Come January, when the Iowa football team again goes into hibernation for another nine months, what's a Hawkeye fan to do? Well, pay attention to our
preseason consensus cellar dweller up and coming basketball team... but you could also give a little time to the wrestling team and their quest for a fourth national championship in the last five years. It is the one sport we're really, really good at, after all. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series for football, we bring you A Winner is You!, a weight class-by-weight class breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down each Thursday (ish) from the weight class we have the most confidence in to the weight class we have absolutely no clue about.
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
Another installment, another oft-frustrating Iowa City West alum who had a gangbusters run in the NCAA Tournament. Last week I profiled Derek St. John; this week it's Grant Gambrall's turn in the spotlight. Gambrall entered 2010-2011 as Phil Keddy's replacement and the fulltime starter at 184 lbs. He started well (10-0), but the warning signs were there in near-losses to Michigan State's Ian Hinton and UNI's Ryan Loder. Sure enough, the wheels came crashing off at Midlands, where Gambrall suffered three losses (including a pinfall loss to Loder) and stumbled to a sixth-place finish. He followed that with a loss to Oklahoma State's Chris Perry. Then things turned around: Gambrall won his first seven matches in Big Ten dual meets (including a decisive 8-3 win over eventual Big Ten and NCAA champion Quentin Wright) before losing a close one to Minnesota's Kevin Steinhaus. Unfortunately, the Big Tens brought more tournament-related misery -- after another loss to Steinhaus and a pinfall loss to Wisconsin's Travis Rutt, the best Gambrall could do was scratch out a fifth-place finish.
Needless to say, expectations for him were not high as the NCAA Tournament rolled around. So the fact that he managed to secure the second-best finish of any Iowa wrestler (3rd, behind only McDonough's 2nd place finish) was pretty astonishing. After a nail-biter in the opening pigtail round, Gambrall gained steam and charged all the way to the semifinals (knocking off the 4th and 5th seeds along the way -- which included an OT win over Rutt) before getting caught and pinned by Wright in that round. He rebounded to beat the 5th (via forfeit) and 3rd seeds in the consolation rounds, earning that impressive 3rd place finish. Talent isn't in doubt when it comes to Gambrall -- as he showed last year, he has the ability to beat anyone at this weight. Unfortunately, he's also capable of losing to damn near anyone at this weight. He still has considerable room to get better too: he struggled to get out from bottom against some wrestlers, his stamina was inconsistent (particularly in the early part of the season), and his offense could stand to be a little more varied. But the talent is clearly there -- it's just a matter of fine-tuning it.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Options? Yeah, we don't really have too many here. Pray for good health for Gambrall. The official roster lists three other guys at 184: sophomore Thomas Lira, senior Vinnie Wagner, and true freshman Kris Klapprodt. But there's a catch: given the woeful state of Iowa's depth at 197 lbs., Lira and Wagner are reportedly working on bulking up to challenge for that spot. We'll cover 197 in greater detail in a few installments (when we hopefully have a better idea of how that weight might shake out), but in essence you're probably best off considering Lira and Wagner as 197ers this year. That leaves Klapprodt, Iowa's top-ranked recruit from a year ago. He was dominant in the prep ranks in South Dakota: he was state runner-up as a freshman and a sophomore and champion as a junior and senior, losing just two matches those final two years. He's an intriguing option for the future, but his immediate future is certain to include a redshirt. If Gambrall was going to be out for a lengthy period of time, Klapprodt might get the nod to replace him... but chances are it would still be either Lira or Wagner (or possibly a bulked up guy from 174). No matter what, though, Iowa's depth at this weight likely begins and ends with Gambrall -- it's hard to see anyone else in the Iowa room being able to make a dent at this weight in 2011-2012...
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
... especially because there may be no tougher weight in wrestling this year than 184 lbs. Seven of eight 2011 All-Americans return in 2011-2012 (and it would have been eight-of-eight if Rutt hadn't opted to take a redshirt this year), including the national champion (Wright) and runner-up (Lehigh's Robert Hamlin). That tally doesn't even include Oklahoma State's Chris Perry or Minnesota's Kevin Steinhaus, two very talented wrestlers who missed out on All-America status a year ago but who will be strong challengers this year. The battles at 184 this year -- at early-season tournaments, during the Big Ten dual season, and (especially) at the NCAA Tournament -- ought to be tremendous. But all that quality (and parity) comes down with a definite downside: it's impossible to predict how things will shake out this year. It's entirely possible that wrestlers who were All-Americans last year could fail to make it back to the podium this year -- and wrestlers who missed the podium last year could certainly find themselves All-Americans this year. Throw the top 10-12 names in a hat and pick from there -- you're just as likely to be right doing that as you would be through any other method.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
Needless to say, this makes predictions for Gambrall rather maddening. Frankly, his own Jekyll and Hyde performances last year would have made things difficult enough -- never mind the staggering depth and quality of this weight nationally. But I still have to put my marker down somewhere, so I'll go with a 3rd place finish in the Big Ten (finishing behind Wright and Steinhaus) and a lower All-America finish (5-8th place) at the NCAA Tournament. Mind you, better finishes than that would hardly shock me -- he beat many of the other guys in the top 5-10 last year and his NCAA Tournament run was certainly impressive. At the moment, though, it's not yet clear if that was just the result of Gambrall putting everything together for one hot run over a weekend or if he truly has elevated his game to another level and it was a precursor to the sort of dominant wrestling we'll see out of him this year. I lean toward the former at the moment -- but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.
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BONUS! Tom Brands spoke at the Davenport Grid Club and he briefly discussed what he's looking for in this year's team:
"I'm not looking for another (Brent) Metcalf or even another (Matt) McDonough, who we have back for two years. I'm looking for somebody who adds to the firepower, who helps re-invent the sport other ways,'' Brands said Monday while speaking at the Davenport Grid Club luncheon.
"Iowa has had those guys over the years, the McIlravys, the Ironsides, guys who weren't afraid to put it on the line for seven minutes and who helped change our program and who re-invented the sport with the competitive approach they brought to the mat.''
As fun as an entire team full of Metcalfs or McDonoughs might be, it's not particularly practical. Iowa has had considerable success with different types of wrestlers in the past -- and likely will do so in the future. Maybe Gambrall can be one of those success stories this year.