NCAA Wrestling Championships: Hawkeyes closing in on first national team title since 2010

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — This was never going to be easy, and it was always going to be interesting. Heck, on Friday, it even got a little weird.

But despite everything that unfolded on Friday here at the Enterprise Center, the Iowa Hawkeyes are within inches of their long-awaited national team championship.

The Iowa wrestling team will take a 14.5-point lead into the final day of the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships. The Hawkeyes have amassed 109 points entering Saturday's finals rounds. Penn State sits second with 94.5. Oklahoma State sits third with 86.5.

More:NCAA Wrestling Championships Day Two updates: Iowa wrestling, results in quarterfinals

Both the Nittany Lions and Cowboys are within striking distance of the top-ranked Hawkeyes. Penn State's six remaining wrestlers can accumulate a maximum of 124.5 total team points, and the Cowboys' six can hit 127.

So the Hawkeyes need exactly 18.5 team points to mathematically close this down, though it may not even take that much, because those totals assume all their remaining wrestlers all win by fall. That's a tall order on the third day of the national tournament.

More:NCAA Wrestling Championships: Iowa State's David Carr continues torrid run, reaches national finals

Plus, that would require Iowa to swing and miss nearly everywhere on Saturday, and the odds of that are slim.

The Hawkeyes will bring seven All-Americans back to Iowa City. Three made the finals: Spencer Lee (125), Jaydin Eierman (141) and Michael Kemerer (174). Three of the other four — Austin DeSanto (133), Jacob Warner (197), Tony Cassioppi (285) — can still finish as high as third. The fourth, Kaleb Young (157), will wrestle for seventh.

Iowa's other three qualifiers were all eliminated from the tournament during Friday's competition. Nelson Brands lost in the wrestlebacks at 184 pounds. Max Murin lost twice after reaching the quarterfinals at 149 and finished one win shy of the podium.

Alex Marinelli took the same path at 165. Sort of.

Marinelli lost in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive national tournament. Recall that in 2019, he lost to Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, who ended up winning the whole thing that year in Pittsburgh. This time, it was Stanford's Shane Griffith who countered a Marinelli shot with heavy hips and scored a takedown in sudden victory to win 3-1.

Griffith went on to make the finals, but Marinelli medically-defaulted out of his bloodround matchup against Michigan's Cameron Amine, an opponent he beat at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago. Iowa coach Tom Brands' explanation after Friday night's session wasn't exactly clear on what happened.

"Marinelli is doing well," Brands said. "He has good priorities in his life. Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. Not going to get into the details. He's a winner. Tough kid, winner, leader."

That's a lot to unpack. We'll attempt to do it at a later date.

But even with Marinelli contributing just four points to Iowa's team-point total, the Hawkeyes navigated the entire second day without ever losing the lead they took during Thursday's opening session.

Iowa's Spencer Lee, top, takes on Central Michigan's Drew Hildebrandt during their 125-pound match in the semifinal round of the NCAA wrestling championships Friday, March 19, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Iowa began Friday with a 5.5-point team lead. That ballooned to as many as 24 in Session 3 and nearly 30 in Session 5. The Hawkeyes won 25 of their first 31 matches in this tournament. So far this weekend, they've posted a 31-11 overall record, with 19 bonus-point wins totaling 24.5 bonus points. That along would sit 17th in the team race.

That collective depth and firepower has defined this Iowa team each of the last two seasons. The Hawkeyes went 13-0 a year ago and won the Big Ten Championships by 25.5 points. They were the heavy favorites to win the 2020 NCAA Championships until the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.

Iowa returned this year with arguably even more firepower. The Hawkeyes wrestled five duals during this shortened season, but won them all by an average of 23.6 points. They went to the Big Ten Championships after not competing for 27 days and won by 35.5 points, the largest margin of victory for a Big Ten tournament champ since, well, 2010.

The Hawkeyes won that year. They followed that performance with a 44.5-point victory at the NCAA Championships to win what was then their third team title in a row. They haven't won it since, an 11-year drought that is the longest since the program won its first team title in 1975.

Iowa used a strong Friday performance to win it that year, thanks to performances from Dan Holm, Chuck Yagla, Chris Campbell and Greg Stevens, all finalists that year. That team was coached by Gary Kurdlemeier, and both Holm and Yagla won individual gold.

This year's team is led by Spencer Lee, Jaydin Eierman, Michael Kemerer and coached by Tom Brands, and come Saturday, barring something unforeseen, these Hawkeyes will likely celebrate the program's 24th team title.

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