Determined Iowa wrestling program enters 2021 season with ‘unfinished business’

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are yellow banners that hang in the north corner inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They honor the Iowa wrestling program’s dominant history. They display the years in which the Hawkeyes won Big Ten and NCAA team championships.

There is one that commemorates the 2009-10 team, the last group of Iowa wrestlers to win a national team title. There will soon be one that commemorates the 2019-20 team, which won a Big Ten crown and was the heavy favorite to win the NCAA Championships.

But COVID-19 had other plans, with it cancelling last year’s national tournament six days before its scheduled start at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Iowa’s championship drought, already the longest since winning its first in 1975 under Gary Kurdelmeier, extended another year.

And that means the Hawkeyes have just one thing in mind entering this unique, shortened 2021 season.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Iowa, the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in Division I wrestling, begins its 2021 campaign on Jan. 15, against No. 5 Nebraska. It will mark 313 days since the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten tournament-winning performance at the Rutgers Athletic Complex last March.

The Hawkeyes return nine of 10 starters from last year’s team, which went 13-0 in duals and won both the regular season Big Ten dual-meet title and postseason conference tournament. They set a new scoring record at the Midlands Championships without the full use of two stars. They set single-season attendance records, and won 108 out of 130 individual dual matches.

The NCAA Championships were supposed to be the coronation for the best Iowa wrestling team in a decade. It was not a shoo-in that the Hawkeyes would win, but they were the heavy favorites, with all 10 starters qualified and nine of them seeded eighth or better. That included three No. 1-seeds, in Spencer Lee (125), Pat Lugo (149) and Alex Marinelli (165).

But the coronavirus began circulating and eliminated that opportunity. It literally took a worldwide pandemic to ensure the Hawkeyes didn’t win last year’s national team title.

“The NCAA tournament being canceled and all that was suboptimal,” sophomore heavyweight Tony Cassioppi said this week.

Rather than sulking, though, these Hawkeyes are keeping their eyes on the same target.

“You can’t dwell on it too much, even though that’s the pinnacle of college wrestling, to be a national champion,” said Marinelli, a two-time defending Big Ten champion. “But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to cry about it and not work hard and blame other people?

“Or are you going to get up, work out, and be ready for the next one, in St. Louis? It’s extra motivation, for sure. We still have something to prove.”

Lugo, who went 21-1 at 149 pounds and won titles at the Big Ten and Midlands Championships, is the only member from last year's team who isn't back this season. Max Murin, a two-time NCAA qualifier at 141 pounds, will take his spot at 149, allowing Missouri transfer Jaydin Eierman, a three-time All-American, to slide in at 141.

That's it. Everybody else is back.

Lee, a two-time NCAA Champ and 2020 Hodge Trophy winner, at 125 pounds; plus All-Americans Austin DeSanto (133), Kaleb Young (157), Marinelli (165), Michael Kemerer (174) and Jacob Warner (197); as well as Abe Assad (184) and Cassioppi (285). All 10 starters are ranked eighth or better at their respective weights in Trackwrestling’s latest poll, though Track has Nelson Brands ranked eighth at 184 pounds over Assad (Tom Brands said those two will compete for the starting spot throughout the year).

“There are great things going on because of how they handle themselves on a daily basis,” Tom Brands said. “You train your body and your mind and your spirit to the point where nothing really matters. Things happen that upset the apple cart. 

“But you take it and you do the best you can with it. When you have an edge, you’ll be OK.”

This season might be viewed as something of a redemption tour for Iowa, with the primary goal of finishing a job that was not allowed to be finished last season. The "unfinished business" line will echo, said and unsaid, throughout the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex between now and March 20, when the 2021 NCAA team title winners are crowned in St. Louis.

“We know, the way things finished last year, it left a bad taste in your mouth and it sticks with you a little bit,” Kemerer said. “But what’s the saying? The rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield. We’re looking forward, and always prepared for what’s ahead of us.

“Unfinished business is a good way to describe it. We’ve got a lot of motivated guys that didn’t get to wrestle at the national tournament this year, so now they’re really motivated.”

It will not be easy. The schedule is Big Ten-only — just nine opponents, but seven are currently ranked in Trackwrestling’s top-25, including No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Penn State, No. 12 Northwestern and No. 13 Minnesota, plus the Huskers. Additionally, Iowa, and every other college program, must navigate the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic in order to get to the NCAA Championships.

The pandemic has thrown various wrenches into the collegiate and professional sports worlds. In response, wrestling leadership delayed the start of competitions until the new year in the hopes of completing the season and contesting the 2021 NCAA Championships.

“We have to get to the national tournament. Are you listening, NCAA? Are you listening?” Brands said. “We're going to be OK, but you have to get us to the end. We did it your way. Now you have to come our way. We know this is serious business.

“Every one of those guys in that Hawkeye wrestling room, they do it right. They wear their mask, screen in, doing daily testing. We have to get to the end this year. Then we have to get to Tokyo (for the 2021 Olympics). I'm passionate about that. It cannot go down the way it went down a year ago.”

It will be a short season, but it will be jam-packed. The distance between Iowa’s season-opener against Nebraska and the first day of the NCAA Championships is just 62 days. Kemerer referred to it as a sprint earlier this week, which reinforced the idea that everybody must be ready to compete at each opportunity.

“Nothing changes,” Lee added. “We’re ready to go. It doesn’t matter who we’re wrestling. “We have to take it one by one. You can’t skip, and can’t take the easy way out. You have to take the hard way, work your butt off, and then go out and put on a show.”

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