4 thoughts on Iowa wrestling before Hawkeyes begin Big Ten schedule

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Tom Brands spent part of his Wednesday afternoon talking about Brennan Swafford, the senior transfer from NAIA’s Graceland. Brands said Swafford is coachable, that he competes hard, that he fits in with the rest of the Iowa wrestling program.

Brands added that Swafford is also, well, a little quiet.

“A lot of guys don’t know the sound of his voice because he doesn’t say a whole lot,” Brands, Iowa’s head wrestling coach, said. “But we love him.”

Brands then turned to his left and nodded at Swafford, who sat nearby in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena media room.

“Right?” Brands continued. “He’s giving me a thumbs up right now.”

Swafford ran his record to 12-6 after a sixth-place finish at the Southern Scuffle last weekend. He did so in Iowa’s all-black singlet, a sign that he is no longer competing unattached. He is the likely starter at 174 pounds for Iowa this Friday when the second-ranked Hawkeyes host No. 9 Minnesota in Iowa City (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).

Brennan Swafford, a 174-pounder for the Iowa wrestling team, took sixth at the 2022 Southern Scuffle last weekend in Tennessee.

“Putting on the singlet at the Southern Scuffle was a pretty surreal moment for me,” Swafford said. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to wear the black and gold.”

The 22-year-old is originally from Mediapolis, a little over an hour south of Iowa City. He was a two-time state finalist in 2017-18, went on to win two NAIA national titles for Graceland in 2020-21, then joined the Iowa wrestling program this summer.

Swafford was one of the best wrestlers at the NAIA level across his final two seasons at Graceland — he went 51-4 during both his national title years — but he’s learned that the small things are often the most important when it comes to competing in Division I.

“You have to bring it every day,” Swafford said. “Nothing against Graceland, but in this room, it’s a whole different level of intensity. You have to be focused and make sure everything you do — your fundamentals, your technique — is close to perfect.”

Brands likes what he’s seen from Swafford so far — he added that Swafford brings more energy to his live matches than he does the practice room — and come Friday, Swafford could see one of two Minnesota 174-pounders: Bailee O’Reilly, who beat Swafford, 5-2, at the Scuffle, or Jared Krattiger, who is 5-4 overall.

Here are four thoughts ahead of Friday’s meet against the Gophers:

Brennan Swafford is next man up while wait for Kemerer continues

Swafford’s potential entry into Iowa’s starting lineup this weekend means the wait for Michael Kemerer’s return continues.

Before Swafford, Nelson Brands manned the starting spot at 174 pounds, and went 5-1, his most notable win coming in a 3-1 overtime decision over Iowa State’s Joel Devine and his lone loss coming to North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay, 4-2.

Between his last match and this week, Brands sustained an elbow injury. A timetable for a potential return is not yet known. 

Kemerer, meanwhile, has yet to wrestle this season.

Iowa 174-pound wrestler Michael Kemerer poses for a photo during Hawkeyes men's wrestling media day, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

The seventh-year senior made weight in Ames when the Hawkeyes beat the Cyclones, 23-13, but Brands got the nod and beat Devine. He also made weight in Florida during the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals, when Iowa beat Central Michigan, Lehigh and N.C. State, but Brands got all three matches.

The Hawkeyes have just nine duals left this season — Minnesota and No. 24 Purdue this weekend; No. 12 Northwestern and No. 19 Illinois next weekend; No. 10 Ohio State the week after; No. 1 Penn State at the end of January; then No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 5 Oklahoma State and No. 6 Nebraska in February; and the postseason in March.

Both Jesse Ybarra, Drake Ayala are options at 125 

After Spencer Lee’s announcement that he’ll miss the remainder of the 2021-22 season last Saturday, Tom Brands said this week that both Jesse Ybarra and Drake Ayala are the two options for Iowa moving forward at 125 pounds.

Ybarra manned the starting spot at 125 while Lee worked his way back, and is 5-1 between the Luther Open and Iowa’s first three duals. Ayala is 10-2 across three open tournaments, including an electric third-place finish at the Scuffle last weekend.

“We like having options,” Brands said. “Right now, Ybarra is going. That’s where we’re at. We’ll figure it out as we figure it out.”

Iowa's Jesse Ybarra has his hand raised after winning a match at 125 pounds during a NCAA non-conference wrestling dual against Army, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

That comment suggests that Ybarra will wrestle Friday against Minnesota’s Pat McKee, who is ranked No. 7 and is a returning All-American. McKee has already beaten Ayala twice this season: 8-4 at the UNI Open, then 6-5 at the Scuffle.

Perhaps a strong performance means Ybarra will go on Sunday afternoon too, against Purdue’s Devin Schroder, who is ranked No. 5. Perhaps Ybarra will wrestle Friday and Ayala will wrestle Sunday. Perhaps Brands flips and gives Ayala Friday's match or even both — he made the comments in this story on Wednesday.

This will be an intriguing development to follow this weekend.

► WRESTLING MAILBAG: More on Spencer Lee and Iowa's 2022 NCAA outlook

Tony Cassioppi set to face Gable Steveson

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi has his hand raised after scoring a fall at 285 pounds during a NCAA non-conference wrestling dual against Army, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Tony Cassioppi will get a crack at Minnesota’s Gable Steveson on Friday night. Steveson is the reigning NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist — and is partially a reason why Cassioppi underwent his body transformation this past offseason.

Friday night’s meeting will be the fifth between Cassioppi and Steveson over the past three seasons. Steveson has won each of the previous four by a combined 47-20. They last met in the semifinals of the 2021 NCAA Championships. Steveson won, 16-6.

Cassioppi’s body transformation is well-documented. He’s a leaner heavyweight, sitting closer to 250 than 270. He won a U23 men’s freestyle world title in November, and is 5-1 this season and ranked No. 6 nationally at heavyweight by InterMat.

“I feel like I’m all-around a better wrestler — stronger, faster, just better at everything I’m doing,” Cassioppi said. “A lot of that is also my wrestling technique that I’ve been working on. But my body change has helped me and is going to continue to help me.”

Friday night’s matchup against Steveson will be perhaps the biggest test for Cassioppi and his body transformation. We’ll see how much, if at all, he’s closed the gap on a guy that’s not only won, but dominated at the sport’s highest levels.

Tom Brands wary of COVID-19 issues

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the 2021-22 college wrestling season, and Tom Brands is paying attention.

This past week, No. 3 Arizona State was plagued by the virus. The Sun Devils were supposed to wrestle No. 3 Michigan (they’re tied for third in InterMat’s team rankings) on Monday, but because of COVID-19 protocols, only four matches took place.

Even more, No. 18 Iowa State was also supposed to wrestle Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona, this coming Sunday. That dual has officially been canceled. The Cyclones are actively looking for a replacement dual.

Other teams have made adjustments in response to COVID-19 issues. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Instead of wrestling a full dual, Indiana and Ohio wrestled eight total matches — six weight classes and two extra matches — on Tuesday night.
  • Pittsburgh was supposed to wrestle Penn on Friday, but instead rescheduled a Sunday doubleheader against Army West Point and No. 3 Michigan.
  • Penn’s COVID-19 issues also forced the postponement of another Sunday tripleheader between the Quakers, Oregon State and Drexel.
  • North Carolina did not compete at the Southern Scuffle because of COVID-19 issues.
  • Northwestern canceled the Midlands Championships and instead hosted SIUE and Virginia on Dec. 29. Illinois Matmen, an Illinois wrestling website, hosted the Matmen Open, featuring many of the same teams that planned on attending the Midlands.

That last one threw a wrench into Iowa’s schedule, too. The Hawkeyes planned to send 15 wrestlers to the Midlands. After its cancelation, the Iowa City Sports Commission and Think Iowa City tried to launch the Hawkeye Open. That proved to be too heavy of a lift in a short amount of time, so 14 Hawkeyes went to the Southern Scuffle instead.

“We’re very steady,” Brands said. “I know there’s protocol snags out there, and we’ll work through those any way we can. If interruptions happen, we’ll roll with it. All these guys want to do is compete, and they’re going to get ready to compete.

“If they’re told of a schedule change, they’ll roll with it. … For Arizona State and Michigan to get four matches, with everything that happened, I applaud them. I applaud that. Make something good come out of this. Don’t just shut it down.”

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