Day One of the NCAA Wrestling Championships was a reminder that this tournament is really hard

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

DETROIT, Mich. — Here’s a reminder for those who may have forgotten: the NCAA Championships, often referred to as the biggest, baddest wrestling tournament in the country, is really freaking hard.

That was the prevailing theme Thursday at Little Caesars Arena, where the first two sessions of the 2022 national championships unfolded. All three of Iowa’s Division I teams, and many others around the country, learned that lesson in one form or another.

Consider: 

  • 16 past All-Americans lost in the first round;
  • 16 more past All-Americans lost in the second round;
  • 5 wrestlers that made last year’s NCAA finalist lost;
  • 2 won titles: Iowa State’s David Carr and North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor;
  • 5 wrestlers seeded 15th or higher made the quarterfinals;
  • and 3 of them are seeded 20th or higher.

Again: this tournament is really freaking hard.

“This (stuff) is easy when you’re winning,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said. “This is a tough, tough tournament.”

But despite all of that madness on the 17th day of March, all but three wrestlers seeded fourth or better advanced to the quarterfinals (two happened to be wrestlers from Iowa schools; the third: Michigan's Patrick Brucki). So in that sense, shoutout to the seeding committee, because that means Day Two is going to be equally as electric.

More:Recap: NCAA Wrestling Championships round 2 results, team scores from Day 1

Entering Friday, the usual suspects sit atop the leaderboard of the team race. Penn State is in first, with 27.5 team points. Arizona State is second with 22, followed by North Carolina State (21.5), Michigan (21), then Iowa (20.5).

For teams that are in legitimate championship contention, Thursday is all about setting yourself up for the rest of the weekend. The Hawkeyes, despite some tough losses, still have all 10 wrestlers alive in the tournament, including 6 who reached the quarterfinals:

  • Austin DeSanto (133)
  • Max Murin (149)
  • Alex Marinelli (165)
  • Michael Kemerer (174)
  • Jacob Warner (197)
  • Tony Cassioppi (285)

The other 4 are in the wrestlebacks: Drake Ayala (125), Jaydin Eierman (141), Kaleb Young (157), Abe Assad (184). Eierman and Young both lost overtime matches in round two (Eierman to North Carolina’s Kizhan Clarke, 4-2; Young to Michigan’s Will Lewan, 3-1). Ayala and Assad both bounced back after losing winnable first-round matches.

Climbing that mountain won’t be easy. Iowa and Penn State both sent 6 wrestlers to the quarterfinals. Michigan leads all schools with 7, while Arizona State has 5 and Nebraska, North Carolina State, Ohio State, Oregon State and Virginia Tech all have 4.

The Nittany Lions surged ahead behind 13.5 bonus points. Arizona State scored 10.5 bonus points. The Hawkeyes totaled 27 last year when they won the team title, but compiled just 5.5 on Thursday. It’ll take a combination of that and as many individual wins as possible to run down gold again.

“We have to be ready to go,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “We have to love the battle … we have to be fast, we have to be smart, we have to be tough, and we have to score points.”

Iowa's Jaydin Eierman, left, wrestles North Carolina's Kizhan Clarke at 141 pounds during the second session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

The Cyclones, after storming through the regular season with a 15-1 overall dual record and winning the Big 12 regular-season dual-meet title, straight-up stunk on Thursday — to the tune of a 4-14 overall record. Iowa State went 3-6 in the first round, then 0-3 in the second round and 1-5 in the wrestlebacks. Only four wrestlers reached Friday.

“That's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament,” Oregon State’s Hunter Willits said after beating Iowa State’s David Carr, 2-1 in overtime, in round two at 157 pounds, sending the 2021 NCAA champion to the wrestlebacks and snapping his 55-match win streak.

Both Marcus Coleman (184) and Yonger Bastida (197) also reached the second-round for Iowa State, but also lost close matches: Coleman in overtime to Illinois’s Zach Braunagel, who lost in round one of the Big Ten Championships and hasn’t lost since; Bastida to Missouri’s Rocky Elam, 1-0, after beating Elam twice earlier this season.

Of Iowa State’s nine qualifiers, five went 0-2 — including Jarrett Degen, a 2019 All-American at 149. Degen lost his two matches by a combined six points: 10-7 to Oklahoma’s Willie McDougald (after leading 4-2 in the third), then 5-2 to North Carolina’s Zach Sherman, another past All-American who lost in the first round.

“I think you have to screw it up to get it right,” said Dresser, now in his fifth year as Iowa State’s coach. “We definitely screwed it up today, in a lot of places.”

Iowa State's David Carr, left, wrestles Oregon State's Hunter Willits at 157 pounds during the second session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

Northern Iowa, though, was perhaps one of the pleasant surprises during Thursday’s opening sessions. The Panthers scored 15 points to sit sixth in the team race. Parker Keckeisen made the quarterfinals at 184 pounds while five others are alive in the wrestlebacks:

  • Brody Teske (125)
  • Kyle Biscoglia (133)
  • Colin Realbuto (149)
  • Austin Yant (165)
  • Lance Runyon (174)

Northern Iowa went 9-9 overall — 6-4 in the first session, then 3-5 in the second — but climbed the leaderboard thanks to 7 bonus points: Biscoglia, Runyon and Realbuto all scored pins, and Keckeisen added a major decision. Those 7 points are the difference between sixth place and being tied with Purdue, who scored 8 points and sit 23rd.

The primary goal for Thursday at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, especially for those seeking this sport’s greatest prize, is to set yourself up for the rest of the week. The Hawkeyes, struggles and all, did that by ensuring 10 point-scoring opportunities on Friday. The Panthers and Cyclones had their moments, too.

The thing about Friday is that every match will be tough, because only All-Americans get to wrestle on Saturday. Thursday was an appetizer for what’s coming the rest of the way. Strap in, dear reader, because it’s going to be one (heck) of a ride.

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