January the end of November, when the Iowa football team again goes into hibernation for another nine ten 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
For quite a while, it seemed like this weight was going to be the site of one of the most heated battles for a starting spot on the entire team, despite the fact that there was a returning starter who placed 3rd at the Big Ten Tournament a year ago. In one corner, redshirt sophomore Ethen Lofthouse, nephew of former Iowa fan-favorite Luke Lofthouse, and he of the 20-10 record in 2010-2011, the aforementioned third place finish at the Big Ten Tournament, and a DNP at the NCAA Tournament. In the other corner, redshirt freshman Mike Evans, the most celebrated member of Iowa's top-ranked 2010 recruiting haul and a guy who laid waste to the (admittedly somewhat questionable at times) competition he faced during his redshirt year, going 22-2. But as the season drew nearer, the word from both good old anonymous interwebs sources and Brands himself in a few appearances on the pre-season hype circuit effectively short circuited that talk: Evans is serious about cutting down to 165 and competing for a spot there, leaving 174 free for Lofthouse.
Like many Iowa wrestlers last year, Lofthouse had a frustrating season. It started brightly, with multiple bonus point wins, but the struggles started when Lofthouse hit real competition: he lost to Iowa State's Jon Reader (no shame in that, since Reader went on to win a national title) and Michigan State's Curran Jacobs (a good, but not great guy at 174), struggled to a 5th place finish at Midlands, and had a rocky time in Big Ten dual meets, going 4-4. He avenged two of those losses (Purdue's Luke Manuel and Minnesota's Scott Glasser) on his way to a 3rd place finish at the Big Ten Tournament, but things fizzled out again at the NCAA Tournament when he went just 1-2 and was eliminated well before qualifying for All-America status. Lofthouse checks in at #6 nationally on three pre-season rankings (InterMat, The Open Mat, and d1collegewrestling), which frankly might be a little high for a guy who was as inconsistent as Lofthouse; he was just 1-5 against the other guys in the top ten. There are three things Lofthouse needs to do to establish himself as one of the top guys in the nation at 174: beat more top guys (see: that 1-5 record against fellow top ten guys), win more consistently (the most consecutive matches he won last year was five), and win more convincingly (9 of his 20 wins featured bonus points, but none after mid-January). If he can do that, Lofthouse could emerge as one of the most pleasant surprises on this Iowa squad. There's reason to hope that he's not that far away -- he lost only one match by more than a decision (an 11-2 major decision loss to Reader at Midlands) and had five one-point losses. He just needs to turn those close losses into wins now.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
As noted above, until a few weeks ago it seemed like Mike Evans was going to be the other main challenger for this spot. Evans was an elite prospect and the crown jewel of Iowa's top-ranked 2010 recruiting class and he had a strong year while redshirting last year: 22-2 and five tournament championships. Admittedly, the competition was not often fierce, but he did exactly what you'd want to see a top guy do against weaker opponents: dominate them. Just five of his seventeen wins came without bonus points and he had 13 pins. Evans has a reputation as being dominant on the mat: he's an expert rider and (as last year's results indicate) pretty damn good at turning guys and getting pins. He's not so strong on his feet, though, and his ability to generate offense and secure takedowns is the one thing he needs to work on the most. Still, every indication is that he's planning to try for the starting spot at 165 this year; if Lofthouse sustained a long-term injury, Evans would probably be the pick to replace him, but for now he's slimmed down and focused on 165.
The official roster also lists a handful of other names at 174: Grant Gambrall (ignore; he's starting at 184), Kris Klapprodt (true freshman; he'll redshirt), and Jeremy Fahler (redshirt freshman; went 14-12 at 174 and 184, including 8-6 at 174). Realistically, none of them will see the lineup this year at 174 barring an injury crisis of epic proportions. Klapprodt won back-to-back state titles in South Dakota as a junior and senior (on top of a state title he won at 119 as an 8th grader), and had state runner-up finishes as a freshman, sophomore, and 7th grader; he's one to watch for the future, but with Lofthouse and Evans so young themselves, it could be a while before Klapprodt has a chance to crack the starting squad.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
The good news for Lofthouse is that this weight class looks relatively wide open. Just three All-Americans return from the 2011 NCAA Tournament and one of those (Central Michigan's Ben Bennett) has moved up to 184 this year. The other two returning All-Americans are very, very good, though: NCAA runner-up Nick Amuchastegui (Stanford) and NCAA 3rd place finisher Ed Ruth (Penn State). Potential All-American Mike Benefiel (Oklahoma State) is also out of the picture, with grade issues putting a premature end to his season. There are a few other solid challengers to contend with in the Big Ten, including 2010 All-American Jordan Blanton (Illinois), who missed 2011 due to injury, and Nick Heflin (Ohio State), who ended the season ranked 8th in the nation but failed to attain All-America status. Still, this looks like a weight where Iowa can do some significant damage if Lofthouse can improve upon last year's performance.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
If Lofthouse has upped his game from a year ago, there's a clear path to very solid finishes at Big Tens and NCAAs for him. Heflin and (particularly) Blanton could prove to be real threats in the Big Ten, but for now Lofthouse's biggest impediment to a Big Ten title looks to be Ruth; he closed the gap on Ruth significantly from the time of their dual meet match to the Big Ten Tournament, so it's possible that with a bit more seasoning, Lofthouse could slip past him this year. Even if he can't do that, though, he should be able to duplicate his 3rd place finish at the Big Ten Tournament. He should also have little trouble improving upon his disappointing NCAA showing and, frankly, an All-American finish seems well within his reach this year. Let's say 2nd place in the Big Ten and 5th place in the NCAA.
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Belated caring is still a little creepy. Iowa added their sixth verbal commitment to their 2012 crop last week, somewhat surprisingly landing Southeast Polk's Alex Meyer. I say "somewhat surprising" not because Meyer was a fringe recruit, but because Ye Olde Internet Buzz seemed to point at him heading elsewhere, particularly to a school with excellent academics (Meyer has a 4.0 GPA and notched a 30 on his ACT). Instead he chose to join teammate Cory Clark at Iowa and shore up their upper weights. Meyer is coming off a 5th place finish at 160 as a junior, but projects at 174 or 184 in college, two weights where Iowa has need of future aid (particularly 184). That 5th place finish isn't all that impressive (especially with many of his peers in Iowa's class dripping with state titles), but don't make too much of it: Meyer appears to be a bit of a late-bloomer. His stock exploded after a series of strong showings in the spring and summer at various freetyle and Greco-Roman tournaments. He currently sits at #52 on InterMat's recruiting rankings and at #54 on d1collegewrestling's rankings and a strong senior season could easily see him rise even higher.
But for now Meyer seems like an excellent addition to Iowa's class; if nothing else, he's clearly got an approach that will endear him to Iowa fans:
"In a seven-minute match with a first period that’s three minutes – and because his engine is what it is – that seven minutes is going to feel like a half hour to anybody he wrestles," Smith said. "His pace, with the way he makes people suffer every step of the way whether they’re in on his legs or he’s in on theirs, he’s going to work every position all the time. His gas tank is going to be a huge benefit at the next level."
Yeah, that sounds sufficiently Iowa-y. And if you need a little video: