NCAA Wrestling Championships 2021: Iowa jumps out to early lead after strong opening day

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — For teams that seriously contend for the team title, the first day of the NCAA Wrestling Championships is all about setting yourself up for the rest of the week.

Because major team points are up for grabs on Friday, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and key wrestleback matches all on the schedule. A strong showing there can ensure that Saturday will be a day of celebration.

But none of that is possible without first making sure Thursday goes according to plan. You can't win the national team title on the first day, but you can lose it.

The Iowa wrestling team gave itself a chance at a potential championship finish during Thursday's opening rounds here at the Enterprise Center. The Hawkeyes will enter the all-important Friday in first place with 33.5 team points.

Collectively, Iowa went 18-2 during Thursday's first two rounds, and 12 of those victories included bonus points. After a perfect 10-0 start in round one — the first time since 1992 that Iowa went 10-0 in the first round of the national tournament — eight Hawkeye wrestlers reached the quarterfinals, while two will have to wrestle back.

Those bonus points came from the expected suspects. Iowa's four top-seeded wrestlers — Spencer Lee (125), Jaydin Eierman (141), Alex Marinelli (165), Michael Kemerer (174) — combined to go 8-0 with four technical falls, three major decisions and collectively outscored their opponents 127-30.

Austin DeSanto, the 4-seed at 133 pounds, added a technical fall and a pin. Tony Cassioppi, the 5-seed at heavyweight, added a pair of major decisions. Kaleb Young scored a major in the first round at 157. 

But more than that, Iowa found a way to win some tough matches on Thursday, too.

Max Murin, the 12-seed at 149, stormed into the quarterfinals thanks to two wins by a combined three points. He scored a third-period takedown to secure riding-time to beat Indiana's Graham Rooks, 8-7, in round one, then scored another third-period takedown to earn a revenge victory over Nebraska's Ridge Lovett, 5-3, in round two.

Jacob Warner had perhaps the steeliest win of the entire tournament. He trailed 6-0 to North Carolina State's Nick Reenan after getting thrown in a headlock in the first period. After dodging the near-pin, Warner rolled through for a reversal, score two stall points and a late takedown to force overtime at 7-7, then scored another to win and advance.

All of that is what it takes to earn the prizes that await at the end of this tournament — All-American honors and, perhaps, national titles. Collective depth, complete with relentless firepower and a tenacity to win close.

But the Hawkeyes aren't going to just walk up and take the golden NCAA trophy they covet. They will have to earn it, especially after Thursday's opening results.

Penn State, the team title winners in eight of the last nine contested NCAA Championships, trails by just 5.5 points, and has seven wrestlers competing in the quarterfinals. That includes Brady Berge, who won a head-to-head battle against Iowa's Kaleb Young, 3-2, in the second round at 157 pounds.

Iowa and Penn State do not hit head-to-head during Friday's first sessions, and they can only hit in the semifinals at heavyweight if both Cassioppi and Greg Kerkvliet win their quarterfinal matchups. But the Nittany Lions flashed their ability to produce bonus points as well, totaling 13 bonus points during Thursday's action.

Missouri sits third with 23.5 points and four in the quarters, followed by North Carolina State (21 and five) and Oklahoma State (20, three). Arizona State also has four in the quarters. Virginia Tech is lurking with five in the quarters, too. The Hawkeyes will hit Oklahoma State twice (149, 197), both Arizona State (285) and N.C. State (174) once.

So this thing is far from over. Thursday never decides the team title, of course, but it does decide who has the opportunity to run one down. The Hawkeyes have positioned themselves favorably entering Friday. The rest is up to them.

Mar 18, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA;  Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Nelson Brand wrestles Cal State Bakerfield Roadrunner wrestler Dominic Ducharme during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

ISU sends two to the quarters

The Cyclones had a rough start, but a nicer finish during Thursday's opening rounds.

Just two Iowa State wrestlers advanced to Friday's quarterfinals. David Carr rolled up back-to-back major decisions at 157 pounds, and Gannon Gremmel notched a pair of decisions to advance at heavyweight.

The other six Cyclone wrestlers … struggled.

Three were eliminated on the first day: Kysen Terukina (125) and Zach Redding (133), both true freshmen, as well as the injury-riddled Jarrett Degen (149). Degen lost both matches by a combined five points, 10-7 to Purdue's Griffin Parriott and 8-6 to Arizona State's Cory Crooks.

The other three powered through with wrestleback wins. Ian Parker, the 7-seed, needed sudden victory to beat SIUE's Saul Ervin, 4-2, to advance to Friday at 141 pounds. Sam Colbray took out Wisconsin's Chris Weiler, 12-4, at 184, and Marcus Coleman beat Reenan, 6-1, to keep going at 197.

Iowa State's entire Thursday record was 7-9. The Cyclones actually started 3-9, but finished 4-0, starting with Carr's 10-2 quarterfinal win over Michigan's Will Lewan, and continuing with wins from Colbray, Coleman and Gremmel.

Perhaps that helped create some momentum they can carry into Friday.

Mar 18, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA;  Iowa State Cyclones wrestler David Carr wrestles Michigan Wolverines wrestler Will Lewan during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Enterprise Center.

UNI also puts two in the quarters

Northern Iowa, meanwhile, is sitting 12th in the team race after the first day, with 12.5 team points and five of six wrestlers still competing.

Two reached the quarterfinals: Brody Teske (125) and Parker Keckeisen (184). Teske recorded a pin and a hard-fought 2-0 win over Northwestern's Michael DeAugustino to advance. Keckeisen beat Colbray, 2-1, in the first round, then pummeled Navy's David Key, 16-5, in round two.

The other three — Triston Lara (149), Austin Yant (165), Carter Isley (285) — will start Friday in the wrestlebacks. Yant actually won twice on Thursday, once in the pigtail bout, then again in the wrestlebacks, both by major decision. Lara and Isley both fell in the second round.

The only Panther wrestler to get eliminated on the first day was Lance Runyon, who earned an at-large bid at 174 pounds but couldn't compete because of persistent shoulder injuries. He medically-forfeited out of the tournament.

There's a real possibility all five Panther wrestlers can reach Friday evening's session, which would put them all on the cusp of All-American status. But that begins with a strong start on Friday morning.

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