Tom Brands on Iowa wrestling’s future, new facility, Real Woods, Max Murin, and more

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — It does not take much for Tom Brands to get excited when it comes to wrestling, but the Iowa coach is especially pumped for this coming weekend because the future of his program will be on display.

“Fired up to watch them,” Brands said Tuesday inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “The future is upon us. The future is now.”

USA Wrestling’s U20 world team trials and U23 national championships are set for Friday through Sunday at the Spire Institute Sports Complex in Ohio. The handful of Hawkeye wrestlers currently registered to compete are also expected to contribute to the program both during the 2022-23 season and into the future.

During a conversation Tuesday, Brands touched on a number of topics — an update on the new Iowa wrestling facility, Max Murin’s plans to return for one more season, Real Woods’ decision to transfer in from Stanford — but he continually circled back to this weekend’s upcoming opportunity to compete.

Because — well, he’s fired up.

“I’ll say it as much as I have to,” Brands said, “because I’m excited.”

Iowa head coach Tom Brands watches a match during the first session of the USA Wrestling World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, Saturday, May 21, 2022, at Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

National women's collegiate wrestling championships coming to Cedar Rapids

As many as nine current Hawkeyes, plus a handful of incoming recruits, are expected to compete this weekend. Here is the list, per USA Wrestling’s registration website, as of Tuesday afternoon:

U20 men’s freestyle

  • Caleb Rathjen, 70-kg

U23 men’s freestyle

  • Drew Bennett, 65-kg
  • Cobe Siebrecht, 70-kg
  • Bretli Reyna, 70-kg
  • Joe Kelly, 74-kg
  • Patrick Kennedy, 74-kg
  • Brennan Swafford, 79-kg
  • Abe Assad, 86-kg
  • Tony Cassioppi, 125-kg

Some are known commodities — like Tony Cassioppi, a U23 men’s freestyle world champ and two-time NCAA heavyweight All-American, and Abe Assad, a two-time NCAA qualifier and Iowa’s regular starter at 184.

Others are relatively new, but Brands said they’ll be well-known soon enough.

Patrick Kennedy, for example, nearly started at 165 this past season. He and Alex Marinelli met in the finals of the Luther Open last November in what Brands said was a wrestle-off. Marinelli won 3-2, then went on to take fifth at the NCAA Championships. Kennedy redshirted and went 17-3 at open tournaments.

“The thing about Kennedy that impressed me is that he stayed ready,” Brands said. “He’s proven himself in the international style. He’s proven himself in the collegiate style. He’s a handful for his opponents.

“He just needs to continue to get better and be relaxed and be able to execute in high-stress situations that are maybe tight and make you maybe wrestle where the stakes are really high. Wrestle at a high level. We’ve talked about it a lot. He embraces challenge. This weekend is another opportunity to prove that.”

Patrick Kennedy, a freshman for the Iowa wrestling team, took sixth at the 2022 Southern Scuffle last weekend in Tennessee.

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Kennedy is slated to be the guy at 165 for Iowa next year. He will enter into an Iowa lineup that is expected to return three-time national champ Spencer Lee; Jacob Warner, Cassioppi and Woods, all All-Americans; as well as Murin, Assad and Nelson Brands, who are all NCAA qualifiers.

The spot at 157, at least right now, remains up for grabs. But future contenders for that spot will be competing this weekend, too. Brands mentioned both Bretli Reyna and Caleb Rathjen as guys who might vie for that spot next season.

“Our evaluation is ongoing,” Brands said. “Those two guys are going to factor into our lineup, for sure. Rathjen is more of a pure 149-pounder, but with Murin coming back, we’re going to need a 157-pounder. Reyna is more of a natural 157-pounder.

“This doesn’t have any more or any less significance on who’s going to be in our lineup in November, December and into March 2023. But this is an opportunity to display your skills and serve notice to the rest of the world that you’re for real.”

Iowa's Bretli Reyna, left, wrestles Caleb Rathjen during a NCAA Hawkeyes men's wrestling intrasquad match, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, at the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

As many as four incoming recruits will also compete this weekend. Here’s that list, as of Tuesday afternoon, per USA Wrestling:

U20 men’s freestyle

  • Nate Jesuroga, 57-kg
  • Aiden Riggins, 74-kg
  • Kolby Franklin, 92-kg
  • Ben Kueter, 97-kg

Aiden Riggins and Kolby Franklin both signed as part of Iowa’s 2022 recruiting class and are both considered top-50 pound-for-pound prospects by MatScouts. Nate Jesuroga and Ben Kueter are both committed as part of Iowa’s 2023 class, are both considered top-10 overall prospects in the upcoming senior class, per MatScouts.

“When you have an opportunity, seize the moment,” Brands said. “We want to see fight and attitude, and we want to see you wrestle your best in high-pressure situations. Be cool like a cucumber when it is high-stress.”

Iowa City High's Ben Kueter gets ready before wrestling at 220 pounds during the Dan Gable Donnybrook high school wrestling tournament, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

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'Nothing has changed' on timeline for new Iowa wrestling facility

Iowa announced in February that construction on the wrestling program’s new 38,500-square foot training center would begin in June. Brands said Tuesday the plan is still full-steam ahead even after a small pre-construction hiccup.

“We just have to raise a little bit more money,” Brands said. “Nothing has changed, as far as timeline, that I know of. I know we have to go back to the (Iowa) Board of Regents, but these are things where, you know, sometimes you have to do it.”

The Iowa Board of Regents gave the thumbs up to proceed with construction back in February. The facility will be built on the south side of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with a tunnel connecting the two buildings.

The Iowa wrestling program launched its Carver Circle campaign to help fund the $26.5 million facility. In February, Brands said the campaign, made up entirely by donations, friends and alumni, had surpassed $25 million from 225 donors.

Brands said Tuesday that support for the new facility hadn’t waned.

“We got all the information together, we sent it out for bid, the bid came in high, but there’s no hesitation, we’re going forward,” Brands said. “There’s things you don’t plan for, but you just keep moving forward.

“There’s some contingencies put in there and things I don’t understand. We’ve got some great support on this side of the river and on the other side of the river. Just as important as that, we have great donors that have stepped up.”

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All-American Real Woods is 'essential' for Hawkeye wrestling lineup

In early April, Iowa picked up a massive recruiting victory when Real Woods, an All-American from Stanford, announced his plans to transfer to the Hawkeyes.

Brands said Tuesday that Woods’ addition to the program was “essential.” He fills the 141-pound spot previously held by NCAA finalist Jaydin Eierman. Woods is a two-time Pac-12 champ, has two years of eligibility remaining, and gives Iowa four returning NCAA All-Americans for the '22-23 season, along with Lee, Warner and Cassioppi.

“We’re fired up to have him,” Brands said. “He was on campus on an official visit a few weeks ago and got the lay of the land a little bit. I think no matter what you know or what you think you know about the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling community, it always surprises you when it’s your first time in the environment.

“I think he was shocked at how the public is educated. Everybody in town knows what’s going on. Our fans know what’s going on. Our fans pay attention. They’re excited. They’re excited about additions. They’re junkies, and we love it.”

Shortly after his commitment, Woods went on The Bader Show, a daily Flowrestling radio show, and, among other things, expanded on his decision to commit to Iowa over Michigan, Penn State and others. He said Brands’ urgency ultimately won him over.

“What really sold me was the opportunity to compete somewhere like Iowa,” Woods said on The Bader Show. “Competing in a home dual in front of 15,000 fans, what more could you want as a competitor? Especially as a wrestler.

“I really, really think I can thrive in that environment. I want to put on a show, and I really think that I can do that at Iowa … it was almost a no-brainer for me.”

Real Woods, an All-American wrestler for Stanford, announced that he's transferring to Iowa on Saturday.

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Max Murin returning to Iowa wrestling for 2022-23

A couple of weeks after Woods announced his plans to transfer, Max Murin announced that he would officially be taking his COVID relief year offered up by the NCAA and return to the Iowa wrestling program for the 2022-23 season.

Murin is a three-time NCAA qualifier who has reached the round-of-12, or bloodround, at each of his three NCAA Championships. He has compiled a career record of 53-23, and finished third at last season’s Big Ten Championships.

“I am not ready to be done quite yet and have goals I still want to accomplish,” Murin wrote in an announcement on his personal social media accounts. “Sixth year here we come!”

Brands said Tuesday it wasn’t a hard conversation with Murin when it came to deciding to return.

“I think the conversation was more between him and him,” Brands said. “He is an emotional guy, and he was really, really tore up after the national tournament. Everybody takes losing hard, but he takes it especially hard.

“In this situation, it took a little bit more time for him to come to grips with — you know, you’re pretty damn tough, give yourself some credit here, and let’s move on. But let’s not keep having the same result. It’s time to purge some demons.”

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