NCAA Wrestling: Iowa Hawkeyes clinch national team title for the first time since 2010

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The drought is over.

For the first time in 11 years, and for the 24th time in program history, the Iowa wrestling program won the team title at the NCAA Championships.

The Hawkeyes mathematically clinched first place outright during Saturday morning's medal round here at the Enterprise Center. After Saturday night's championship matches, Iowa totaled 129 points, 15.5 points clear of second-place Penn State (113.5). Oklahoma State took third with 99.5, followed by Arizona State (74) and Michigan (69).

"It's been 11 years since a really important trophy has been in Iowa City," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "This team, these 35 guys back in that wrestling room, the 10 guys here, this coaching staff, this administration, we brought a trophy back that's important to our fanbase.

"Is there relief? Not really — but there is joy."

This team championship was a total team effort from the Hawkeyes.

Iowa's title run was fueled by seven All-Americans. Spencer Lee led the charge by winning his third individual national title at 125 pounds, and did so on a freshly-torn ACL. He was one of three finalists for the Hawkeyes, as both Jaydin Eierman (141) and Michael Kemerer (174) both lost in Saturday night's championship round.

"If you do your job as an individual, the team titles will come," Lee said. "I didn't just do this for me. I did this for the seniors that lost out last year. I wanted those guys to win with us, and they didn't get that opportunity.

"Those guys missed out on national champs, and I'm sad about it. But I'm thankful for the NCAA for allowing this to happen, so thank you for letting us get back what was ours. Thank you, thank

The other four podium-finishers polished off the team title — the fourth under Brands — during Saturday morning's session. Austin DeSanto (133) and Tony Cassioppi (285) both finished third. Jacob Warner (197) took fourth and Kaleb Young (157) took seventh.

Ultimately, all 10 Iowa wrestlers who qualified for this week's national tournament contributed team points in some form or fashion. Even the three who failed to make the podium — Max Murin (149), Alex Marinelli (165), Nelson Brands (184) — combined for seven team points on a combined 5-6 record.

"There's a lot of processing going on here," Brands said. "This wasn't automatic. This was earned. There's waves to this thing. Our guys rose to the occasion. That's how you win this tournament.

"But it's time to enjoy. That's really hard for me to say, but as the leader of the program, I have to steer it that way."

Iowa assistant Ryan Morningstar and associate head coach Terry Brands watch Jacob Warner during Session V of the NCAA Wrestling Championships on March 19, 2021 at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

For the entire week, Iowa's 10 qualifiers combined for a 38-14 overall record this week with 21 bonus-point wins, good for 27 bonus points (which would've finished 18th overall in the team race on its own). Iowa's seven All-Americans were the most of any team.

Penn State and Oklahoma State, who both finished with six All-Americans, were the only two teams capable of running down Iowa on Saturday. But the path to a colossal upset required the Hawkeyes to fall flat on their faces and for the Nittany Lions and Cowboys to both bat 1.000. 

Iowa ensured that neither team had a chance, going 6-1 in Saturday's first session to keep the race from gaining any sort of heat. DeSanto won twice to cap a week where he went 5-1 and outscored his opponents by a combined 65-20. Cassioppi did the same to become Iowa's highest-finishing heavyweight since Steve Mocco won a title in 2003.

"Feel good," Cassioppi said. "It was the next best thing. I don't want to be third place. I want to be first place. But after that loss in the semifinals, I had to focus on getting the next best thing.

"Terry Brands said it best, climb that podium."

The collective effort proved too much for every other team to overcome, and the result will be a celebration on Saturday night that's been 11 years in the making.

Iowa last won an NCAA team title in 2010. The years that followed have been long and frustrating. The Hawkeyes watched Penn State ascend to power under Cael Sanderson. The Nittany Lions won eight national team titles in nine years from 2011-19. The 11 years without a team title is Iowa’s longest championship drought since the program won its first in 1975. 

"That puts it into context the work that we had to do and how far we were off," Brands said. "There's never doubt. We've never redshirted our best team. We've always put our best team on the mat every year. We will continue to do that.

"We expect to deliver every year."

An opportunity opened for Iowa in 2015, but a young, talented Ohio State squad snatched it from the Hawkeyes' grasp. The championship window opened again last year, and Iowa looked the part, with a 13-0 dual record and a 25.5-point victory at the Big Ten Championships, but COVID-19 cancelled the NCAA Championships.

Then came this season, a three-month sprint that was again interrupted by the novel coronavirus. Head coach Tom Brands tested positive, leading the program to pause in February. The team didn't compete for 27 days. It didn't matter. The Hawkeyes went to Penn State and won the Big Ten Championships again — this time by 35.5 points.

That served as the appetizer for this weekend, where the Hawkeyes seized the lead on Thursday and never gave it back. A strong performance on that first day gave Iowa the opportunity to run down a title on Friday.

The Hawkeyes took advantage, and on Saturday, they finished the job. They are champions of Division I wrestling, finally and again.

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

2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships

Final Team Scores

  1. Iowa, 129
  2. Penn State, 113.5
  3. Oklahoma State, 99.5
  4. Arizona State, 74
  5. Michigan, 69
  6. North Carolina State, 68
  7. Missouri, 64
  8. Minnesota, 64
  9. Ohio State, 46.5
  10. Northwestern, 45
  • 13. Iowa State, 37.5
  • 19. Northern Iowa, 24.5