Wrestling Mailbag: NCAA tournament recap, Spencer Lee, catching Penn State, ISU, UNI, more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Had a lot of questions regarding Iowa wrestling and the state of the program and whether or not an overhaul is needed if the Hawkeyes want to compete with Penn State moving forward, so let’s just go ahead and knock this one out at the top, because I have some thoughts on this.

Iowa took second at the NCAA Championships last weekend. If you’ve been reading or listening at all this season, that was largely the expectation, at least to me. Others might disagree, but in October, I figured a comfortable and decisive second-place finish at the NCAA Championships would be a successful season.

It was always going to take a monster effort for the Hawkeyes, or anybody, to catch Penn State in a tournament setting. It was possible, sure, but a lot needed to go right.

When the dust settled Saturday, Iowa did take second, but not very comfortably, beating third-place Cornell by 6 points and fourth-place Ohio State by 12. On top of that, the Hawkeyes finished 55 points behind Penn State, team champs for the 10th time in the last 12 NCAA tournaments.

Despite all of that … I thought Iowa wrestled pretty well over the weekend, all things considered.

Iowa Hawkeyes wrestlers walk off the podium with their second place trophy in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

'Toughness and grit':Led by Jacob Warner, Iowa takes 2nd at NCAA Wrestling Championships

The Hawkeyes produced a 31-19 overall record and finished with 6 All-Americans, including two who finished well above their seeds (Nelson Brands took fifth as the 11-seed; Jacob Warner took fifth as the 14). Only Penn State had more All-Americans (8), and only two others, Ohio State and Missouri, had 5.

Iowa could’ve had a better tournament, for sure. Spencer Lee winning his fourth NCAA title would’ve made a lot of people feel a lot better. Real Woods winning on Saturday would’ve helped, too. A seventh All-American would’ve made second-place a little more comfortable.

That’s all fair. There’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness, and nobody should tell you guys how to be a fan, but we could nit-pick like that until next season begins.

Now, should fans be happy with second place? You can be, but you don’t have to be. It’s OK to want more, to hold the team you love to a higher standard. That’s why you’re a fan, why you’re invested, why you spend your time, money, and energy on them.

The state of the program, honestly, is great. The Hawkeyes have won 11 team trophies (top-four team finish) in the last 12 NCAA tournaments. Only Penn State can say the same. The next closest is Oklahoma State, with 7, then Ohio State, with 6. You can be upset with second, but there's no denying that Iowa is always near the top.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again here: only one Iowa wrestling coach has ever been better than Tom Brands, and that guy has a statue outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Only two active head coaches, Cael Sanderson (10) and John Smith (5), have more NCAA team titles than Brands (4). 

Iowa head coach Tom Brands walks off the floor with wrestlers as senior Jacob Warner carries their second place trophy in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

NCAA Wrestling:Iowa's Real Woods falls to Northern Colorado's Andrew Alirez in 141 final

I say all of this to offer some perspective, because that always seems to be lacking in heat-of-the-moment conversations during live events — which is partly the reason I roll call for questions on Monday and wait to write this until Tuesday.

I’m not sure an “overhaul” is the answer here when it comes to catching Penn State, but I don’t think it hurts to consider changing some things. Generally speaking, Iowa has recruited better in recent years. There are talented athletes already in the room and more who will join them soon. We'll see what those guys can do.

There are a number of changes that could help. Adding to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club could be a starting point. Adding elite-level athletes or coaches would bring different styles and perspectives to the room. Look at the talent the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club has accumulated. Obviously that’s helped Penn State.

We've seen Brands and the Iowa staff adjust well enough to take the program back to the top. The 2019-20 and 2021 seasons showcased some of the best wrestling in the program's recent history. That should be evidence enough to believe Brands and Company can do it again.

But the challenge will always be hard, especially now that guys like Spencer Lee and Jacob Warner and Max Murin are out of eligibility. Those talented athletes and recruits already in the room will need to step up. History suggests Brands will have them ready, but time will tell if they'll win big immediately or at all.

I'm not sure where or how to end these opening thoughts, and I'm not sure I've answered all the questions you guys had about the program and Brands and how they can catch Penn State. Personally, I thought second was a good accomplishment, all things considered, but I understand why fans, and the program, want more.

Recruiting:Anthony Ferrari announces commitment to Iowa wrestling program

OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag, the last of the 2022-23 season. Sad face. I would say it's time for a break, but with Iowa already at work re-shaping its roster for the 2023-24 season, we may not be getting one anytime soon. Stay tuned.

Additionally, many of you asked about future lineups. We plan on releasing our look-aheads for Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa this week, which includes looking at guys who are leaving, staying, new additions, incoming recruits, all the good stuff, so keep an eye out for those.

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.

Spencer Lee and his Iowa wrestling legacy

I think Spencer Lee's legacy is secure, at least in my eyes. He's one of the most dynamic and dominant college wrestlers we've ever seen, and may ever see, and the result of a single tournament — even if it's the most important tournament on the college wrestling calendar — doesn't change that. Again, I'm speaking for me.

Spencer finished his career as a three-time NCAA champ, a four-time All-American, a two-time Hodge Trophy winner, with a 98-6 career record and 84 career bonus-point wins. He was named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year three times. He made college wrestling better and more fun.

He did all of this as one of the most-watched and, arguably, most-scrutinized wrestlers ever. Name another wrestler that sent people into a frenzy if they looked at all human. The pressure placed on him before he even got to campus would crush most of us, and even though he didn't win four NCAA titles, I would argue that he still delivered on most all of those sky-high expectations.

His reasons are his own for medically-forfeiting from the NCAA tournament after his loss on Friday night. The program released a statement citing his previous health issues — "It has been a long road of a recovery for Spencer Lee" — which leads us to believe it was a health-related decision, as much as we all wanted to see him wrestle back for third. It could've also been a doctor's decision. That'd be out of Spencer's and Brands' hands.

I haven't talked to Spencer and Brands said he is focused on moving forward. Spencer has dealt with some sort of injury since the summer before his junior year of high school, and has dealt with different kinds/levels of knee injuries since his senior year. He's one of the most competitive human beings I've ever met, but maybe he just needs a break. It might do him some good to step away for a while.

Now, it's fair for people to use the "excuses are for wusses" line against him. I am of the belief that Spencer would've wrestled Saturday night if he had beaten Matt Ramos on Friday. But he also wasn't the only wrestler to medically-forfeit out after a semifinal loss. Oregon State's Trey Munoz, whose injury was clearly visible, did the same after suffering a knee injury against Northern Iowa's Parker Keckeisen at 184 pounds.

All of that to say, remember Spencer's career for all the good moments he gave us — the 90-second technical falls, the cartwheel defenses that ended with pins, the wicked quickness and abnormal strength. He's the best in the world when he's fully healthy, and I'm not sure we ever saw him fully at 100% health during his career, yet he was still able to do plenty of remarkable things.

I hope, at some point, we see that 100% version of him, whether it's this year, next year, or sometime down the line. It was a genuine pleasure getting to watch and write about him. I hope this here Mailbag answer isn't the last time.

MORE:How Terry Brands recruited Spencer Lee to the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling program

Iowa's Spencer Lee, third from right, stands with 125-pounds All-Americans in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Real Woods' NCAA finals match against Andrew Alirez

He did. Real Woods caught Andrew Alirez in a quick tilt for two nearfall — he held him with a tight waist, and then grabbed Alirez's shoulder after he lost the wrist — before Alirez wiggled out and stood up, which led to the throw on the edge that flipped the match. Starts just after the minute mark in the second period. You can watch it here.

It was probably hard to see from the TV angle, but the ref swiped, I think, three times, the first with his left hand, the next two with his right. Then he held the two back points with his right hand during the scramble, so it's probably just not easily visible to viewers. But Woods definitely got two points out of that sequence.

The bigger issue is that he gave up 6 shortly after — two for the reversal, then four for the back points. The ref allowed for reaction time on the edge after Alirez hooked Woods' leg and took him to his back. But Woods should've just not tied up with Alirez at all. He said as much after the match.

"I wanted it so bad that I put myself in an exposed position, and it bit me in the butt," Woods said. He continued: "I feel like I'm focused, calm, and composed. But I need to stay focused in those small moments in the match. Small mistakes like that, it's crazy, they can change a whole result."

I know you asked about a specific sequence in his finals match, but I wanted to also mention how refreshing it was to listen to Woods talk after his loss. We didn't have a long conversation with him, and he was frustrated, of course, but there was a light about him even after coming up short on the biggest stage.

"I'm always proud of myself," Woods said. "I'm never disappointed in myself. Interestingly enough, even after this outcome, I'm still not disappointed in myself. I'm just angry. It hurts, but I'm ready to move forward. That's what life is about. That's what's so beautiful about this sport.

"This is the kind of stuff you're going to deal with in life. You'll have hardships and pain and the fact that you need to move forward and continue to grow."

That perspective stands out. We hear wrestlers talk about how this sport prepares them for life all the time, but very rarely in the immediate moments after a big loss like that. Thought that was super cool.

You can watch the whole video below:

The Real Deal:Real Woods accomplished one dream at Stanford. He wants to accomplish another at Iowa.

North Colorado's Andrew Alirez, right, wrestles Iowa's Real Woods at 141 pounds in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

How can Iowa wrestling catch Penn State?

It has to be both.

You have to recruit better wrestlers, of course — as NCAA champ Adam Tirapelle so eloquently put it in this fascinating Twitter thread: "They aren't turning rocks into gold." — but you also have to help them develop as wrestlers in order for them to live up to that blue-chip billing.

Iowa is recruiting more elite-level prospects who also happen to be great athletes, too — guys like Drake Ayala and Caleb Rathjen and Ben Kueter and Gabe Arnold and Ryder Block and Cody Chittum, on and on. All of those guys bring a different kind of athleticism to their wrestling that'll help them at the Division I level.

From there, it's on Brands and Company to make sure they adjust, technique-wise, so they can flourish on the Division I level. It's one thing to recruit superstars. It's another thing to coach them up to the point that they feel good enough to go perform on the biggest stages. This goes back to what we talked about at the top, that time will tell if these guys can ultimately run down mighty Penn State.

But the answer to your question, Jabroni, is both. You need to recruit at a high-level, but you also need to make sure those guys continue to improve. If you're not constantly learning and evolving and getting better, you'll learn a painful lesson from someone who is.

Someone else asked when Cael Sanderson will catch Dan Gable in terms of NCAA team titles. Gable coached the Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA team titles. Sanderson is currently at 10. He'll pass Gable once he wins his 16th team title, and not a second sooner.

Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson watches during the third session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Friday, March 17, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Final thoughts on Iowa State wrestling's 2022-23 season

I feel two types of ways about Iowa State's performance. They finished with 47 team points, good for 11th overall, with two All-Americans. I think some guys wrestled really well, and others did not. The combination led, overall, to an underwhelming team performance.

First, the good: David Carr (165) reached the NCAA finals and Marcus Coleman (184) became a two-time All-American. Additionally, guys like Zach Redding (133), Casey Swiderski (141), and Jason Kraisser (157) all wrestled really well. Redding and Swiderski both reached the bloodround, and all three scored some bonus points.

But, like Jarrod mentioned, both Yonger Bastida, a returning All-American at 197, and Paniro Johnson, a Big 12 champ and the 5-seed at 149, did not wrestle well. Bastida went 2-2 and Johnson went 1-2. You could argue that Sam Schuyler, the 8-seed at heavyweight, also underperformed, but he was in the bloodround.

Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser was banking on major points out of Bastida and Johnson to lift the whole team performance. Their disappointing finishes are probably more frustrating after seeing Redding, Swiderski, and Kraisser all punch above their seeds.

The margins at the NCAA Championships are razor thin. Consider Iowa State's 1-3 showing in the bloodround. One more win puts Iowa State in the top-10. If all three bloodround losers win, Iowa State jumps from 11th to 7th in the team race. If Johnson wrestles to his seed, that's 10 more points before bonus.

Hindsight is 20/20, and it's never as easy as that math suggests, but that shows you how close Iowa State was to making a serious push this year, but a 1-3 showing in the bloodround is also a reminder of how tough that round, at that tournament, can be sometimes.

On the whole, I believe Iowa State is continuing its upward trajectory. But the window to do so with Carr in the lineup is closing fast. He has just one year of eligibility left. On top of that, Dresser must now replace both Coleman, a two-time All-American, and Schuyler, who was right on the cusp of a podium finish this season.

We'll get into that later this week, but those are not going to be easy holes to fill. This was as good a year as any for Iowa State to make a huge leap. Unfortunately for them, they came up short.

Iowa State assistant coach Derek St. John, head coach Kevin Dresser and assistant coach Brent Metcalf advocate for a takedown as David Carr wrestles Missouri's Keegan O'Toole at 165 pounds in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Assessing Northern Iowa's performance at the NCAA tournament

From the DMs, via wormboffeli: First off, Tulsa is a beast. That city was fun. Iowa really did have a great tournament, all things considered. But did UNI and ISU under-perform? What say you?

We talked about Iowa State with Jarrod's question, but I feel two types of ways about Northern Iowa as well — that they both did what they were, on paper, supposed to do, but they could've done a little better, too.

Entering the tournament, only one wrestler was expected, based on seeds, to finish on the podium: Parker Keckeisen, the 1-seed at 184. He did, finishing second. He is just the fifth Panther wrestler to reach the NCAA finals since 2000. He's authoring one of the all-time best UNI wrestling careers.

Everybody else — again, based on seeds — was not expected to even reach the bloodround. Two did, in Kyle Biscoglia (133) and Austin Yant (165). Both ultimately lost. As a team, Northern Iowa started a perfect 7-0 on Thursday morning, went 1-6 on Thursday evening, then finished with 29 team points, tied for 16th overall.

It's a bummer, for sure, especially when so many guys on this team showed glimpses of being All-American- or bloodround-caliber guys this season.

Biscoglia and Yant were both darkhorses coming in and gave themselves chances on Friday. Cael Happel (141) is another who was close, losing in round two by a point and in the Round-of-16 to a guy he's beaten before. Tyrell Gordon (285), seeded 13th, lost 2-1 in the Round-of-16. Colin Realbuto (149) and Derek Holschlag (157) were both capable of runs in the wrestlebacks, but it just didn't happen.

I'm not sure if Northern Iowa's performance is as underwhelming as Iowa State's, but it was tough seeing how good some of these guys were during the regular season and then not finishing the job last weekend — especially for guys like Biscoglia and Holschlag and Yant, in their final collegiate wrestling tournaments.

We've always known the Panthers to be a scrappy team full of dudes capable of winning big matches. Unfortunately for them, things didn't break their way this time.

NCAA Wrestling:UNI's Parker Keckeisen falls to Penn State's Aaron Brooks in 184-pound final

Northern Iowa head coach Doug Schwab, left, and Brett Robbins call out instructions during the second session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Thursday, March 16, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Who wins the 2023 Hodge Trophy? And more post-NCAA thoughts.

From the DMs, via jrod65: So many mailbag questions for you… Who gets the Hodge? Thoughts on how they ran the medal round matches? Interviews immediately after match is over, awesome or nah?


– I don't have a Hodge Trophy vote, but if I did, I'd vote for Michigan's Mason Parris. Dude went 33-0 with 21 bonus-point wins. He went 10-0 against guys who became All-Americans. He won a weight that included 4 age-level world champs and 6 total world medalists. At the NCAA Championships, he outscored his five opponents 49-6. Once Spencer and David Carr both lost, he was my front-runner.

– I didn't like how they ran the medal matches. In past years, Saturday's morning session was a three-mat format, and they rolled through that final round of wrestlebacks, then went weight-by-weight with the 3rd-, 5th-, and 7th-place matches and held each until all three were complete. I want the NCAA to bring that back. They've only recently done different variations of this four-mat format on Saturday and I'm not a fan. This year, especially, it felt rushed and didn't really allow the crowd a chance to shower those guys with praise.

– I don't mind the interviews after the match. There's something to the idea of catching an athlete right after an incredible moment and picking their brain about it. And I've struggled specifically with a response to this question because the natural next part of my answer means critiquing whoever is doing the post-match interview — and all week in Tulsa, it was ESPN's Quint Kessenich, who I think does a fine job but has moments where it's just weird.

The post-match interview is one of the hardest things to do as a journalist or a broadcaster. You'd think it'd be easy to just talk to a winner right off the mat after a good performance, but sometimes wrestlers don't want to talk, or sometimes their minds are going in a million different directions and you don't know what you're going to get. They can sometimes be short and quick with their answers or take you on a ride that you're not expecting.

There are things you can do to prepare, of course, like watching the actual matches, knowing background information, understanding their stories, on and on. I have found success asking guys about specific situations in matches they've just wrestled and having them explain what they were feeling in those specific positions. Not all guys are good about answering those questions, but most are. Again, that's in my experience.

Kessenich had a wild week and he did the best he could. He had wrestlers shrugging him off to sign autographs and others popping fingers back into place and others who flat-out ran away from him because they didn't want to talk. But he still added fun moments to the broadcasts, like sitting with Kyle Dake during Yianni Diakomihalis's finals match, and while he might sometimes fumble through questions, he generally knows the important stories.

All of this to say — I like the post-match interviews, but I'll always think there's a better way to execute an incredibly-hard job.

Recruiting:Rose Cassioppi, sister of Hawkeye Tony Cassioppi, commits to Iowa women's wrestling

Quint Kessenich does a report on ESPN during the first session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Thursday, March 16, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Cornell had a very impressive NCAA wrestling tournament

Cornell has been good for a while now, with 11 top-10 finishes since 2011 (they couldn't compete at the 2021 NCAA Championships), including three trophy finishes, in 2011, 2012 and this past year. They're expected to return 54.5 of their 76.5 team points, losing only four-time champ Yianni Diakomihalis.

(Since I know some of you guys will be curious: Penn State returns 114 team points, Missouri returns 61, Iowa and NC State both return 48, Virginia Tech returns 47, Ohio State returns 42, Michigan returns 31. This is also assuming that everybody who is eligible to come back does come back, so we'll see what really happens.)

There's no question that two champs and four total All-Americans out of seven qualifiers will help with recruiting. They've already got 6 Top-200 prospects committed for 2023, including three in the top-100, led by No. 1 overall prospect Meyer Shapiro, a Cadet world champion. They're going to continue to be good for a while.

We'll see if they can usurp the Hawkeyes as the No. 2 team behind Penn State. Next season is a long ways away and a lot can happen between now and then, so we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

But speaking of next year …

NCAA Wrestling:Alburnett's Tanner Sloan falls to Pittsburgh's Nino Bonaccorsi in 197 final

Cornell head coach Mike Grey, center, reacts in the finals during the sixth session of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

The 2024 NCAA Wrestling Championships are in Kansas City, MO

We can't call it an invitational because the wrestlers have to qualify. Maybe "The Cody Goodwin Classic" or "The NCAA Championships, presented by Cody Goodwin, Joe's Kansas City BBQ, and Boulevard Wheat." I'll work with Charlie Hustle and RAYGUN to make shirts. It'll be A Thing.

No, but actually, I am super pumped that next year's national tournament is in Kansas City. The big dance has only ever been there once, in 2003, when Oklahoma State put up 143 points and won the first of what became four consecutive NCAA team titles.

St. Louis is the normally host city in Missouri — literally nine times since 2000 — and if you ask a lot of coaches and wrestlers, they prefer St. Louis to a lot of other host cities. On top of that, I've always thought of Kansas City as a basketball town, since it hosts both the Big 12 men's and women's basketball tournaments, is often a host for NCAA basketball regionals, and the Jayhawks are right down the road.

So the fact that the biggest, baddest wrestling tournament in the world will invade my hometown, I think, is an opportunity for Kansas City to show that it's truly an all-sports town rather than just a singular sports town, if that makes sense. Yeah, we have Patrick Mahomes, and world-class barbecue, and we love our soccer, and we're smack in the middle of the MU-KU rivalry, but we love and appreciate high-level sports of all kinds.

Also, helps that the Power & Light District is steps from the T-Mobile Center's front doors, and that Missouri should return a strong lineup next season with a handful of homegrown guys leading the charge in Rocky and Zach Elam, who both went to Staley High School in the Northland. We're just 366 days out. I can't wait.

This week, I'm grateful for you, dear reader. I say this every year, but the Wrestling Mailbag has become one of my favorite parts of the week during the season, and a large reason is because of you and the questions you guys ask. Wrestling may be a niche sport, but we've carved out our own little space on the internet here to talk about a lot of different things — real things, entertaining things, exciting things, hard things, and everything in between.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you, for your help here, for following along this season, and for engaging and reading all year. The mailbag will go on the shelf until next winter, but our wrestling coverage will continue in the weeks and months ahead (after I take some time off first). Hope you'll stick around and join us.

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