Wrestling Mailbag: Iowa's 1997 team, young and old NCAA wrestlers, Alex Marinelli, team race breakdown
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the greatest team performance ever at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
I'm talking, of course, about the 1997 Iowa team, which won the title that season with a staggering 170 team points at the UNI-Dome, still the NCAA record.
That also happened to be Dan Gable's final year as Iowa's head wrestling coach.
What a way to go out, right?
The Hawkeyes went 15-1 in duals that season, which included two wins over Iowa State — 26-13 and 20-18 — and their only loss came to Oklahoma State, 21-13 in the finals of the National Duals.
That sort of deflated Iowa's good energy before the postseason, which showed when just two Iowa wrestlers won Big Ten titles that year. Between that and the loss to the surging Cowboys, Gable wasn't so sure his team had enough to win the national tournament that year.
Well ... it did.
Iowa took all 10 to the national tournament, where eight earned All-American honors, six made the national finals and five won NCAA titles: Jesse Whitmer (118 pounds), Mark Ironside (134), Lincoln McIlravy (150), Joe Williams (158) and Lee Fullhart (190).
In all, Iowa wrestlers went 46-10 that week in Cedar Falls, which included 23 wins in a row between Thursday and Friday night. They went 14-0 during Friday morning's quarterfinal and wrestleback rounds.
The two guys that didn't make the podium lost in the bloodround. The Hawkeyes recorded nine pins, 10 major decisions and three technical falls that week (plus a win by forfeit), and also won 14 matches by two points or fewer.
The 170 team points remains the all-time record, and that performance lives on as arguably the greatest in NCAA Tournament history. Scoring has changed over the years, but only four other teams have hit 150, and no other team has ever hit 160.
It'll take one heck of a performance to even sniff 170, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that around 120-140 wins this week. Iowa won last year with 129. Over the past 10 national tournaments, the average score of the title-winning team is 125.9.
► NCAA Wrestling: Bracket breakdown for Iowa, Iowa State, UNI wrestlers
That 1997 title was, at the time, the third in a row for Iowa, and the 15th overall for Gable. If the Hawkeyes can pull off another championship performance this week, it would also mark a third consecutive year they've been at the top of the NCAA heap (they were the consensus favorites before COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament).
Not saying the 2022 Iowa team has direct parallels to the 1997 team, but anything can happen, which is part of the fun.
OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag. A reminder that on Wednesday, Rudis, the Ohio-based wrestling outfitter, is hosting its Super Match card at the MotorCity Casino Hotel. It features three Iowa ties: Iowa City West senior Hunter Garvin, Iowa State recruit Casey Swiderski and Hawkeye Wrestling Club member Victoria Francis.
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.
All the old and young wrestlers in the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships
It’s going to be a lot more fun.
You’ve got this awesome confluence of young, ready-to-go-now talent clashing with seasoned, been-here-forever veterans, and that mix is going to make for some super interesting storylines to follow this week.
Look at 125, for example. There’s Iowa’s Drake Ayala, a true freshman, and Michigan’s Nick Suriano, a sixth-year senior, in the same bracket. That’s fun!
There are 24 wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAA Championships five times, according to Jason Bryant’s handy NCAA preview guide.
Also in JB’s guide, by my count, there are nine wrestlers who wrestled at the 2017 NCAA Championships in St. Louis that will compete this week in Detroit:
- Nick Suriano, Michigan (wrestled for Penn State in 2017)
- Korbin Myers, Virginia Tech (Edinboro in 2017)
- Jaydin Eierman, Iowa (Missouri in 2017)
- Stevan Micic, Michigan
- Anthony Valencia, Arizona State
- Thomas Bullard, North Carolina State
- Logan Massa, Michigan
- Dakota Geer, Oklahoma State (Edinboro in 2017)
- Myles Amine, Michigan
Eierman, Micic, Massa and Amine were All-Americans in St. Louis. Eierman and Micic are both at 141 this week, Valencia and Bullard are both at 165, and Geer and Amine are both at 184. Those are the old guys.
JB’s NCAA preview guide also lists 13 true freshmen in the field this week — and by true freshmen, we mean guys that are one year removed from high school (so Keegan O’Toole, for example, is a second-year freshman).
Here are the 13:
- Julien Ramirez, Cornell
- Drake Ayala, Iowa
- Max Brignola, Lehigh
- Josh Koderhandt, Navy
- Sal Perrine, Ohio
- Carter Young, Oklahoma State
- Ryan Miller, Penn
- Nick Incontrera, Penn
- Luke Stout, Princeton
- Joe Olivieri, Rutgers
- Joey Zargo, Wisconsin
- Dean Hamiti, Wisconsin
- Braxton Amos, Wisconsin*
*Amos deferred his enrollment, so he's technically two years removed from high school, but this is his first collegiate wrestling season, which is why we're including him.
I cracked the joke in one of my mailbag roll calls earlier this season about the age difference between Ayala and Michael Kemerer. It's been a running theme for Iowa, with all the seniors returning after winning last year's team title, but really, it's been a theme all over the country.
Look at Michigan, for example. Micic is technically an eighth-year senior, thanks to an initial redshirt, a medical redshirt and two Olympic redshirts. People forget that his true freshman season, in 2014-15, he was at Northwestern. He turns 26 next month.
But these young guys have routinely shown that they're ready now more than ever. Of the 13 true freshmen listed, four are seeded 16th or better, led by Hamiti being the 4-seed at 165 pounds. We've also seen guys like Young and Amos excel against Senior-level competition in the Olympic styles, so we know they're talented.
Here's another fun stat from JB's guide: There have been 34 freshmen national champs all-time (that includes true freshmen and redshirt freshmen). Of those 34, there have been 15 champs since 2010, including two last year: Penn State's Carter Starocci and Oklahoma State's A.J. Ferrari.
The young guns against the old vets will be an intriguing and fun subplot all week, because we'll likely see some variation of those matchups at virtually every weight.
As for the second part of your question, yes, I believe the 1,905 days between matchups would be, at the very least, the longest I've ever heard of. Another to keep an eye on is the potential Alex Marinelli-Anthony Valencia matchup at 165 pounds. Like Kemerer-Hayden Hidlay, they also last met on Dec. 29, 2016, and are in the same bracket this week.
Another fun fact: During the 2015-16 season, Myles Amine lost twice to Central Michigan's Christian Brucki. Now Amine is teammates with Patrick Brucki, Christian's younger brother. Life is funny sometimes.
Can Iowa wrestler Alex Marinelli finally win an NCAA wrestling title?
The matchup is intriguing, and if we're all being honest, it might be one of the most compelling semifinal matchups, should it happen this week.
Marinelli is the older veteran who is seeking a national title to cap an all-time Iowa career. O'Toole is the young guy seeking to seize control of this weight now and into the future while leading Missouri back into consistent trophy contention.
Sign me up on that alone.
O'Toole came up through the Askren Academy in Wisconsin, so he's comfortable scrambling and won't panic when Marinelli gets in on shots because he can find scoring positions from virtually everywhere. We're talking about a guy who hit cradles at the Junior men's freestyle world championships this past summer, for crying out loud.
The thing that'll help Marinelli the most is his ability to hold good position. In that sense, his matchups against Hamiti will be good experience to draw on. Hamiti is also a guy who can and will attempt to score from anywhere. He'll sometimes shoot just to create action and he usually wins those positions. O'Toole will do that, too.
If you stay in good position, you give yourself more opportunities to score if O'Toole decides to just create action like that. I'll also be curious to see how O'Toole handles Marinelli's handfight. Along the same lines of holding good position, Marinelli will want to wrestle this match in a phone booth — not unlike how he wrestled former Penn State star Vincenzo Joseph.
Sometimes Marinelli's style can be, uh, not-very-aesthetically-pleasing, like his Big Ten finals match against Michigan's Cam Amine. But that forward pressure is his trademark, and it'll be key in a matchup against O'Toole, who could counter a bunch of different ways, which shifts the challenge back to Marinelli to be ready for O'Toole's slickness.
Final thought: Marinelli is going to need to finish his shots quickly against O'Toole. The opportunities should be there, but if Marinelli doesn't execute efficiently, O'Toole will get him into a scramble position, which is where he makes his living.
I hope that matchup happens. I know I picked O'Toole to win 165 this week, but that's a matchup that can easily go either way, and either of those guys can win it this week.
Iowa wrestling dealing with injuries
This is an interesting topic worth diving into, and to answer your question, it’s probably a case-by-case basis. Sometimes wrestlers get hurt, sometimes they stay healthy.
Kemerer is an older guy with a ton of miles on his body and a history of injuries. He was, by most measures, as healthy as possible last season and the year before. He muscled through a shoulder injury in 2018, and was a breakout star in 2017 as a healthy redshirt freshman.
Sometimes the body breaks down after a while — especially after seven years of life as a Division I wrestler. That's a hard life.
Then there's Marinelli, who wore a knee brace every year until this season. He wrestles a style that might lend itself to more injuries just because of the intensity, and outside of last year’s freak rib injury, he’s stayed healthy virtually the whole way.
Max Murin wrestles the same grind-it-out style as Marinelli, and has dealt with various injuries throughout his career — a broken jaw, shoulder issues and, this year, an elbow injury. But he's managed to make his way through each season and has wrestled 91 career matches (if you count his redshirt season).
Tony Cassioppi and Eierman both suffered freak knee injuries — Eierman late in the regular season, Cassioppi literally in the quarterfinal of the Big Ten tournament. So far as I can tell, Eierman’s injury was more of a random thing and Cassioppi’s injury came as a result of Wisconsin's Trent Hillger trying to avoid giving up a takedown.
Then there's Ayala, who's dealing with, by my recollection, the first major injury of his wrestling career, and he's been wrestling at these high-level events since he was in eighth grade.
Sometimes a team can navigate a season unscathed, but most teams deal with some sort of aches and pains over the course of the year. The 2019-20 Iowa team might've been an outlier. It was basically fully healthy in March and I had a feeling that team could've scored 140-150 at the national tournament, but COVID-19 had other plans.
This is something Iowa coach Tom Brands evaluates every year, and, really, every week and month of every season. I'm sure there's an element of frustration that's come with the injuries this season, if only because they've been so frequent. I'd love to pick his brain about it after this week.
Love this question. Let's break it down.
Here are the projected team points for those three teams based solely on their wrestlers' seeds:
- Penn State, 113
- Michigan, 96.5
- Iowa, 81.5
Let's start with the Hawkeyes, who will need a total team effort to repeat this week.
Guys are going to have to punch above their seeds. If both Marinelli and Cassioppi, both 3-seeds this week, can make the finals, that helps. Kemerer is a 5-seed, but he scored 20 points last year when he made the finals. He's got a gauntlet of a path this year, so we'll see.
Murin scored two team points last year. He needs to take the next step and finish on the podium. Kaleb Young is the 9-seed this year, but a third All-American finish will aid Iowa's cause. Jacob Warner is the 6-seed this week but took fourth last year. If he can do that again, that'll help, too.
Ayala and Abe Assad are currently projected to score a total of two team points. That can't happen. Both have shown shades of All-American talent this season. No better time than this week to show those skills again.
For Michigan, it basically needs to repeat their Big Ten tournament performance — which is going to be harder this week.
Micic, for example, took third at the Big Ten Championships, but is the 24-seed this week. How much of a factor is his health? Can he produce?
Dylan Ragusin won some big matches to go from the 5-seed to third place in Lincoln. He's the 6-seed this week. He's got top-four capability, but 133 is among the deepest weights this week.
Will Lewan made the Big Ten finals at 157, but is the 8-seed this week and is in a pretty tough quad to start. There is no easy path to the podium at this weight, but his production will be critical for the Wolverines. Same with Cameron Amine at 165, who's the 6-seed this week.
The big guns have to hold serve: Suriano, the 1-seed at 125; Massa, the 3-seed at 174; Myles Amine, the 1-seed at 184; and Patrick Brucki, the 4-seed at 197. Mason Parris is the 7-seed at 285 but is a returning NCAA finalist and has a path back to the finals this week, if only because he's opposite Minnesota's Gable Steveson.
For Penn State, the key will be in its role guys.
The Nittany Lions have six guys seeded fourth or better, including four No. 1 seeds: Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Starocci (174) and Max Dean (197). Aaron Brooks is also the 2-seed at 184 and Greg Kerkvliet is the 4-seed at 285.
The other three are seeded 13th or lower: Beau Bartlett, 13th at 149; Drew Hildebrandt, 16th at 125; and Brady Berge, 16th at 157.
Penn State might have enough firepower up top to win it anyway, but should any of those guys falter, these role guys become even more important. Berge came through with a third-place finish at the Big Ten tournament. It's important that he produces similarly in Detroit.
Bartlett secured his spot this week in an important seventh-place match over Michigan's Kanen Storr in Lincoln. He tends to wrestle close matches and will need to win more than he loses this week. Hildebrandt didn't score any points as the 2-seed at the Big Ten tournament. That's not going to cut it this week.
Here's hoping this team race is just as thrilling as it was in Lincoln. If that happens, everybody wins.
OK, time for some rapid-fire mailbag questions.
Not even a little bit.
Love the type of fandom that follows recruits' results. Don't like the type of fandom that lives and dies with those results.
Not saying that's what you're doing here, Klinker, but, like, they're kids. They'll be fine.
And if any one-off match result bothers someone enough to be "worried" about an incoming recruit who has a history of winning big matches on the big stages — Aiden Riggins reached both the Cadet world team trials finals and Junior men's freestyle national finals and produced back-to-back undefeated high school seasons — then I'm not sure what to tell you.
I didn't know the answer right off hand, so I Googled it, and now I have a lot of regrets and will probably have at least one nightmare, maybe two.
There is literally no safer prop bet.
I believe a fully healthy Oklahoma State could've been in the mix for the team title this week. That's going to be harder next year without Wyatt Sheets and Dakota Geer, two All-Americans, so we might be looking at more Big Ten dominance in the near future, especially with Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State cleaning up on the recruiting trail.
But Oklahoma State has also had its fair share of big-time recruiting victories — three top-50 commitments in the 2022 senior class. We'll see how quickly the Cowboys can jump back into team title contention once they get the spring and summer to heal up.
Grab a two-on-one, shove it into my opponent's chest, toss it up and drop into an inside-trip and take them feet-to-back — two for the takedown, three for the back points.
Either that, or a fireman's carry where I catch them on the landing and hold them for near-fall.
This week, I'm grateful for my buddy Landis, who is a diehard Mizzou fan but hasn't really dabbled in wrestling all that much. The Tigers won the Big 12 Championships two weeks ago and it spurred him to buy a Mizzou wrestling shirt. He reached out to share the good news and I sent him this week's schedule. He said he'll be following along.
That's one more new wrestling fan that we didn't have last week. Let's keep a good thing going.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.