'The sting is always there': Spencer Lee loses, Iowa 2nd with 6 All-Americans at NCAA Wrestling
TULSA, Okla. — Spencer Lee lost. That was the story on Friday night at the NCAA Championships, where so many things happened. But Spencer Lee lost in the very first match of the evening, and that fact hung like a cloud over the rest of an eventful night.
Considering all that happened in Session 4, it speaks to the magnitude of Lee’s loss, to Purdue’s Matt Ramos, in a stunning late third-period pin, that most everything else seemed secondary. At least that’s how Iowa coach Tom Brands viewed it afterward.
“This is really hard,” Brands said after Session 4 wrapped up Friday night. “I’m not going to sit here and analyze something, to me, that’s tragic right now.”
MORE:Purdue's Matt Ramos stuns Iowa's Spencer Lee in semifinals at NCAA Championships
So much happened on Friday night here at the BOK Center. Lee’s loss, which stopped him from becoming Iowa’s first four-time NCAA champion, is the leading note, but there’s this too: The Hawkeyes responded by winning seven consecutive matches.
Yes, Iowa put together its best round at the most important time of this week’s national tournament, solidifying its spot in second place overall, behind only mighty Penn State. The Hawkeyes totaled 77 team points and will finish the week with six All-Americans.
After Lee lost, Real Woods responded by blowing away Nebraska’s Brock Hardy 11-1 to reach the finals at 141 pounds. Max Murin (149), Nelson Brands (174), and Jacob Warner (197) combined to go 6-0 in the wrestlebacks, earning spots on the podium, then climbing into the top six. Each of them can finish as high as third on Saturday.
Lee and Tony Cassioppi, who lost his semifinal match 16-1 to Michigan’s Mason Parris, will join them in the consolations, where the Hawkeyes can wrap up a runner-up team finish on Saturday morning.
It will take divine intervention for Iowa to catch Penn State, in first with 116.5 points thanks to five finalists and eight All-Americans. But this week was always going to be a battle for second place, barring something catastrophic. Iowa can max out at 125.5. The Nittany Lions will mathematically clinch on Saturday morning.
But the Hawkeyes distanced themselves from Cornell (3rd place, 64 points) and Ohio State (4th, 62). After going 6-6 in Friday’s first session — 3-2 in the quarterfinals and 3-4 in the wrestlebacks — they went 7-2 on Friday night.
Murin, in his fourth trip to the bloodround, eked out a 3-2 win over Michigan’s Chance Lamer, becoming an All-American for the first time in his career. He then scored a takedown in sudden victory for a 3-1 win over Minnesota’s Michael Blockhus to advance into the top six. He remains alive for third on Saturday.
After a quarterfinal loss, Nelson Brands, in his second trip to the national tournament, beat Illinois’ Ed Ruth 4-1, then topped Missouri’s Peyton Mocco, 6-1. He, too, can finish as high as third on Saturday.
Warner won four matches on Friday, capped by a critical 4-2 win over Cornell’s Jacob Cardenas, effectively sealing a second-place team finish for Iowa and capping his own sensational career as a four-time All-American. Like Murin and Nelson, he can also finish as high as third.
“Sometimes it’s easy to fold up your tent when your leader goes down,” Tom Brands said, “but these guys are principled and awesome. Doesn’t take the sting away though. The sting is always there. There’s just so many things going on.
“You have to look at Real Woods. Got a win. Did it for Spencer. We won six matches in a row on the backside. Did it for Spencer.”
Lee’s loss will be the memory from Friday night’s action. Fair or not, it may ultimately be the memory of the entire tournament — a potential four-timer and one of the most dominant wrestlers in Iowa’s storied history losing before reaching the finals.
That fact will take time to digest, even through Saturday morning’s medal rounds and Saturday night’s finals. There is no easy way forward from a result like that.
“The cliché, easy thing to say is that he’s got to move on,” Brands continued. “It’s hard, but you still have to move on. As easy as that is to say, that’s really the next step in all of this. It seems cruel to say that. The magnitude of it is high.”
David Carr, Marcus Coleman lead Cyclone wrestlers
Forty years ago, Nate Carr beat Kenny Monday in the 1983 NCAA finals in Oklahoma City. It was Carr’s third national title — and the second in which he beat Monday in the finals.
On Friday night, Nate’s son, David, Iowa State’s star 165-pounder, beat Kenny’s son, Quincy, Princeton’s star 165-pounder, in the 2023 NCAA semifinals in Tulsa, in a fun bit of historical symmetry.
David Carr’s 6-5 win over Quincy Monday pushed him into the NCAA finals for the second time in three years. He will wrestle Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole, a returning NCAA champion, for the third time in the last six weeks, this time for a national title.
Carr is one of two All-Americans for the Cyclones, who will enter Saturday in eighth place overall with 44 points. Iowa State wrestled well through Friday’s first session, but limped to a 1-3 mark in the bloodround. Marcus Coleman was the only winner, at 184 pounds. He is now a two-time All-American and can still finish as high as third.
But Carr was the star of Iowa State’s show again, knocking off Monday, a returning NCAA finalist, and Stanford’s Shane Griffith, a two-time finalist and the 2021 NCAA champ. How’s this for full-circle? When Nate Carr won his NCAA title in 1983, he also beat a two-time finalist and national champ in Jim Heffernan of Iowa on his way to first.
David Carr will now get a crack at his second title on Saturday night, against an opponent he’s already beaten twice this season. He beat O’Toole 7-2 in February, then pinned him in overtime in the Big 12 finals two weeks ago.
Parker Keckeisen authoring all-time great UNI career
Parker Keckeisen is Northern Iowa’s only All-American this year. He is an All-American for the third time in his career and punched his ticket to the NCAA finals for the first time after his 5-1 semifinal win over Oregon State’s Trey Munoz on Friday night.
In doing so, Keckeisen is the Panthers’ first NCAA finalist since Drew Foster won an NCAA title in 2019. He is also the 14th three-time All-American in program history, and first since Sean Stender finished on the podium in 2003-05.
Additionally, the Hawkeyes, Cyclones and Panthers all have an NCAA finalist in the same year for the first time since 2005, when Stender, Iowa State’s Nate Gallick, and the Iowa duo of Joe Johnston and Mark Perry all reached the finals.
But Keckeisen is also authoring an all-time Northern Iowa career.
In addition to becoming just the Panthers’ 14th three-time All-American — he could become a five-timer; he has two years of eligibility left — Keckeisen ran his career record to 74-4, a 94.9 winning percentage. That would be the best in program history among those at least 50 wins. (Joe Colon is the current leader, at 62-6, or 91.2%.)
There have been Panther wrestlers who have won more than Keckeisen, too. Bill Koll, for example, won three titles, from 1946-48. So did Keith Young, from 1949-51. So did Bill Nelson, in 1947 then twice more in 1949-50. An injury in 1947 kept him from likely being the first four-time Division I NCAA champ (though, after seeing what happened to Lee on Friday, who really knows?).
So it may not be fair to say Keckeisen is the best Northern Iowa wrestler of all-time, but he is making a strong case as one of the best ever, and certaintly the best under head coach Doug Schwab (though Foster will always be Schwab’s first NCAA champ). At the very least, an all-time great Panther career is what Keckeisen has done thus far.
Keckeisen could join Foster as a national champ on Saturday night. He’ll face Penn State’s Aaron Brooks, who has handed Keckeisen two of his four career losses — 3-2 last season, and 6-4 in the 2021 NCAA semifinals. Brooks also beat Keckeisen at the NWCA All-Star Classic in November.
Keckeisen could very well be on his way to becoming one of Northern Iowa’s best ever. Winning a national title over a two-time NCAA champ, might cement his spot on that list, even with two years still left in his college career.
South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan reaches NCAA finals
Tanner Sloan, from tiny Alburnett, Iowa (population 672), nearly chose Division III Coe College in Cedar Rapids. Instead, he went to South Dakota State, and come Saturday night, Sloan will wrestle for a Division I national title.
Sloan, the 7-seed at 197 pounds this week, ran the gauntlet to reach the finals. On Thursday, he beat a returning All-American in round one, then beat a U23 world silver medalist in round two. On Friday, Sloan beat Cal Poly’s Bernie Truax, the 2-seed, in the quarterfinals, then took out Missouri’s Rocky Elam, the 3-seed, in the semifinals.
On Saturday, Sloan will face Pittsburgh’s top-seeded Nino Bonaccorsi, a past NCAA finalist. Sloan was one of two Iowa natives who wrestle for out-of-state programs to become All-Americans this week. He was joined by Minnesota’s Michael Blockhus, from New Hampton/Crestwood, who earned a podium spot at 149 pounds.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.