Spencer Lee, Ben Kueter highlight Iowa wrestling storylines at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Wrestling’s “offseason” — meaning, the freestyle and Greco-Roman portions of the sport’s calendar — will hit a fever pitch this week in Las Vegas.

USA Wrestling’s U.S. Open competitions began Wednesday and run all weekend at the South Point Hotel & Casino on Las Vegas Boulevard. It is a five-day, seven-tournament extravaganza that features virtually all corners of the wrestling world.

There is a Senior national championship in men’s and women’s freestyle and greco, which is a crucial step in deciding USA Wrestling’s 2023 Senior world team. All Senior champs qualify for Final X, set for June 10, which is the final step, a best-of-three series, that decides who will represent the U.S. at the Senior world championships.

There is a Junior, or U20, national championship, in men’s freestyle and greco, which is the first step in qualifying for USA Wrestling’s 2023 Junior world team. All Junior champs qualify for the best-of-three finals at the Junior world team trials, set for June 2-4, and will face the winner of the world team trials challenge tournament.

Finally, there is a Cadet, or U17, world team trials tournament, in men’s freestyle and greco, which decides USA Wrestling’s 2023 Cadet world team. All finalists will wrestle a best-of-three series to decide who will represent the U.S. at the Cadet world championships, set for July 31-August 6 in Turkey.

So there’s a lot on the line this week in Vegas — and a lot worth following along, which you can do remotely thanks to FloWrestling streaming the entire event.

Here, we offer a roadmap of the biggest Iowa-related storylines to keep tabs on this week, from Spencer Lee’s freestyle return, all the Iowa high schoolers positioning themselves for international opportunities, Iowa’s small-college wrestlers staking their claim in the greco competitions and everything in-between.

Iowa's Spencer Lee returns to USA Wrestling's freestyle scene

The last time we saw Spencer Lee, Iowa’s lightweight star, he walked off one of the center mats inside the BOK Center in Tulsa after a stunning loss to Purdue’s Matt Ramos in the NCAA semifinals. It was the last match of his all-time great college career.

But the last time we saw Spencer Lee wrestle freestyle was in December 2019, when he blitzed a stacked field at the U.S. Senior national championships. In a bracket that had six total NCAA champs, past All-Americans, a Junior world silver medalist, a U23 world-teamer, and more, Lee went 5-0 and outscored his opponents 52-6.

Lee, a three-time age-level world champ, makes his return to freestyle this week. He is seeded second at 57 kilograms (125 pounds). The Senior men’s freestyle competition runs Thursday and Friday.

Iowa's Spencer Lee makes his return to freestyle wrestling this week.

The Hawkeye Wrestling Club recently announced the addition of Lee, as well as four-time All-American Jacob Warner, to the club. Specifically, Lee signed a five-year contract, which will keep him in Iowa City through the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

The 24-year-old will be one of the main draws in another stacked field at 57 kilos this week. Among the other entrants include Nick Suriano and Patrick Glory, both NCAA champs, as well as top-seeded Zane Richards, an All-American from Illinois who represented the United States at United World Wrestling’s World Cup last December.

Lee has long been vocal about his Olympic aspirations. His 2019 Senior title put him on the path in 2020, but COVID-19 pushed everything back a year. In 2021, Lee tore both of his ACLs en route to his third NCAA crown, leading Iowa to a national team title.

A U.S. Open title this week would put Lee firmly back in the conversation for 2024. Should he win, he’d advance to Final X, where he’d face Thomas Gilman, a four-time world and Olympic medalist, for a spot on the 2023 Senior world team. Gilman, of course, is a former Hawkeye who now trains at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

Lee’s entry into the U.S. Open alone sparks intrigue, but his potential path toward making USA Wrestling’s Senior world team is among the more interesting storylines of USA Wrestling's Senior freestyle season.

RELATED:In Barstool interview, Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee discusses NCAA loss, mom's reaction, future plans

More Senior men’s freestyle tidbits/notes:

  • Austin DeSanto, an All-American for Iowa, is among the contenders at 61 kilos (134), along with former Northern Iowa wrestler Joe Colon and NCAA champs Seth Gross, Vito Arujau, Nathan Tomasello, Nahshon Garrett, Cody Brewer and more.
  • Pat Lugo, a former Hawkeye, and Ian Parker, a former Cyclone, are among the crowd at 65 kilos (143) that will compete to meet Yianni Diakomihalis, a four-time NCAA champ for Cornell and reigning Senior world silver medalist, at Final X.
  • There’s a lot of Iowa flavor at 79 kilos (174), with Alex Marinelli, Taylor Lujan, Michael Kemerer and Nelson Brands all in the mix. According to the pre-seeds, Brands and Kemerer could meet in the Round-of-16, and the winner could face Penn State national champ Carter Starocci. How’s that for a bracket?

RELATED:A way-too-early look at the 2023-24 Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling roster

Iowa's Michael Kemerer will be wrestling at 79 kilos this weekned.

Ben Kueter bumping up to wrestle Senior men's freestyle

Ben Kueter is going to test himself against some grown men in Vegas.

Kueter, Iowa City High's wildly-talented multi-sport athlete, registered to compete at 97 kilos (213) in the Senior men's freestyle national championship this week. He is seeded fifth, behind J'den Cox, a two-time world champ and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, and Timothy Dudley, a 2016 NCAA finalist, among others.

The 18-year-old Kueter is just two months removed from finishing his legendary high school career. He is Iowa's 32nd four-time state wrestling champion, finishing with a perfect 111-0 overall record. Last August, he won a Junior men's freestyle world title.

Now he'll test himself against Senior-level competition at the U.S. Open, which should be an eye-opening experience. If Kueter succeeds, his already sky-high expectations will grow more ahead of him joining the Iowa wrestling team. If he struggles, he'll have lessons to take with him into the start of his college career.

RELATED:Iowa City High's Ben Kueter finishes undefeated career as Iowa's 32nd 4-time wrestling champ

Iowa City High's Ben Kueter recently wrapped up a legendary HS wrestling career and will test his talents against grown men this weekend.

Junior men's freestyle and greco tidbits/notes:

  • There's a lot of older Iowa high schoolers and younger collegiate wrestlers who will compete in this week's Junior divisions. The Junior greco competition, which will be contested entirely on Friday, has two weights worth watching: 60 kilos, with Underwood's Gable Porter and Northern Iowa's Cory Land, two credentialed greco wrestlers; and 87 kilos, with Linn-Mar's Tate Naaktgeboren and Northern Iowa's Wyatt Voelker, two more credentialed greco wrestlers who are also teammates at Big Game Wrestling Club.
  • The Junior freestyle tournament, which runs Saturday and Sunday, has many more local competitors, but one weight to watch is 79 kilos, where Iowa City High's Gabe Arnold, Northern Iowa's Jared Simma, Iowa State's MJ Gaitan, among others, lead a deep field.
  • Other notable Junior freestyle entrants: Waukee Northwest's Koufax Christensen at 57 kilos; Greene County's Kale Petersen at 61 kilos; Greene County's McKinley Robbins and Iowa State's Evan Frost at 65 kilos; Northern Iowa's Ryder Downey and Iowa State's Paniro Johnson at 70 kilos; Iowa's Aiden Riggins and Iowa State's Manny Rojas at 74 kilos; Naaktgeboren and Voelker at 86 kilos; Westwood's Jackson Dewald and Virginia's Griffin Gammell, from Waukee Northwest, at 92 kilos; Iowa State recruit Sawyer Bartelt and Hempstead's Joe Lewis at 97 kilos; and Iowa's Bradley Hill at 125 kilos.

RELATED:Waukee Northwest's state wrestling champion Koufax Christensen commits to NDSU

Iowa City High's Gabe Arnold will compete in the junior freestyle tournament this weekend.

Iowa high schoolers to watch at USA Wrestling’s Cadet world team trials

The Cadet world team trials will feature the nation’s top high schoolers — at least those who are 17 and younger — battling for an international opportunity. The greco trials will be contested Thursday. The freestyle trials will take place Saturday and Sunday.

And plenty of Iowa’s top high schoolers are expected to be in the mix.

The big name to watch is Dreshaun Ross, Fort Dodge’s freshman state champ at 195 pounds last February. Ross, a 16U freestyle national champ last July and a 16U folkstyle national champ in march, is registered in both the greco and freestyle tournaments.

In Thursday’s greco competition, Waverly-Shell Rock’s Ryker Graff, a 16U greco national finalist last July, is a leading contender at 55 kilos (121). He’s one of a handful of Iowa high schoolers who should make some noise Thursday:

  • 55-kg: Bettendorf’s TJ Koester and Southeast Polk’s Max Riggins
  • 65-kg: Bondurant-Farrar’s Nolan Fellers and Linn-Mar’s Kane Naaktgeboren
  • 71-kg: Don Bosco’s Kyler Knaack and Osage’s Tucker Stangel
  • 80-kg: Fort Dodge’s Damarion Ross and Southeast Polk’s Mike Slade

Union’s Jace Hedeman and Bettendorf’s Jake Knight (both at 51 kilos) as well as Waverly-Shell Rock’s Bas Diaz (at 65 kilos) and Indianola middle schooler Mac Crosson, a 16U freestyle national champ last summer, will join all the aforementioned competitors, plus many more, in Saturday and Sunday’s Cadet freestyle competition.

RELATED:Our way-too-early preview for the 2023-24 Iowa boys and girls high school wrestling season

Fort Dodge's Dreshaun Ross was a Iowa state champion this season and is registered in both the greco and freestyle tournaments this weeknend.

Another high-level competition for Iowa women’s wrestling program

The Senior women’s freestyle national championship, set for Friday and Saturday, is the only women’s competition in Vegas this week, and the Iowa women’s wrestling program is taking a squad.

There are seven current Iowa women’s wrestlers who registered:

  • 50-kg: Nyla Valencia, Ava Bayless
  • 53-kg: Felicity Taylor, a returning U.S. Open champ
  • 65-kg: Reese Larramendy and Ella Schmit
  • 68-kg: Bella Mir, a Junior world team member
  • 76-kg: Kylie Welker, a past Senior world team member

There’s also three incoming recruits, in Bella Ngo (55 kg), Rose Cassioppi and Haley Ward (both at 72 kg), as well as an incoming transfer in Marlynne Deede (72 kg). There will be a heavy Hawkeye women's presence in Vegas.

This would be considered the fifth competition for the Iowa women in the last calendar year, following the Missouri Valley Open, the Soldier Salute, McKendree’s Bearcat Open and USA Wrestling’s women’s national championships earlier this month, which featured the U23 national tournament and the Junior world team trials.

The Hawkeye women already have the way-too-early look of an NCAA women’s wrestling power, with a strong showing at each of the previous four competitions. Another strong showing this week would only solidify that stance.

Additionally, Adaugo Nwachukwu, who recently revealed her plans to transfer to William Penn after Iowa Wesleyan announced its closure, won both the Junior world team trials and U23 national title earlier this month, both at 62 kilos. Now she's gunning for a U.S. Open crown this week.

RELATED:Iowa women’s wrestling program has the way-too-early look of an NCAA powerhouse

Iowa's Felicity Taylor looks to defend her US Open title this weekend.

Grand View, Dubuque wrestlers highlight Greco-Roman competitions

The greco competitions this week, at both the Senior and Junior levels, are often an afterthought for various reasons, but not here. Some of Iowa’s smaller colleges have leaned into the greco space and will be well-represented this week.

Remember the Koontz brothers? Brady and Dylan? They transferred from Ohio State to the University of Dubuque and were Division III All-Americans this past season. They’re contenders at 55 and 60 kilos, respectively, in the Senior greco competition this week.

Grand View is sending a strong Senior greco contingent, led by Ben Provisor, the 1-seed at 82 kilos. Additionally, Justin McCunn, a U23 greco national champ last year, is in the mix at 77 kilos, and Jack Ervien, a 2019 Junior world-teamer, entered at 72 kilos.

Wrestlers from Coe, Loras, and others also entered at both the Senior and Junior levels. Senior greco starts Wednesday and finishes Thursday, and Junior greco starts and finishes on Friday. 

Ben Provisor is the top seed at 82 kilos heading into this weekend's action in Las Vegas.

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