Wrestling Mailbag: Medical forfeits, Big Ten Championships, NCAA qualifying, Austin DeSanto and more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Here is an assortment of thoughts about the whole medical forfeit thing from this past weekend’s Big Ten Championships:

There were 25 total medical forfeits this weekend — 19 in the actual tournament, plus another six in the six extra brackets used for NCAA qualifying. You could also count Dan Braunagel’s injury-default in the first round at 165 pounds as No. 26.

Two of the medical forfeits occurred in the championship matches: at 141, where Jaydin Eierman didn’t wrestle Nick Lee, and 285, where Tony Cassioppi didn’t wrestle Gable Steveson.

If I’m a Big Ten Network executive, I’m probably a little ticked off, since one was an NCAA final rematch and the other featured Minnesota’s Steveson, the current face of wrestling and Olympic gold medalist.

It sucks when this happens, but it does happen. The college wrestling season is hard. Really hard. Everybody is banged up to some degree come March.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands, right, talks with Michael Kemerer after a match at 174 during the first session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Generally speaking, if you’re healthy, you should wrestle. 

Most guys are dealing with legit injuries, and that happens to be the case with the four Iowa guys who did not wrestle their placement matches.

Drake Ayala has missed time because of a torn labrum. Eierman is dealing with a knee injury and wore a brace on Saturday. Michael Kemerer’s shoulder literally came out during his quarterfinal match. Cassioppi tweaked his knee in his quarterfinal.

Eierman was also the beneficiary of a medical-forfeit, in his semifinal match against Sebastian Rivera, who is also hurt. Had Rivera decided he wanted to wrestle that match, my gut tells me Eierman would have medically forfeited instead.

I think this is a bigger deal than normal (at least online) because the Hawkeyes were directly tied to so many medical forfeits. Iowa wrestlers medically forfeited from six matches during the weekend, but also benefited from three.

The Big Ten Championships is, first and foremost, a qualifier for a bigger and more important wrestling tournament. That is how the sport is currently set up. The goal is to qualify and get ready for the NCAA tournament. Just ask the wrestlers.

MORE: 17 things we learned from the 2022 Big Ten Wrestling Championships

We see this in other sports. NFL players on playoff-bound teams sit in the final week of the regular season to be ready for the playoffs. Once the postseason hits, they play no matter what. The Rams' Eric Weddle, for example, played through a ruptured pec in the Super Bowl. He ain't doing that in Week 15 against the Seahawks.

We get frustrated when it happens in those sports, but we understand and accept it. It should be simple to understand why wrestlers do it, too. We should want them to be as healthy as they can be for the most important parts of their seasons.

It’s a rough look for wrestling, sure. We all want to see these guys wrestle when we can. That’s why people tune into the Big Ten Network on a Sunday afternoon and buy tickets to sit inside sold-out arenas.

Ultimately, Iowa coach Tom Brands, and every other wrestling coach around the country for that matter, is going to do what’s best for his wrestlers. Their health and personal interests will always take precedence over what we want.

OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag, which we will never medical forfeit from doing. But a lot of you guys asked about NCAA stuff this week, and I made it a point to skip those for now so please ask them again next week after we get the brackets.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and I’ll keep you up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

Do the Big Ten Wrestling Championships matter?

Conference tournaments matter in the sense that they are the qualifier for the national tournament, and for some weights, it's absolutely crucial when it comes to seeding the national tournament.

Take heavyweight, for example. Cassioppi earned the 2-seed because he beat Penn State’s Greg Kerkvliet, who beat Michigan’s Mason Parris. Steveson beat both Cassioppi and Parris and earned the 1-seed.

A large chunk of the nation’s best heavyweights are in the Big Ten, so final placements at that weight were going to be crucial to how they seed that bracket for the national tournament.

Cassioppi’s finals berth was important because of that loss to Jack Del Garbino back in November. But now he’s got two wins over Kerkvliet, who finished third and has beaten Parris twice, so that should solidify Cassioppi as the 3-seed, behind Steveson and Arizona State’s Cohlton Schultz, who is undefeated and won the Pac-12.

Earning the 3-seed keeps him opposite of Steveson at the NCAA Championships and gives him a path to the NCAA finals. 

You can go through every weight and find similar examples.

Nick Suriano likely locked up the 1-seed at 125 after Cornell’s Vito Arujau beat Princeton’s Pat Glory in the EIWA finals. Austin Gomez threw a wrench into 149 after beating both Ridge Lovett and Sammy Sasso. Max Dean has a case for the 1-seed after winning 197. Myles Amine beat Aaron Brooks and now 184 could be a mess, too.

MORE: ISU's David Carr, UNI's Parker Keckeisen win Big 12 wrestling titles

Iowa's Alex Marinelli poses for a photo atop the podium for 165 pounds after scoring a decision in the finals during the third session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. As Jordan Burroughs, front right, presents the bracket.

But most importantly, the Big Ten tournament, as it's currently setup, is the national qualifier. We see every year that coaches will pull their guys from competition once they reach a position to earn a bid, because they want their guys to be ready for the national tournament. 

There’s a sense of pride in winning the conference tournament, or at least performing well at it. Iowa’s Alex Marinelli joined an elite group by becoming a four-time Big Ten champion, but he even said afterward that “everyone remembers the national champ.”

That’s just the way the sport is currently setup, but it’s that way in other sports, too. Nobody remembers that the Buccaneers were a wildcard team in 2021, only that they won the Super Bowl.

How do we stop the medical forfeits?

I think one solution is to make the medical forfeits count as actual wins and losses on a wrestler's record.

I'm not sure how entirely fair that is, but that seems like one easy solution. That would force the guys that aren't truly hurt to wrestle or accept the consequences that come with it. 

Another idea: Keep track of the medical forfeits and only count them as wins and losses when it comes to NCAA selection and seeding and bracket placement.

So maybe they don't count as actual wins and losses, but when the NCAA Wrestling Selection Committee looks at seeding the brackets for the national tournament, they see that Wrestler A has a better record than Wrestler B but medically forfeited from a match against Wrestler B and gets penalized for that.

That's not as cut-and-dry as making them count as wins and losses, but it's one idea. You'd have to make it clear how much they would impact seeding.

MORE: Grand View men's wrestling wins 10th NAIA national title in 11 years

Another: Rather than using the Big Ten Championships as the qualifier, you go to a point system that takes into account the entire body of work throughout the season.

The regular season already matters a ton for wrestling. You need to hit a certain number of matches and need to have a certain winning percentage to earn a bid for your conference, then you have to reach that placement at the conference tournament to earn a spot at the national tournament. It all flows together.

There's a crowd that's yelling about, "Well, if they don't wrestle the Big Ten tournament, why wrestle at all during the regular season?" The point of the regular season is to set yourself up for the postseason. You can skip the regular season and go to the Big Ten tournament but you'll be the 14-seed. If you fail to qualify, you're not going.

Some people might do what, for whatever reason, but they likely understand the risks involved.

One other interesting idea is forcing athletes to get a doctor's note from an independent doctor at whatever tournament to prove they can't wrestle. I'm not sure how viable that is, and those independent doctors would need a lot of medical history in a short amount of time to make these decisions, but it's still an interesting idea.

But that leads to another point brought up by Mason Beckman, a two-time All-American for Lehigh. Sometimes these medical-forfeit decisions are made by the team's athletic trainers and the coaches can't do anything about it. The trainers have the final say on whether or not an athlete can compete. Let's not lose sight of that in this conversation.

I don't hate the idea of moving away from the conference tournaments being the national tournament qualifier. In Division II and Division III, they have regionals that qualify you for the national tournaments, and they sometimes include teams from the same conference, but not always.

The trick with that one is deciding where to draw regional boundaries. Most of the schools in each conference are bundled up near each other, so I don’t think much would change geographically.

You might mix teams from the Big Ten, Big 12 and the MAC, but who are you sending out west to wrestle the Pac-12 schools? Does Penn State wrestle against ACC teams or EIWA teams?

Iowa 285-pound wrestler Tony Cassioppi, right, stands with Iowa assistant coach Ryan Morningstar and teammate Alex Marnielli during the third session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

That could get sticky in a hurry. It’s already a point of contention in Division III.

But maybe this is where a regular-season point system could make sense. Maybe the champions at conference or qualifying tournaments get in, and then everybody else is left up to the selection committee. I think we’d still see medical forfeits because coaches are smart enough to know where their wrestlers stand ahead of time.

I wouldn’t mind bringing in an independent, third party panel to assess some of these things and offer ideas on how wrestling can be done better. A lot of times, wrestling gets in its own way, and the worst thing ever is doing things the same way because that’s they way they’ve always been done.

Who knows? New ideas could be fun.

Fan reactions to medical forfeits at Big Ten wrestling tournament

I think this is a sign that the sport is growing.

If you sift through a lot of the online vitriol from the Big Ten Championships (I don’t recommend it), you'll find that most people really only complained about two things: the two finals matches that didn't happen, and that it was a bad look for the sport.

I think you can separate those two complaints into two different groups.

The people complaining about the finals matches not happening are new wrestling fans. Welcome aboard. We're glad you're here. We’re sorry that you basically tuned into a Week 17 regular-season NFL game for some weights, but we hope you enjoyed the 149 and 184 finals, because that’s the sport at its best.

The people complaining that it was a bad look for the sport are the rest of us that have been here for a while. I think that’s a little bit of us nervously looking over our shoulders with some self-consciousness about what others might think of our favorite sport.

Those of us in the latter have been dying for wrestling to grow and expand and be on the same tier as football and basketball. We’ve seen that substantial growth in a bunch of different ways — viewership, media coverage, marketing, participation, etc. The Big Ten Network has said for a few years now that wrestling is its third-biggest sport.

We are proud of the trajectory that wrestling is on, and are excited about the continued growth into the future.

Lights illuminate the mats before the finals at 125 pounds during the third session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

So when Big Ten Network allocates a ton of time and resources to cover the deepest, most talented conference tournament in the country, and diehard fans, casual fans and new fans all tune in, and two of the finals matches end up in medical forfeits, yeah, it’s a really tough look.

My brothers, for example, are not in the diehard category. They are casual wrestling fans. One of them was at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday. He asked me on Monday about all the medical forfeits. When I explained that the tournament was a qualifier and the national tournament is two weeks away, he was sad, but he understood it.

More:Wrestling Mailbag: It's March! The Big Ten and Big 12 Championships, plus more postseason wrestling

We want wrestling to be a big-time sport, and then we get mad when wrestling does wrestling things instead because we think, "Well, this would never happen in football or basketball" — which we know is a total lie, but we still aren’t on that same tier yet so we just get frustrated.

I’m bummed those finals matches didn’t happen. I wanted to see them. I also wanted to see Murin wrestle Lovett, and to see Chris Cannon wrestle RayVon Foley, and so many others.

But, again, coaches are going to put their athletes’ personal health and goals above our wants — and they should. Every single time.

I can't speak to that because I'm not in the room every day.

What I can say is that Tom Brands has been criticized in the past for the way he's handled guys' health and injuries and whatnot. He's clearly learned from that and is ensuring his guys are as healthy as can be for when the season matters most.

Brands was in a no-win situation on Sunday. He's being criticized for sitting his guys so they can rest before the national tournament. If they would've gone out and wrestled and gotten more injured or worse, he would've been criticized for pushing them.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands watches a match during the first session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

So, like any good coach, he did what he felt was best for his guys. We've seen it rather frequently over the past few years. Look at Kemerer's career. He's missed duals and medically defaulted from the 2018 Big Ten tournament. He's finished on the podium in March at every opportunity.

That's a reason to trust Brands' process right there.

Roman Bravo-Young and Austin DeSanto

Some of you are seriously so goofy with this Roman Bravo-Young hate.

He's beaten Austin DeSanto five times in a row. Do you have any idea how hard that is to do? Give the guy some credit.

When you get to this level of any sport, there is always match-to-match strategy and film room work involved. RBY clearly knows not to tie up with DeSanto because that's how DeSanto scores his points. It may seem like he's not actively wrestling against DeSanto because of that strategy, but he is. It just looks different from what you're used to.

DeSanto has made tiny gains on RBY the past couple of times they've wrestled. When they wrestled in January, DeSanto clearly could get in on shots but wasn't really anywhere near close to finishing. On Sunday, DeSanto again got in on shots and a few times, he found an angle or picked the leg up. Small progress is still progress.

The goal, as it was before, is to finish those shots. You do that, you change the complexion of the match. Until then, RBY is going to continue to hold good position, stay calm on the mat and wait for his opportunity to score.

Iowa's Austin DeSanto, left, wrestles Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young at 133 pounds in the finals during the third session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Sometimes it looks like a slide-by to a shot to a go-behind, like it was in the dual. Sometimes it looks like a crotch-lift into a neutral-danger count for a takedown, like it was on Sunday.

RBY is clearly the better wrestler right now. I don't think anybody can honestly argue anything different. When I watched their matches before this year, I'm not sure I ever thought that RBY was in danger of losing those matchups. In both matches this year, I've felt like DeSanto has come closer than ever to potentially winning.

Again, small progress is still progress.

Austin Gomez's big throw and pin over Ridge Lovett

I'll be honest, I'm really only including midnightsnacker's tweet here so I can also include the video of Gomez's big throw against Lovett in the semifinals at 149. Seriously, it was a thing of beauty.

Head-and-arm to double-unders and then patiently waiting for the right opening to step in and go. He did it all in 20 seconds. Same move he used to pin Bravo-Young a few years back.

How big of a difference is Spencer Lee for Iowa at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships?

Well, from purely a math perspective, Spencer Lee scored 24 points at last year's Big Ten Championships. Ayala scored 5.5. That's an 18.5-point difference.

If you add 18.5 points to Iowa's final team score of 129.5, you get 148 — which would've been more than Michigan (143) and Penn State (141.5).

It's never as easy as plug-and-play like that. Lee went 3-0 with two technical falls and a pin at last year's conference tournament. I'm not sure he's beating Michigan's Suriano by technical fall in the finals, so you can subtract some bonus points there.

But, yeah, Lee makes a huge difference. Obviously.

But so does everybody else.

Iowa's 129.5 was just 13.5 points behind Michigan and 12 behind Penn State. Where can it make up the difference?

If Kemerer wrestles in the semifinals and beats Carter Starocci, that's seven team points right there. That would also subtract from Penn State's total. If Starocci wins, he probably doesn't pin, so that also takes away from the Nittany Lions' total, but if Kemerer comes back for third, that's another 4.5 points before any bonus.

Iowa's Drake Ayala wrestles at 125 pounds during the first session of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 5, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

If Ayala wins his seventh-place match, that's another point. If he finishes that shot against Barnett in the quarterfinals and wins that match, that's three more points. If Abe Assad wins his, that's another point. If Jacob Warner can beat Patrick Brucki, that's another point. If Kaleb Young beats Brady Berge, that's another point.

Those little points add up in a hurry if everybody contributes, and it's going to take everybody for Iowa to win it in Detroit.

This week, I'm grateful for The Athletic Football Show podcast. I needed to take my mind off things after the Big Ten Championships and I caught up on that podcast during my drive home from Lincoln. It was a nice little escape from the wrestling madness.

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