with a national finals appearance. Has only lost four times in his high school career. He will probably bulldoze the field this year at 152 pounds, and I really like his potential at the next level.

But you can make an argument for a few others.

Along with Rathjen, the next name that immediately came to mind was Iowa City West's Hunter Garvin. I've always felt like he's been a little underrated as a national recruit. He's won a couple of national titles, and has an exceptional Greco-Roman résumé. He turned heads with a third-place finish at the Super 32 Challenge this past fall, and that helped him climb in some national polls. He's the top-ranked 2022 recruit in Iowa.

I'm a big fan of Bettendorf's Griffin Liddle, even though he's going to play football for Iowa. Union's Adam Ahrendsen is a guy I think deserves more love than he's currently getting. Same with Cascade's Aidan Noonan. You can make cases for guys like Waverly-Shell Rock's Bailey Roybal, West Delaware's Wyatt Voelker, Solon's Hayden Taylor, Logan-Magnolia's Hagen Heistand and Iowa City High's Ben Kueter.

But the first three that come to mind are Drake Ayala, Rathjen, Garvin, probably in that order. I'm not sure what the order would be behind them, but this could also be a discussion about how the overall depth and talent in Iowa high school wrestling has blossomed tremendously in recent years. Been super fun to watch, and I'm blessed to have been able to cover a lot of these guys.

As for the second question, ask me again after we watch Iowa (and a few other teams) wrestle a few times.

Iowa City West's Hunter Garvin is introduced before a match at 145 pounds during a Class 3A varsity wrestling dual, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.

My five things is going to include more than just the dual between No. 1 Waverly-Shell Rock and No. 2 Southeast Polk, but we will start there:

1. SEP vs. WSR is a rematch of the last two 3A state duals finals. And using IAWrestle's latest Class 3A rankings, as many as 19 ranked wrestlers will take the mat Saturday in that dual alone — including 14 that are ranked in the top-5 at their respective weights.

On paper, six matches will feature ranked wrestlers, including four between wrestlers that are both ranked in the top four at their respective weights:

  • at 132, No. 1 Ryder Block vs. No. 3 Ayden Kingery
  • at 152, No. 3 Aiden Riggins vs. No. 4 Carson Martinson
  • at 182, No. 2 McCrae Hagerty vs. No. 3 Aiden Grimes
  • at 220, No. 1 Lucas Walker vs. No. 2 Kalob Runyon

There is not enough space for how fire emoji that dual is going to be.

2. 120 pounds is going to be super nice all day: Top-ranked Bailey Roybal (WSR), second-ranked Trever Anderson (ANK), third-ranked Chad Bellis (HEMP) and ninth-ranked Cooper Hansen (SEP). That's going to be a fun little four-man round-robin.

3. 152 pounds will also have some fireworks, with three of the top-four individuals in action when you add Ankeny's top-ranked Caleb Rathjen to the Riggins-Martinson dynamic. In the same vein, don't forget about seventh-ranked Aidan Dunne at 182 to go along with Hagerty and Grimes.

4. Don't sleep on the Adler Kramer-Cael Cox matchup at 126 in the Ankeny-Hempstead dual. Love the way those guys compete.

5. Honestly, I just love that we'll have four large-school teams from three different parts of the state all in the same building for an afternoon. We've seen it quite a bit in some of the smaller classes, but with the large schools, it's been pretty few and far between. Can't wait to be there and enjoy the show.

Southeast Polk's Kalob Runyon cheers on his teammate on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Waukee High School.

I haven't bought one yet — but not because I hate fun. I love fun.

I haven't bought one yet because I'm a journalist and money isn't exactly, uh, flowing in this business.

But also, if I'm going to wear a shirt that says champion on it, I need to earn it first.

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