‘We need to win it again’: New motivations push Iowa wrestling team after NCAA championship

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The Iowa wrestling program holds an end-of-the-year banquet after every season. It’s often a celebration, where coaches hand out awards and honor their team and individual accomplishments from the past year.

There was a lot to recognize after last season. The Hawkeyes won the 2021 NCAA Championships, the 24th national team title in program history and the first since 2010. Seven Iowa wrestlers became All-Americans, led by Spencer Lee’s third national title.

During that banquet, Terry Brands, the program’s associate head coach, grabbed the mic and delivered a message that immediately set the tone for the next year.

“Terry said it best — that we left nine titles in St. Louis,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands recalled. “We took one home, and left nine in St. Louis.”

On Wednesday, Iowa hosted its annual media day here inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena to kick off the start of the 2021-22 season. Tom Brands recalled that line from Terry in his opening remarks, as if to offer a reminder of the goals for this season.

“We try to win a national title every year,” Brands continued. “When you're a predator, you don't think about, ‘Oh, there's a target on our back now.’ You’re still on the prowl.”

Iowa wrestlers listen during Hawkeyes men's wrestling media day news conference, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hawkeyes will again be considered the favorites this season. All 10 starters from last year’s championship squad are back. They scored 129 points at the 2021 NCAA Championships in St. Louis. They won the team title by 15.5 points.

The thing is … they probably could’ve done better, too.

Of Iowa’s 129 team points, Max Murin (149), Alex Marinelli (165) and Nelson Brands (184) combined to score seven. Murin went 2-2 while battling mononucleosis. Marinelli separated a rib in his quarterfinal match against Stanford’s Shane Griffith, the eventual champ, and didn't finish the tournament. Brands, undersized at 184 pounds, went 1-2.

On top of that, after the Hawkeyes clinched the team title outright Saturday morning, they went 1-2 in the finals on Saturday night. Both Jaydin Eierman (141) and Michael Kemerer (174) lost to their Penn State counterparts, Nick Lee and Carter Starocci, less than two weeks after beating them both in the finals of the Big Ten Championships.

“That wasn’t our best foot forward,” said Lee, Iowa’s star 125-pounder. “We need to put our best foot forward this year. I have to do my job, and the rest of the guys on the team have to do their job. If we do that, we’ll get the job done. 

“Last year felt like one of the most disappointing national championships ever. There was a lot of sadness. We have a lot to improve on. We’re working toward it.”

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The Nittany Lions ultimately finished second in the team race with 113.5 points. They’ll be Iowa’s primary challengers again this season, with four national champs in the lineup: Lee, Starocci, Roman Bravo-Young (133) and Aaron Brooks (184). Penn State finished with six total All-Americans, and they’re all back again this season, too.

“Some are just automatically crowning you the champion in Detroit,” Brands said. “There is no automatic. We have to put that aside, go to work and keep the things front and center that need to be front and center, and that is that we get better every day.”

Many of Iowa’s seven seniors came back thanks to the relief year offered by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That allowed Iowa to retain much of the firepower that led to last year’s national championship. A common line from Wednesday’s hourlong season kickoff event was “unfinished business.”

For guys like Eierman, Marinelli, Kemerer, and even Austin DeSanto (133) and Kaleb Young (157), this season is their final chance at winning an individual national title. DeSanto and Young are both two-time All-Americans, finishing as high as third and fifth, respectively. Both Eierman and Kemerer are driven by their losses in the finals last year.

“Having a chance to do that, it would’ve been crazy to not take advantage of that,” Kemerer said. “It was as simple as, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved wrestling and I’ve loved Iowa wrestling. I couldn’t wait to get back in that wrestling room.”

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Marinelli, a three-time Big Ten champ, has been the 1-seed at 165 pounds at each of the last three national tournaments. The 2020 tournament was canceled because of the pandemic, but he's also lost in the quarterfinals in both 2019 and 2021. He said the decision to return was an easy one.

“I made the decision the second the national championships were over (last year),” Marinelli said. “I wanted to be back. I knew I wanted to be with my guys. What else would I be doing? Coaching and training, sure, but why not train for that national title?

“I haven’t gotten it yet. I need that national title.”

The motivation for others is similar: Murin is seeking his first podium finish, but may need to hold off Vince Turk to keep his starting spot; Abe Assad, back after missing last season to an injury, is ready to make a serious All-American push at 184, but so are Nelson Brands and Myles Wilson; Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi, fourth and third a season ago at 197 and 285, respectively, want to finish higher on the podium, too.

And then there’s Lee, who is seeking to become just the fifth wrestler in NCAA history to win four Division I national titles. The others: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, Cornell’s Kyle Dake, Ohio State’s Logan Stieber.

Lee has been the sparkplug that’s led the Iowa wrestling team’s resurgence the last few seasons, a two-time Hodge Trophy winner who enters his final season with the Hawkeyes on a 35-match winning streak. He joined the program with two big goals: to become a four-time national champion, and to lead the Hawkeyes to national team titles.

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The golden NCAA trophy that the Hawkeyes brought home from St. Louis last March is in the office on the main floor here. It sits front-and-center on a coffee table. Easy to spot through the glass.

After Wednesday’s media day wrapped up, Terry Brands walked past it on his way out the door. He walked in to admire it for a moment, then turned around and walked out of Carver’s north entrance.

Because what's better than just one golden NCAA trophy? How about two?

“That don’t mean (jack) this year,” Terry said and smiled. “We need to win it again … and again … and again.”

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