Despite multitude of injuries, Iowa wrestling manages third-place finish at NCAA Wrestling

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

DETROIT, Mich. — Pain looks like a bronze trophy. It’s the end of one of the most exciting chapters for an Iowa wrestling program that has seen many exciting chapters. It’s Alex Marinelli, the Hawkeyes’ star 165-pounder, sitting in a chair in the tunnel underneath Little Caesars Arena and facing cameras and comprehension.

“That was it,” Marinelli said between sniffles, highlighting the dark bruise on his nose. “I’m thankful. I have the best. My wife is the best. I have the best coaches. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

“I’m sorry Hawkeye fans that I didn’t get it done, but you guys are the best.”

Marinelli held back his tears, even after a fifth-place finish at this week’s NCAA Championships, his third time earning NCAA All-American honors. But the end had arrived all the same on Saturday, and it was not the ending he or his team envisioned.

The Hawkeyes secured a third-place team finish at this week’s national tournament, totaling 74 points before Saturday night’s finals, trailing only team champions Penn State (131.5) and second-place Michigan (95). It is the 13th team trophy (top-four finish) in 15 national tournaments for Iowa under head coach Tom Brands.

Five Iowa wrestlers earned All-American honors. In addition to Marinelli, Jacob Warner finished second at 197 pounds, Austin DeSanto took third at 133, Michael Kemerer took fourth at 174 and Tony Cassioppi took seventh at 285. It is the seventh straight national tournament where Iowa has finished with at least five All-Americans.

But Saturday also saw the end of many stellar Iowa wrestling careers.

"These guys have been really good for this program," Brands said. "They’ve done some things that have helped turn some things around, as far as real work on the recruiting trail. These guys recruited Spencer Lee. That’s how I look at it.

"It’s hard to put into words what they mean. They mean a lot."

Kemerer, hailed by many as one of the most important recruiting wins in Iowa wrestling history, capped his stellar career as a four-time NCAA All-American. With a brace on his left shoulder, he went 5-2 this week, a run that included his 100th career victory.

“I’m a competitor, so I hate losing, and it’s hard to put that aside,” Kemerer said. “At the same time, the other voice inside is trying to tell me how much I have to be thankful for, and how good my college career has been.

“All the good things I would tell somebody else, I’m trying to tell myself that.”

Iowa's Michael Kemerer reacts after scoring a decision against Drexel's Michael O'Malley at 174 pounds during the fourth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Friday, March 18, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

DeSanto, the mercurial all-gas-no-brakes Drexel transfer, took third at 133 for the second straight year. He caps his Iowa tenure as a three-time All-American with 72 career wins in Iowa’s all-black singlet, adding to the Hawkeyes’ stellar lightweight tradition. He found Marinelli and other teammates on the floor after finishing third.

“Iowa has changed my life in the best way possible,” DeSanto said afterward. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else on the planet.”

Jaydin Eierman and Kaleb Young, both past All-Americans, didn’t even get to Saturday, a reminder of how brutal this sport is and how tough this national tournament can be. Eierman’s torn ACL forced him to injury-default from his round-of-16 match. Young went 2-2, losing to two eventual All-Americans by a combined four points.

And then there’s Marinelli, the heartbeat in the middle of Iowa’s lineup ever since he made his varsity debut in December 2017. He became just the 17th four-time Big Ten tournament champion earlier this month, but is now just the second from that group to not win an individual national title, joining only Mike DeAnna, another former Hawkeye.

“This is a big deal in my life,” Marinelli said, “but you guys know that I wanted a title. I have to be thankful and appreciative for what I did. I know I’m better than that, but this tournament is tough. I have to appreciate the ride and the journey.”

Iowa's Alex Marinelli has his hand raised after winning a medical forfeit at 165 pounds for fifth place during the fifth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 19, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

Iowa began the 2021-22 season with designs on repeating as national team champ, with the same group of wrestlers that produced 129 team points for the program’s first NCAA team title in a decade — due to the COVID-19 relief year provided by the NCAA, they all returned to try and run it back.

Injuries threw a wrench into those plans.

The first was Spencer Lee, Iowa’s sparkplug 125-pounder who’s also won three NCAA titles. After three matches in December, he opted for season-ending knee surgery and a medical hardship waiver. He plans to return for the 2022-23 season.

The rest came steadily over the course of the season — a shoulder issue in the fall for Kemerer, a returning NCAA finalist; late-season knee injuries for Cassioppi and Eierman, another returning NCAA finalist; a torn labrum for Drake Ayala, the talented true freshman tapped to fill in for Lee; and a lingering elbow injury for Max Murin.

Those injuries caught up by the Big Ten Championships, where a third-place finish was mostly remembered by a flurry of medical forfeits, including four medal matches and two Big Ten finals.

Iowa came to Detroit this week held together by shoulder braces, knee braces and duct tape. Combined with the stacked competition from both Penn State — who finished the night with five individual national champions on Saturday night — and Michigan, the Hawkeyes’ margin for error was slim if they wanted to repeat.

All 10 of Iowa’s qualifiers muscled through Thursday’s opening sessions, but the Hawkeyes fell behind after a brutal round Friday morning. They went 4-8 in Session III — 2-4 in the quarterfinals, and four wrestlers were eliminated in the wrestlebacks. Eierman injury-defaulted from his round-of-16 match and limped off the mat in tears.

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.

Friday night offered new opportunities, and Iowa capitalized when Warner knocked off second-seeded Stephen Buchanan in the national semifinals at 197, and Marinelli, Kemerer and Cassioppi all won crucial bloodround matchups to lift the Hawkeyes back into trophy contention.

On Saturday, they polished off the third-place finish with a 5-2 record, which included a 3-2 mark in medal matches. Overall, Iowa wrestlers combined to go 31-18 in individual matches this week, but scored just 9.5 bonus points (they scored 27 a year ago when they won the team title by 15.5).

Warner had an opportunity to give the Hawkeyes a champ at the end of the night. He had been so good all week late in matches, something he struggled with during the season. In his second-round, quarterfinal and semifinal matches, Warner scored late to win, but against Penn State's Max Dean, he gave up the late score and lost, 3-2.

"I’m hurting with Warner," Brands said. "I’m not going to assess that match yet. I’m not going to go spouting off on what we needs to work on and how we can get better and turn it around. It’s too early.

"It’s a lot more fun to grab a guy after a championship, and that’s where we have to get to."

It was a bittersweet ending — another team trophy finish, considering everything this team has experienced and endured, is something to be proud of, even if it wasn’t the exact color trophy they wanted. Endings very rarely follow the fairytale script. Sports are unpredictable in that way. It’s part of what makes them great.

"A lot of this stuff is private for me right now," Brands said. "I’m jealous of five titles by the championship team. I’m jealous. That’s where my mind is."

Iowa's Alex Marinelli, right, wrestles Drexel's Evan Barczak at 165 pounds during the first session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

For Marinelli, that meant coming to grips with the fact that an individual NCAA title will never belong to him. He was crucial to this program’s national team championship pursuit, a key cog in the Hawkeyes’ run of success through both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, but he’ll never get to stand on top of the individual NCAA podium.

When Marinelli first moved to Iowa City, he wrote a letter that he planned to read to the team after he won his own national title. It’s a message loaded with clichés — about working hard, setting goals, how losses offer more lessons than victories — but he gave that letter to Brands to keep in his office until he actually won gold.

That day never arrived, so here he is, inside another sold-out arena, his to-do list unfinished, forever. In that sense, pain is an unopened letter. More accurately, maybe pain is understanding that to-do lists don’t always get finished, but that doesn’t stop new ones from being created in their place.

“My goal, and the word I used to describe myself, is to be a champion,” Marinelli continued, pausing to hold back tears. “If I don’t get what I want, I can still be a champion off the mat. I can still be a champion by the way I carry myself.

“I’ll be a champion for Christ. I’ll be a champion for my wife, for my friends, my family. In the future, I’d love to coach. I’d love to lead someone to a victory, and I’ll be a champion for them, too.”

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

2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships

Final Team Scores

  1. Penn State, 131.5
  2. Michigan, 95
  3. Iowa, 74
  4. Arizona State, 66.5
  5. Nebraska, 59.5
  6. Northwestern, 57.5
  7. Cornell, 54.5
  8. Virginia Tech, 52.5
  9. Missouri, 49.5
  10. NC State, 49

Finals Results

  • 125: #1 Nick Suriano (Michigan) dec. #3 Pat Glory (Princeton), 5-3
  • 133: #1 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) dec. #2 Daton Fix (Oklahoma State), 3-2
  • 141: #1 Nick Lee (Penn State) dec. #15 Kizhan Clarke (North Carolina), 10-3
  • 149: #1 Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) dec. #10 Ridge Lovett (Nebraska), 11-5
  • 157: #2 Ryan Deakin (Northwestern) dec. #5 Quincy Monday (Princeton), 9-2
  • 165: #2 Keegan O’Toole (Missouri) dec. #5 Shane Griffith (Stanford), 6-5
  • 174: #1 Carter Starocci (Penn State) dec. #2 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech), 5-5 (TB-RT)
  • 184: #2 Aaron Brooks (Penn State) dec. #1 Myles Amine (Michigan), 5-3
  • 197: #1 Max Dean (Penn State) dec. #6 Jacob Warner (Iowa), 3-2
  • 285: #1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota) dec. #2 Cohlton Schultz (Arizona State), 6-2
Iowa's Jacob Warner, right, wrestles Penn State's Max Dean on Saturday in the 197-pound championship match at the NCAA Championships in Detroit. Dean won 3-2.