Michael Kemerer medically defaults from Big Ten Championships; Iowa wresting sits 3rd after Day 1

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Only two weeks remain in Michael Kemerer's decorated Iowa wrestling career, a seven-year stay that includes 119 career wins, three NCAA All-American finishes, one national team title and countless other great memories.

He hopes, of course, to go out on top, to win that elusive national title, the one accomplishment missing from one of the most important wrestling careers in program history. That last bit is not hyperbole. Iowa coach Tom Brands will tell you as much.

That's why, on Saturday night, Kemerer did not wrestle in the Big Ten semifinals, against Penn State's Carter Starocci. Kemerer medically forfeited out of the tournament after issues with his shoulder in his quarterfinal match. He will finish sixth at 174 pounds.

"Without a doubt the right decision," Brands said Saturday night. "Not easy for him, but very smart."

In his quarterfinal match on Saturday, against Ohio State's Ethan Smith, Kemerer's left shoulder gave out during a second-period shot. After a brief talk with Iowa's athletic trainer, he continued and rallied to win, 5-4, to advance to the semifinals — which also qualified him for the 2022 NCAA Championships two weeks from now.

Iowa athletic trainer Jesse Donnenwerth checks on Michael Kemerer as he wrestles at 174 pounds during the first session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

That probably made this decision all the easier. Kemerer is in, one of the eight wrestlers to earn an automatic qualifying spot at 174 pounds in the Big Ten Conference. His seeding and position in the bracket may suffer, but now he's got two weeks to rest his shoulder and be as healthy as possible for the final tournament of his collegiate career.

Gold medals and team titles at the Big Ten tournament are nice. They are not the end goal. Team championships and golden trophies from the NCAA Championships? That's the end goal.

By medically defaulting out of this weekend's tournament, Kemerer is giving himself the best opportunity to meet that end goal. What's the point of competing here if it means hindering his ability to compete at the bigger, more important competition? What's a Big Ten title worth if it means causing more damage to his shoulder?

"It's not Detroit," Brands continued. "If it's Detroit, he's wrestling."

The list of national contenders at 174 pounds includes a bevy of Big Ten wrestlers — Kemerer, Starocci, Michigan's Logan Massa, Nebraska's Mikey Labriola — as well as North Carolina State's Hayden Hidlay, Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, and a few others maybe who could spoil that party.

Kemerer was always going to likely have to beat two or three of those guys anyway to win an NCAA title. It matters little whether he's the 3-seed or the 6-seed, the 7-seed or the 2-seed, the 4-seed or the 5-seed. To prove you're the best, you have to beat the best, whether it's on Friday morning or Saturday night at the national tournament.

This is not unlike when he medically defaulted in 2018 because of another injury. Surely you remember all the funny pictures of him and Penn State's Jason Nolf both standing on the sixth-place award stand spot that year. Two weeks later, Kemerer took fourth at the NCAA Championships in Cleveland, a key part of a third-place team finish.

It was precautionary then, and it's precautionary now. The Hawkeyes need Kemerer as healthy as possible if they want to win a second consecutive national team title. The first day of this weekend's Big Ten Championships has shown that that's going to be a tough mountain to climb no matter what.

After Saturday's competition, Iowa sits third in the team race with 109 points, behind a surging first-place Michigan team (116) and second-place Penn State (111.5). Those three will likely be the same three teams at the top of the team race in Detroit. 

Michigan had a banner day, winning 19 matches in a row at one point and putting eight wrestlers in the semifinals. Ultimately, five Wolverine wrestlers made the finals and four more are alive for third. Penn State also put five in the finals and has two alive for third.

Four Iowa wrestlers made the finals — Austin DeSanto (133 pounds), Jaydin Eierman (141), Alex Marinelli (165) and Tony Cassioppi (285) — and three more are alive for third: Max Murin (149), Kaleb Young (157) and Jacob Warner (197). All 10 starters will finish in the top eight, and this three-team tug-of-war is headed for an exceptional finish on Sunday.

More importantly, all 10 Hawkeye starters have qualified for the national tournament. That's 10 opportunities to score points in Detroit, and Iowa will need each and every one of them to outscore both Penn State and Michigan and win a second consecutive national team title. 

That includes Kemerer, who's arguably the best in the country at 174 pounds when healthy, and who's still a bona fide NCAA title contender even at less-than-100%.

He's got two weeks now to prepare his mind and body for the only collegiate wrestling tournament he so desperately wants to win — the final chapter of his memorable Iowa wrestling career, and one he hopes that Hawkeye fans won't ever forget. 

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