21 things we learned from Iowa wrestling’s team title performance at the Soldier Salute

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

CORALVILLE — Normally, the Iowa wrestling team is at the Midlands Championships in late December. The Hawkeyes’ participation in the annual Chicagoland competition dates all the way back to the 1960s, a run that includes 29 total team titles.

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Midlands returned to NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill. — but for the first time since 1989, Iowa was not there, opting instead to compete at the inaugural Soldier Salute at Xtream Arena this week.

This two-day tournament was created by the Iowa City Area Sports Commission to honor former, current and future service members. It included men’s and women’s divisions, and all proceeds went to both the United Service Organizations and a fund dedicated to the continued growth of high school girls wrestling.

Trophies for place winners are seen during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

In all, 222 wrestlers from 16 different schools and clubs competed in the first running, headlined by Army West Point, Navy, The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, as well as Wyoming, Columbia, and, of course, the second-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes.

“The pageantry of it is great,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said Friday night after the finals. “Great first year. We want to be part of it. Keep coming back.”

The hometown squad ran away with the team title, totaling 228 points to beat Army (106) and Wyoming (99.5). Eight Hawkeye wrestlers won titles, 11 made the finals, and 16 finished fifth or better. It was a largely-expected masterclass in domination.

RELATED:22 memorable Iowa wrestling stories from 2022

Here are some things we learned from the Hawkeyes in their first multi-day tournament of the 2022-23 season:

1. Need to start with this quote from Brands, who was asked after the tournament ended on Friday night what the military means to him:

“The military means everything to me. I’m a patriot. When you call yourself a patriot and describe things like red, white, and blue, United States of America, honor, things of that nature — we civilians don’t hold a candle to the military. I’ve always felt that way.

“I think if I went to combat, I would poop my pants. What they do to keep this nation strong and safe, hats off to them times a million.”

2. OK, the actual wrestling. As mentioned above, this turned into something of an all-Iowa blowout, both in the team scores and in the final individual results.

3. The eight Iowa champs: Spencer Lee (125), Cullan Schriever (133), Real Woods (141), Max Murin (149), Patrick Kennedy (165), Abe Assad (184), Jacob Warner (197), Tony Cassioppi (285).

4. Of the eight champs, three beat a teammate in the finals: Lee pinned Drake Ayala; Murin beat Caleb Rathjen, 7-4; and Warner beat Kolby Franklin, 10-2.

Iowa's Spencer Lee won the 125 weight class at the inagural Solider Salute in Coralville this week.

5. Lee went 4-0, all bonus-point wins, and generally looked pretty good. The last time he wrestled was the Cy-Hawk dual, where he gassed hard after an explosive first period in a 16-5 major decision over Corey Cabanban. This week, he went 54-second pin, 19-1 technical fall, 16-5 major and then an 84-second pin to win.

6. His last two matches were perhaps the most impressive. In the semifinals, Lee won 16-5 over Wyoming’s Jore Volk, a Junior world champ this past summer. Lee led 14-1 in the second period, and while his gas tank got to him late, he still wrestled hard all the way through.

7. In the finals, Lee pinned Ayala in the first period. A quick takedown and tilt gave him a 6-0 lead in less than a minute, then off a restart, Lee horsed Ayala to his back for the fall. It was a stunning result — but also a reminder of how good Lee truly is.

8. Ayala had a great tournament outside of the finals loss to Lee. He outscored his first two opponents 43-14, then scored two takedowns in a 5-2 win over Army’s 22nd-ranked Ethan Berginc in the semifinals. Even in a redshirt year, Ayala is a force.

Iowa's Drake Ayala, left, wrestles Trever Anderson at 125 pounds during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

MORE:Iowa women’s wrestling wins three titles in second team performance at Soldier Salute

9. Murin is now 10-1 overall with seven bonus wins after going 5-0 this week. Two pins and a 20-4 technical fall put him in the semifinals, then he beat two teammates: 8-3 over Joel Jesuroga in the semifinals and 7-4 over Rathjen in the finals. Murin scored 14 takedowns, allowed none and outscored his opponents 51-13. Pretty good.

10. Speaking of pretty good, Rathjen looks pretty good at 149. He began the year in a lineup battle at 157, but in his season debut at 149, Rathjen went 3-1 and took second, a run highlighted by a 4-3 semifinal win over Anthony Echemendia. Rathjen scored a takedown with 29 seconds left in the third and rode Echemendia out to win the match.

11. Warner cruised to a 10-2 major over Franklin, scoring three takedowns, plus some third-period nearfall for bonus. Warner finished 4-0 with a pin, a technical fall, and that finals major over Franklin, a true freshman.

12. The only close match Warner had all day was his 4-1 semifinal win over Northern Iowa’s Wyatt Voelker, another true freshman. Warner scored a takedown in the first, then piled up more than three minutes of riding time to beat Voelker, who was stingy on his feet but struggled to finish his offensive opportunities.

13. It will be interesting to see how Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab uses Voelker moving forward. He’s now 14-2, his two losses coming to Warner and Iowa’s Zach Glazier in the third-place match. Voelker has two more eligible dates to use while still maintaining his redshirt status. He may start in a couple of duals next semester.

UNI's Wyatt Voelker, right, wrestles Iowa's Jacob Warner at 197 pounds during the Soldier Salute.

14. Franklin beat Glazier in the opposite semifinal. Franklin scored a second-period takedown and rode Glazier out on his way to a 4-3 win. That came after Franklin beat South Dakota State’s Nick Casperson, 6-4 in sudden victory, in the quarterfinals. Some gritty performances from the young guy.

15. Speaking of gritty performances, Patrick Kennedy had to win a couple of hard-fought matches Friday — a 9-6 rally over Wyoming’s Cole Moody in the semifinals, then a 10-5 finals win over South Dakota State’s Jack Thomsen — after breezing through his first two matches Thursday — two pins in a combined 109 seconds.

16. One more gritty performance: Abe Assad’s final two matches in his first-place performance at 184. After recording a major and a pin Thursday, Assad muscled out a 9-6 semifinal win over Roman Rogotzke, then a 6-4 overtime win over Bennett Berge, a Junior world silver medalist this past summer — all with a limp in his right knee.

17. Assad’s overtime win over Berge came thanks to a patient, methodical finish in the final seconds of sudden victory. He shot in with about 17 seconds left, sat out, hooked Berge’s left leg, then covered for the takedown 10 seconds later. It was nice to see after he struggled to finish some of his shots throughout the first two months of the sesaon.

18. Tony Cassioppi went 4-0 with four pins in a combined 7:38. Big Cass is now 11-0 with nine pins this season, all of which have come in the first period. He’s also up to 24 pins for his career. 

19. Real Woods has been equally as dominant this season. He’s now 6-0 with five bonus wins. He went 4-0 to win the Salute with two technical falls, a major decision, and a finals pin. He outscored his four opponents by a combined mark of 47-2.

20. Cullan Schriever strung together a four tough wins en route to first at 133. He scored 10 takedowns, allowed one and won two of his matches by scores of 4-2 and 8-4. It was a nice response after dropping his last three matches earlier this month, including two by identical 3-1 scores.

21. Mason City grads took two of the top four spots at 133. Behind Schriever, Jace Rhodes went 4-2 for fourth. Both losses came to Navy’s Brendan Ferretti: 9-6 in the quarterfinals and 6-4 for third place. Rhodes rallied with three straight wins in the wrestlebacks, icing each one with a takedown in the third period or overtime.

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi, left, poses for a photo after scoring a fall at 285 pounds in the finals of the Soldier Salute tournament Friday at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

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