Wrestling Mailbag: Fun facts on Spencer Lee and our NCAA Wrestling Championships preview

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

TULSA, Okla. — You read that right. We're filing today's Wrestling Mailbag from the Oil Capital of the World.

To start, here are some fun facts about Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee — some you may already know, along with others you may not:

Entering this week's NCAA Championships, which begin here Thursday, Spencer is 95-5 overall in his Iowa career, which includes 34 falls, 32 technical falls, and 15 major decisions, giving him 81 total bonus-point wins. Of that count, he's recorded 28 first-period falls — 11 in under a minute — and 10 first-period technical falls.

He's won 55 matches in a row dating back to the 2019 NCAA Championships, which is the eighth-longest win streak in program history. Only six Hawkeye wrestlers have ever won 60-plus matches in a row: Jim Zalesky (89), Troy Steiner (74), Tom Brands (69), Brent Metcalf (69), Mark Ironside (67), and T.J. Williams (67).

Iowa's Spencer Lee, center, is introduced before wrestling at 125 pounds as Iowa head coach Tom Brands, right, looks on during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's wrestling dual against Illinois, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

During this current 55-match win streak, Spencer has outscored his opponents by a staggering 648-73. This season, Spencer is 17-0 with 15 bonus-point wins: 8 pins, 4 technical falls, 3 major decisions.

Spencer is 15-0 in three NCAA tournament appearances, during which he's recorded 3 pins, 4 technical falls, 4 major decisions. He's outscored those 15 opponents 176-21.

In Spencer's 95 career wins, he's recorded 31 wins over All-Americans — including two guys who won titles, Nathan Tomasello and Nick Suriano — and another 43 wins over NCAA qualifiers. (That's 74 combined wins over guys who have made it to the biggest, baddest, toughest wrestling tournament in the world.)

Spencer has only been taken down 30 times, total, in his college career by just 15 different people. Sebastian Rivera was the most successful, taking down Spencer seven times in four career meetings (they split, 2-2). Nick Piccininni took Spencer down four times and Tomasello took him down three times. Ronnie Bresser is the only wrestler to post a winning record against Spencer during his college career, winning their only meeting in 2017.

Spencer has only been taken down just five times in 15 NCAA tournament matches. Tomasello took him down in 2018, Sean Russell took him down once in 2019, and both Killian Cardinale (twice) and Devin Schroder took him down in 2021 … when Spencer was wrestling with no ACLs.

In all, Spencer has scored 76 total team points in three NCAA tournament appearances — 27 in 2018, then 24.5 in both 2019 and 2021. Only three wrestlers have scored a combined 100 team points across four NCAA tournaments: Cael Sanderson (107.5), Logan Stieber (103.5), and Ed Banach (102.5).

That's the end of my notebook … for now.

MORE:How to watch and follow Iowa, Iowa State and UNI wrestling at the 2023 NCAA Championships

OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag. As I do every year, I went on the record with my NCAA picks on Monday. Here's hoping these 10 guys make me look smart.

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.

Can Max Murin finally break through and become an All-American?

I like Spencer’s odds. But his path will be interesting, at least to me. 

He could potentially face Michigan’s Jack Medley in the second round, Wisconsin’s Eric Barnett in the quarters, Purdue’s Matt Ramos in the semifinals, and Princeton’s Pat Glory in the finals. There are a few guys there who have had success slowing Spencer down, like Medley, and others who have scored on him, like Barnett and Ramos. We’ll see what happens.

Earlier this week, I talked myself into believing that Glory, the 2-seed, has a treacherous road to the final, against possibly Oregon State’s Brandon Kaylor or Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney in the quarters and then possibly Nebraska’s Liam Cronin in the semifinals. 

Anyways, Tanner, like all of us, is also hoping Max Murin finally breaks through the bloodround barrier at the NCAA Championships, something he hasn’t done in his three previous trips. 

It won’t be easy, but the version of Max Murin we’ve seen this season is plenty capable. He’s 21-4 with 4 pins, 4 technical falls, 2 major decisions. He’s also notched seven wins over guys who have qualified for this week. 

After the new bracket for 149 pounds was released Monday night (App State’s Jon Millner, who beat Murin in the bloodround last year and was the 9-seed this year, pulled out due to an illness), here’s what Murin’s path could look like:

  • first round: SIUE’s Caleb Tyus
  • win, then, in round two: likely Stanford’s Jaden Abas, who beat Murin in the bloodround in 2021
  • win, then, in the quarterfinals: Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis, a three-time NCAA champ

That’s a tough assignment, so that likely sends Murin back to the bloodround, against possibly, Penn’s Doug Zapf, Missouri’s Brock Mauller, or Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez.

Let’s say Murin loses to Abas. Then the road likely looks like:

  • CMU’s Nate Higley, Oklahoma State’s Victor Voinovich, or Minnesota’s Michael Blockhus
  • win there, then: Rider’s Quinn Kinner, N.C. State’s Jackson Arrington, Oklahoma’s Mitch Moore, or UNI’s Colin Realbuto
  • win there, then to the bloodround … against either Zapf, Mauller, Gomez, or even Arizona State’s Kyle Parco

No easy path! 

Should he get that far, Murin will be up against some history, too. There have been 13 wrestlers who have reached the bloodround, or Round-of-12, three times and not place (since at least 1979). Murin and Pittsburgh’s Micky Phillippi are two of them. Nobody has ever reached the bloodround four times and not become an All-American. 

From that angle, history bodes well for Murin (and Phillippi, too), but, as we can see based on the bracket, it won’t be easy. Murin will need to bring his best to punch through. We’ll see. 

From Last Year:How a speech impediment shaped Max Murin into the confident wrestler you see today

Iowa's Spencer Lee, left, Jacob Warner, center, and Max Murin embrace as they are acknowledged on senior day after a NCAA college men's wrestling dual against Oklahoma State, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Which Iowa wrestler can make a run to the NCAA wrestling finals?

Initial thought when Jay’s question landed was Jacob Warner, because he made the finals last year as a 6-seed and 197 is such a clusterbleep of a weight that literally anything can happen and it wouldn’t shock me in the least if he did it again.

To do that, Warner would have to beat, assuming the seeds hold: Michigan State’s Cam Caffey, Missouri’s Rocky Elam, NC State’s Isaac Trumble, and Cal Poly’s Bernie Truax. That’s not an easy road, but you can at least picture it.

Here’s a quick run through the others:

  • 133: Brody Teske — Illinois’s Lucas Byrd, Penn’s Michael Colaiocco, then Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix … tough road
  • 149: Max Murin — SIUE’s Caleb Tyus, Stanford’s Jaden Abas, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis … another tough road
  • 157: Cobe Siebrecht — Wisconsin’s Garrett Model, Nebraska’s Peyton Robb … might need some big moves
  • 165: Patrick Kennedy — App State’s Will Formato, Michigan’s Cam Amine, Wisconsin’s Dean Hamiti … if you can navigate that, Keegan O’Toole is likely waiting in the semifinals 
  • 174: Nelson Brands — NC State’s Alex Faison, Ohio State’s Ethan Smith … win those, it’ll likely be Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis first thing Friday morning
  • 184: Abe Assad — Buffalo’s Giuseppe Hoose, Iowa State’s Marcus Coleman … win those, it’s likely Oregon State’s Trey Munoz in the quarters and UNI’s Parker Keckeisen in the semifinals 
  • 285: Tony Cassioppi — Maryland’s Jaron Smith, UNI’s Tyrell Gordon, Arizona State’s Cohlton Schultz, Michigan’s Mason Parris … if the best version of Cassioppi shows up, maybe

Think I’m still rolling with Warner, to answer your question, but Cassioppi wouldn’t be far behind it I power-ranked them. If Assad was healthier, I like where he’s sitting, too. Not saying he can’t, but we’ll see where he’s at Thursday morning then re-evaluate. 

MORE:Breaking down 2023 NCAA wrestling brackets for Iowa, Iowa St., UNI wrestlers

Iowa's Jacob Warner waves to fans as he is acknowledged on senior day after a NCAA college men's wrestling dual against Oklahoma State, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Over-unders for the Iowa Hawkeyes at NCAA Wrestling Championships

Let’s go one-by-one:

  • O/U 1.5 Iowa champs — I picked both Spencer and Real to win, so I feel inclined to take the over. 
  • O/U 3.5 top 4 placers for Iowa — I’ll take the over again. If they hold their seeds, Spencer, Real, Cassioppi all hit the top-four. Think someone will surprise and punch above their seed and get to the third-place match. 
  • O/U 5.5 All-Americans for Iowa — Mmmm. Over. There’s a path for six, for sure (I guess I believe in Warner more than most), and possibly more if guys like Nelson and Abe bring their A-games. 
  • Penn State –40.5 — Man, 40.5 is a lot. Nittany Lions won last year by 36.5 and are projected to win this year by 22.5, before bonus points. Not sure they’ll cover 40.5, but they could definitely win by 30-plus and it wouldn’t surprise me. 

(I am not a betting man, by the way, nor do I encourage sports gambling. But I also won’t tell you what to do with your money if you don’t tell me what to do with mine.) 

Iowa head coach Tom Brands, right, looks up into the crowd while being interviewed during the fifth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 19, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

Unfiltered access to one NCAA wrestling program

From the DMs, via jrod65: You're given unlimited access to one team for NCAAs. Think unfiltered video, mic'd up coaches, wrestler interviews, etc. Who you choosing? Oh, and it can't be an Iowa school.

The easy answer is Penn State. Right?

They’re the returning champs. They’re the team to beat. Cael Sanderson has turned that program into a juggernaut that all others will continue to chase until, well, who knows? 

They have some interesting personalities on the team that I would love to know more about — guys like Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks, Levi Haines, Greg Kerkvliet, Beau Bartlett, on and on. Seeing how Cael and Casey Cunningham and Cody Sanderson and their support staff operates between matches, sessions, days, and what they say, how they prepare, things like that, it would all be incredibly insightful. 

I purposefully left out Roman Bravo-Young because he’s one of the few Penn State wrestlers who has openly shared his story. Gina Perry wrote a fantastic story on RBY for InterMat a couple years ago. FloWrestling followed with a sensational documentary on RBY and his upbringing in Arizona and how that shaped him into the person and athlete he is today. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to watch it before Thursday’s first round. 

But that’s largely why, if given the opportunity, I would embed myself with Penn State for the week. I don’t really know any of their guys’ stories. I don’t really know who they are as people. I’ve seen hints over the years, and have had small interactions with a few of them myself, so I have a small idea of who they are and what they’re about, but I’d love to know more. 

Part of why I got into this job at all was to share stories about people and the things they go through to get to where they want to go and do the things they want to do. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to share some insanely cool stories about a lot of high-profile wrestlers. It is an honor to get that behind-the-curtain look at what makes people tick and to be trusted to share their stories. 

Obviously it would be fun to get an up-close look at Penn State’s process and how they approach and navigate a three-day event as big and as grueling as the NCAA Championships, but it’d be far more fun for me to get to know the people that make up the team and the program. 

From 2019:How Penn State wrestling became the most dominant dynasty in college sports

Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson watches during a practice session before the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich.

How can Parker Keckeisen beat Aaron Brooks?

Well, for starters, I would dial back on the aggressiveness. It’s not in Parker Keckeisen’s nature to go anything less than 100 miles per hour, but back in November, at the NWCA All-Star Classic, Brooks beat him 12-8 and scored at least twice off re-shots. He’ll have to be a little more tactical. 

In the few losses that Brooks has taken, it’s been a mixed bag of results. In the Big Ten finals last year, Michigan’s Myles Amine kept it close in the third period, then scored a quick low-ankle shot in the third period to force overtime, then another in sudden victory to win 6-4. So, maybe low-ankle shots?

In December, at the Collegiate Wrestling Duals in New Orleans, Iowa State’s Marcus Coleman used a big move to put Brooks on his back in the second period in what eventually became a 9-7 win. So, maybe catch him by surprise?

The other thing that stood out about the NWCA match in November is that Keckeisen, for the first time I can really recall, didn’t win the hand fight. He is normally a bruiser, with mean collar-ties and quick setups. In the rare instances where he doesn’t score a ton of points, he almost always beats up his opponents and uses his strong gas tank to wear on his opponents. 

He didn’t do any of that against Brooks, who controlled ties, used stingy head-and-hands defense, and was generally always a step ahead of Keckeisen. Brooks scored five takedowns. Keckeisen didn’t even sniff Brooks’ legs until the final 10 seconds of the match. 

All of this to say — there’s not like a consistent gameplan that’s worked on Brooks. He is relentless with his ties and exceptional when it comes to chain wrestling, going from shooting to defending to re-shooting to winning scrambles. He generates a lot of his offense out of an underhook, but also has an array of finishes out of a low-level shot entry. He’s just fast and strong and long and a matchup nightmare for virtually everybody. 

I’ll be curious, first, if that’s the finals match (Keckeisen will have to likely beat either Isaiah Salazar or Matt Finesilver, then either Marcus Coleman or Trey Munoz to get there; Brooks will likely have to deal with Kaleb Romero and Trent Hidlay), and two, what the first period looks like in a rematch.

Brooks pretty well picked Keckeisen apart in November. What Keckeisen learned from that will go a long ways in shaping the potential Saturday night rematch.

From November:Iowa State's David Carr renews old family wrestling rivalry at NWCA All-Star Classic

Northern Iowa's Parker Keckeisen, right, wrestled Penn State's Aaron Brooks at the 2022 NWCA All-Star Classic on Tuesday at the FloSports Event Center in Austin, Texas. Brooks won, 12-8.

Sleeper picks for the NCAA wrestling tournament

I’m presuming that we’re talking non-Iowa, Iowa St., or UNI guys here. At least that’s how I’m going to answer the question.

I’ll give you one guy at each weight:

  • 125: Braxton Brown, Maryland — hard-nosed dude who has proved all season that he belongs with the top class at this weight.
  • 133: Dylan Ragusin, Michigan — even at a sneaky deep weight, there are podium spots available, and Ragusin has shown that he’s capable of stringing wins together in a tournament setting.
  • 141: Lachlan McNeil, North Carolina — dude just won a Canadian freestyle national title and I’m mostly picking him because this would be a cool story. 
  • 149: Michael Blockhus, Minnesota — looked fantastic at the Big Ten Championships, and it would be a cool thing for the state of Iowa. 
  • 157: Kendall Coleman, Purdue — maybe not a huge surprise to those who have seen him at his best, but he’s the 12-seed this week, so why not?
  • 165: Wyatt Sheets, Oklahoma State — people probably forget that, at maybe the most stacked weight in the tournament, Sheets, the 31-seed, is a past All-American. 
  • 174: Cade DeVos, South Dakota St. — is it cheating if I pick two Iowa natives as guys to watch? 
  • 184: Lenny Pinto, Nebraska — wouldn’t surprise me to see Pinto, the 13-seed, make a deep run on the front side. He’s dangerous. 
  • 197: Braxton Amos, Wisconsin — could be time for his breakout tournament, collegiately at least, and given how crazy this weight is, why not now?
  • 285: Hayden Copass, Purdue — maybe a long shot, as the 30-seed, and he probably isn’t winning his first-round match (against Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet), but he could sneak a few out in the wrestlebacks. 
Minnesota's Michael Blockhus, a New Hampton graduate and former Northern Iowa wrestler, celebrates a quarterfinal win at the 2023 Big Ten Championships at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Can Daton Fix beat Roman Bravo-Young?

Well, I believe Daton Fix would still has one more year of eligibility left, so if he doesn't win this year, there's always next year, but I'm sure he's sick of hearing that.

This week, I'm grateful for the warm weather here in Oklahoma. It's much better than the winter weather we've gotten in Iowa the past couple of months.

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