Darren Miller, Hawkeye Sports
Temperatures are dropping, leaves are falling, and the days are getting shorter: winter is coming. It's time to strap on our headgear and get ready for the coming of the
White Walkers Iowa wrestlers. It's almost time to hit the mat again, which means it's definitely time to preview what to expect from the Iowa grapplers in 2012.
While we try to figure out this mystifying football team and anticipate the return of our postseason-aspirant basketball team, there's another team that's worth discussing: the Iowa wrestling team. They'll be going after their fourth national championship in the past six years, so it behooves us to preview that quest. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series of football, we bring you A Winner Is You!, a weight-by-weight breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down from the weight we have the most confidence in to the weight we have absolutely no clue about. Enjoy!
PREVIOUS ENTRIES: 125
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
If you wanted to put 133 lbs. -- and Tony Ramos -- here instead, I wouldn't put up much of a fight. It was essentially a coin-flip decision and the main thing that swung it for me was DSJ's better performances in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons (4th in 2011, 2nd in 2012). Both guys are locked-in starters in this line-up.
St. John entered his sophomore season on the heels of an up and down redshirt freshman campaign (he went 24-6 and endured a few ugly losses early as well as questions about his gas tank) seemingly determined to take the next step forward as an elite wrestler. His season started well -- 10-0, including several bonus point wins (albeit over less-than-distinguished competition). Things took a turn for the worse against UNI's David Bonin, though, when St. John turned his knee awkwardly. He still managed to win the match, but he ended up missing a month's worth of action due to the injury. He returned against Ohio State -- too soon, as it happened, because he got hurt again in a loss to OSU's Josh Demas. At this point we were wondering if Brands & Co. should just shut him down for the season if there was a risk of doing long-term damage to his knee and ability.
He sat for another month and returned just before the NWCA National Duals. He struggled at the Duals (the low point was a 9-1 major decision loss to Oregon State's RJ Pena), putting expectations for his performance at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament very low. Some people wondered if Iowa wouldn't be better off sending Nick Moore in St. John's place (even though Moore hadn't set the world aflame while filling in during DSJ's injury absences). Little did we know. St. John eked out a pair of sudden victory wins over Nebraska's James Green and Penn State's Dylan Alton in the first two rounds of the BTT, then notched a come-from-behind win against Northwestern's Jason Welch to notch his first Big Ten title.
He still wasn't 100%, but he was certainly well enough to do some damage in the division. His defense remained top-notch and, even with a gimpy knee, he was strong in scramble situations. St. John made it all the way to the finals at the NCAA Tournament, again defeating Alton and Welch (and avenging his loss to Pena), before the buzzsaw known as Kyle Dake dispatched him. Still, given how poor St. John has looked as recently as mid-February, the idea that he could win a Big Ten title and finish as NCAA runner-up just a few weeks later was astounding. He should be back to full strength come November, which is great news for Iowa -- and very bad news for the rest of the division at 157.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
As with McDonough at 125, there's no question of who starts here if St. John is healthy. Questions only arise if St. John isn't healthy. Last year, as St. John missed the better part of two months with his knee injury, another celebrated in-state recruit stepped in to fill the void -- Nick Moore. The results were less than thrilling: he went 9-6, including a 7th place finish at Midlands. He lost to all three of the same opponents St. John beat at the Big Ten Tournament (Green, Alton, Welch), with the low point being a miserable 17-4 evisceration by Welch. At 157, Moore too often looked a step slow and flat-footed. As a redshirt freshman, his results were better at 165 than 157, so it does seem like that's probably his most natural weight. (Unfortunately, it's currently occupied by Mike Evans.)
Mike Kelly appears to be a natural 157er and would probably be the favorite to back up DSJ at this weight... except it sounds like he'll once again be cutting down and vying for the starting spot at 149. Hopefully that goes a bit better this year than it did last year (i.e., he finds some offense). The other options are guys who are more "break glass in the case of emergency" options. Joey Trizzino went 8-3 wrestling unattached as a freshman at 157 last year and did pick up a trio of pins in those eight wins. Patrick Rhoads went 6-4 wrestling unattached as a freshman at 157 last year, including a 4-1 decision loss to Trizzino. Finally, Joe DuCharme went 2-2 wrestling unattached as a sophomore at 157 last year, including a 14-7 loss to Rhoads. Trizzino or Rhoads may be a long-term option at 157, but they're well behind St. John and Kelly (and Moore, for that matter) at the moment.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
When I started this section a few weeks ago, it looked like this: Kyle. Dake.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hitting "Publish"... Well, let's have Willie Saylor of flowrestling explain:
Dake and the Cornell staff had intended to have him go at 157 for his final campaign. He did certify there this fall. But in recent days, with weight coming off slowly, they changed their plan. The Big Red Staff confirmed to Flowrestling that Dake will go 165 this season. (emphasis mine)
Dake is the defending NCAA champion at 157 and a three-time NCAA champion overall (previously at 141 and 149). He's three-quarters of the way through one of the greatest careers in the history of college wrestling. As a fan of the sport, this news is incredibly thrilling (if it proves to be true, of course): it means Dake has a chance to win an NCAA title in four different weights, an unprecedented feat. It also sets up an incredible rivalry with David Taylor, last year's Dan Hodge Trophy winner and one of the other major contenders for "best wrestler in the country" status. If both guys wrestle at 165 this year, we could see a trio of Dake-Taylor folkstyle showdowns (an exhibition at the NWCA All-Star meet next month, at the Southern Scuffle tournament, and in the NCAA Tournament finals), which would be tremendously exciting.
Of course, from an Iowa standpoint, this news is doubly intriguing. One, it clearly establishes Derek St. John as the kingpin of the 157 lb. division this year. Two, it means there's a serious threat to one of Penn State's top point-scorers, which could be costly to PSU's hopes of pulling off a three-peat in March. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves -- we can discuss the full implications for the 165 lb. division later on in this series. What about DSJ and 157?
As noted, in Dake's absence, DSJ certainly looks like the favorite at this weight class. He's a two-time All-American and last year finished as Big Ten champion and NCAA runner-up, despite coming back from a serious mid-season knee injury. (He looked better by the end of the season, but he also never looked 100%.) Behind DSJ are two more B1G wrestlers, just Northwestern's Jason Welch and Penn State's Dylan Alton. DSJ had a pair of razor-thin wins over Alton (he won both matches 3-1 in sudden victory) last year, but he's done well against Welch over the course of their careers. (He beat him 4-2, 5-2, and 6-1 in 2010-11 and 4-3 and 5-1 last year.) Another B1G wrestler, Nebraska's James Green, could be another wrestler to watch; he's an explosive athlete who finished 7th in the NCAA Tournament last year and lost a tight match (6-4 in sudden victory) to DSJ at the Big Ten Tournament. Among non-B1G options, Clarion's James Fleming and Harvard's Walter Peppelman are two of the top names to know. Well, and Virginia Tech's Jesse Dong, of course, still BHGP's favorite non-Iowa wrestler.
1/4/13: vs. #15 Josh Demas, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/1/13: vs. #3 Dylan Alton, Penn State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/10/13: vs. #6 James Green, Nebraska (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
Pretty slim pickings for DSJ this year, honestly. Outside of Alton and Green, DSJ isn't likely to see any other top contenders at 157 until the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Demas is noteworthy because he handed DSJ a 7-3 loss last year, although that was also the match where St. John re-injured his knee. Still, I'm sure he'll be hungry to avenge that loss.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
The projection here really came down to what Dake decided to do this season, honestly. If he remained at 157, the realistic expectation for DSJ was NCAA runner-up. If Dake moved up to 165, DSJ immediately became the NCAA title favorite. That's not to say that DSJ couldn't beat Dake if it came down to that -- Dake isn't invincible -- but... it's not wise to bet against a three-time NCAA champion, you know? Personally, I'd love to see what a fully healthy DSJ could do against Dake in a match; his recovery from a serious knee injury in January was beyond admirable and he had a truly outstanding showing at the Big Ten Tournament (champion) and NCAA Tournament (runner-up), but he was definitely not at peak capacity. I'd love to see if his length, flexibility, and stamina could give Dake trouble.
Now that looks like a moot point; with Dake moving to 165, the top of the podium at 157 is very much in play and DSJ should have as good a shot as anyone of claiming that spot. He did well against Welch, Alton, and Green last year -- and that was on a leg that was still a little gimpy. I'm loathe to go about "expecting" NCAA titles for any Iowa wrestlers not named McDonough because it's a long, arduous path to the top -- and St. John does wrestle a fair number of close matches, which can be a little dangerous. Still, I like St. John to make it back to the Big Ten and NCAA finals -- and then we'll see how things shake out.