How Kaleb Young's commitment helped spur Iowa Hawkeyes' wrestling resurgence
Monday evening, late December, inside the Sears Centre Arena just outside Chicago, and here comes Kaleb Young after winning the 2019 Midlands Championships.
Young was one of five Iowa wrestlers to win that weekend, during which the Hawkeyes set a new Midlands team scoring record without the full use of two stars. It was perhaps the first sign that Iowa was not only back on top of Division I wrestling, but that this lineup could be the best collection of talent coach Tom Brands had ever assembled.
Earlier that Monday, Young polished off a perfect weekend with a couple of dramatic victories. In the semifinals, he scored a third-period takedown to force overtime against Purdue’s Kendall Coleman, then another in sudden victory to win. In the finals, he did it again, connecting on a single-leg to beat Army’s Markus Hartman in sudden victory.
So here he comes, bruised and battered after winning five matches in two days, and he’s talking about being comfortable in close matches. Maybe too comfortable, he continues. That’s not where he wants to be.
“I don’t want it to come down to overtime or sudden victory,” says Young, Iowa’s starter at 157 pounds, and then without missing a beat, he continues: “Because what if I slip on a banana peel?”
“Or a guy from Army in the stands throws a banana down on the mat and I slip and give up a takedown?”
A year and two months later, Iowa is still the unanimous No. 1-ranked wrestling team in the country. The roster is flush with talent, but a heavy Pennsylvania presence sticks out, as five starters are originally from the Keystone State: Spencer Lee (125), Austin DeSanto (133), Max Murin (149), Michael Kemerer (174) and, of course, Young.
Young’s commitment to the program six-and-a-half years ago was, quite literally, the first step toward the construction of this current lineup. All 10 starters are ranked in the top-15 at their respective weights in Trackwrestling’s latest national rankings, and nine are considered fifth or better entering this weekend’s Big Ten Championships.
“He’s a trailblazer,” Brands says. “He really is. It’s no surprise he was the first one and took the first step before all those guys. He was very important. You can’t understate that when you look at how this thing was built.”
The Hawkeyes have viewed the 2021 season as something of a redemption tour, complete with the “unfinished business” tagline. They went 13-0 last year and won the Big Ten Championships by 25.5 points. They were the heavy favorites to win the 2020 NCAA Championships until the novel coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation.
Here they are again, with a high-scoring mentality that could result in the program’s first national team title since 2010. It has created momentum for Iowa on the recruiting trail, positioning them to stay in contention in the years ahead, and it’s why Kaleb Young, fresh off winning a Midlands title last season, was talking about banana peels.
Because what if I slip on a banana peel? Young doesn’t let the idea hang in the air very long before he explains what he means. As he does, Brands is standing nearby with a smile.
“If I’m up 8-2 at the end of the match, or 13-1 at the end of the match, then it doesn’t have to come down to that,” Young continues. “I don’t have to worry about slipping on a banana peel. If I do slip on a banana peel, I still win 13-3 and get the major.
“So I think there’s confidence (in scoring late to win close matches), but that’s not where I want to be. It’s good to be comfortable in those situations, but it’s even better being comfortable whipping tail.”
‘Not like God, but the next best thing’
That banana peel quote reminded Brands of a younger version of himself. On the surface, it’s hilarious. Who thinks of banana peels right after winning a Midlands title? But it’s also a window into Kaleb Young’s mind and how he’s wired. Look hard enough, and it’s easy to see why Brands says Young’s commitment was very important.
Young grew up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town known more for Groundhog Day than wrestling. He was a rambunctious, outspoken kid. After earning a medal at the youth state wrestling tournament one year, Ken Chertow, a 1988 Olympian, congratulated Young and offered him a spot at one of his camps.
“No thanks,” Young said, “I wrestle for my dad.”
Buddy Young was raised in rural Pennsylvania, and chose wrestling because he was too short for basketball. After high school, he joined the Marines. He and his wife, Amy, grew up 13 miles apart. Her brother wrestled and she kept stats and helped the athletic trainers. Their oldest, Kody, was born in 1992, followed by Kaleb five years later.
Buddy remembers laughing at Kaleb’s banana peel line. There’s a story he and Amy love to share. Kody lost in the youth state finals in middle school. The table workers screwed up the scoreboard, Buddy says, and Kody was on the wrong end of a questionable call. Kaleb, then in second grade, took in the action from the stands.
Afterward, Kody received his silver medal and met his parents back on the concourse. But Kaleb stayed in his seat. He felt like his brother had earned the title that weekend. With tears streaming down his face, he refused to leave until Kody had the gold medal around his neck.
“We told him, ‘Look, it’s out of our hands, and sometimes life is unfair,’” Amy says now. “We had to calm him down in the car. He was not happy.”
“Kody was his idol,” Buddy added. “He wanted Kody to win so bad. But he thought on a much higher-level than the average second-grader.”
Kaleb Young used that experience as fuel throughout his own wrestling career. In middle school, he joined the heralded Young Guns wrestling club, alongside Lee, Murin, Kemerer, as well as Penn State stars Vincenzo Joseph and Jason Nolf, and many more. Jody Strittmatter, a two-time All-American for Iowa, was the coach.
Strittmatter stressed the importance of good wrestling position, sure, but also the idea that everything outside of the sport was part of the winning formula, too. He was at Iowa from 2000-01, and spent much of his time with Terry Brands, now Iowa’s associate head wrestling coach, as he prepared for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“He talked about Terry’s one-track mind and how focused he was,” Young says now. “Every decision (Terry) made — his diet, his sleep, everything — was made with the Olympics in mind.
“That was something Jody really preached to us. That was important to success.”
Strittmatter’s influence, plus Kody’s successful results — his 143 career wins are the most in Punxsutawney history — were the driving forces in Young’s chase for wrestling greatness.
As a senior, he won the Super 32 Challenge, one of the toughest high school tournaments in the country. Later that season, he became Punxsutawney’s first-ever state wrestling champion. He was considered the No. 21 overall prospect nationally in the 2016 recruiting class, according to Flowrestling.
“It’s a dream I’ve had since, I don’t know, forever, and it feels great,” Young told local media after winning state. “I’ve always looked at Pennsylvania state champs as, not like God, but the next best thing.”
By then, Young had already been committed to Iowa for nearly a year-and-a-half. Strittmatter bussed a group of Young Guns wrestlers to the Iowa-Penn State dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in February 2013, then brought them back when the two teams met again in December 2013. Young, Lee and others were among those who went.
On both trips, Young met both Tom and Terry Brands; saw the raucous Carver crowd after the Hawkeyes topped the Nittany Lions, 22-16; and took in the sights and sounds of Iowa City. He returned again for another unofficial visit in Sept. 2014, where he saw practice, ran up and down the Carver stairs, and got to know the team.
When he returned home, Buddy asked him how the experience was — and Kaleb, no longer outspoken and rambunctious but quiet and reserved (thanks, in part, to Strittmatter), said little.
“It went well,” Kaleb said.
Later, Strittmatter called Buddy.
“Did Kaleb tell you how it went?”
Yeah, Buddy said. It went well.
“It went really well,” Strittmatter told him. “Tom Brands is going to call you.”
“A week later, Tom called, and the rest is history,” Buddy says now. “We talked about it before he committed — about the lineup, the education, money, all of that.
“But his thing was, ‘Whether I get anything or not, that’s where I’m going.’ That’s where he felt he could be his best. He said, ‘I’ll be in the lineup, I’ll win a national title, and that’s how it’s going to be.’
“I was like, all right. That’s how it’s going to be.”
‘There’s no such thing as automatic’
Kaleb Young officially announced his commitment on Sept. 19, 2014, giving Tom Brands the earliest commitment in his coaching career (until Minnesota prep Patrick Kennedy committed to Iowa the summer before his junior season in 2018).
But landing Young meant more than just adding a top-level wrestler to the program.
For years, Brands tried to infiltrate Pennsylvania, a breeding ground for many of the state’s best high-school wrestlers. He had previously lost recruiting battles to Cael Sanderson and Penn State for the services of Nico Megaludis, Jason Nolf and Vincenzo Joseph, all Young Guns products who went on to wrestle for Sanderson.
So Young’s commitment opened the door for more talented Pennsylvania wrestlers to potentially see Iowa as a landing spot.
“We didn’t think he’d be a hinge-pin,” Brands says now. “It was more, here’s a kid that was raised the right way and coached the right way. It was a no-brainer to get him. It was straight-talk, and things fell into place very quickly.”
Like, very quickly.
Exactly 19 days later, Kemerer announced his commitment, after Brands made a 700-mile drive from Iowa City to Pennsylvania to recover from a recruiting visit gone wrong. Twelve days after that, Alex Marinelli committed, too.
In April 2016, Lee announced his commitment, then Murin the following August and Jacob Warner in November. Tony Cassioppi and Nelson Brands joined in 2018, plus DeSanto that same year via transfer, then Jaydin Eierman ahead of this season. (Can’t forget Pat Lugo, either, a Big Ten champ last year after transferring from Edinboro.)
“If I were to tell you that (Young coming to Iowa) didn’t affect my decision, I would be lying,” Lee, Iowa’s two-time national champion who chose Iowa over Penn State, said last year. “Kaleb Young has helped changed the atmosphere of this program.”
The same coaching tactics Strittmatter uses at Young Guns aren’t unlike what Brands uses at Iowa. That familiarity played a role in recruiting decisions, but also provided the framework to recruit Warner, Cassioppi, Brands, DeSanto, Lugo and Eierman, too. Each of them pointed to the team’s culture as a reason why they decided on Iowa.
“These common theme with these stories is the approach,” Brands says. “Strittmatter’s approach was focused on getting better every day. There’s no such thing as an automatic. We built our team around that.
“These guys aren’t automatic. They’ve won tough matches because of that approach and because they were ready. The accountability factor was not new to them.”
Young’s career thus far is a product of that mindset. He’s 51-19 overall (72-25 if you count his redshirt year results) and earned All-American honors in 2019 at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, which is 90 minutes from Punxsutawney. He’s currently 3-0 this year and is ranked fifth nationally at 157 pounds.
His performance will be crucial to Iowa’s postseason chances. The Hawkeyes’ current championship drought, 10 years, is the program’s longest since they won their first national team title in 1975. It has fans antsy and the wrestlers and coaches hungry.
Young’s commitment was the first step in the program’s continued momentum. The Hawkeyes recently brought in a high-powered freshman class, and will bring in more star recruits next year. Iowa recently announced plans for a new state-of-the-art wrestling facility. Even the team’s grades are the best they’ve ever been, Brands says.
If Iowa rattles off multiple titles over the next few seasons, many will point to the acquisition of Spencer Lee, or Tom Brands’ 700-mile drive to recruit Michael Kemerer. They will talk about Alex Marinelli’s toughness, Jaydin Eierman’s pins, Austin DeSanto’s high-pace, and the rise of guys like Nelson Brands, Abe Assad and so many others.
But this story will always start with Kaleb Young’s commitment to the program, both as a recruit and since he’s been in Iowa City, a place where he’s confident and comfortable — especially when he’s avoiding banana peels and whipping tail.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.