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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!
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
Brother acts have been good to Iowa wrestling over the years -- the Brands brothers in the '90s, the Banach brothers in the '80s -- but lately the results haven't been so stellar. Nick and Nate Moore dominated the Iowa high school ranks, but both have (so far) struggled to crack the starting lineup at Iowa. At one point there were three Ballweg boys at Iowa -- Matt, Mark, and Jake -- but they've also struggled to make their mark. Since then, Matt Ballweg has graduated and Jake Ballweg has left the team, but Mark remains -- and this year might finally be his chance to shine.
We've seen Mark Ballweg before, of course. When Montell Marion ran afoul of the law and missed the first part of the 2010-11 season, Mark Ballweg was the man who took his place in the starting lineup. He proved to be a pretty capable fill-in, going 15-3 with 7 pins for Iowa that year. (His attempt to fill-in at 149 later that year didn't go as well -- just 1-5. With Marion back last year, Ballweg was left spinning his wheels for the most part. He started out 6-1 and took 3rd place at the Lindenwood Open, attempted to bump up to 149 (again) to help Iowa fill that hole in the lineup (going 1-1), and then dropped back to 141 for the rest of the season, which included a 2-2 effort at Midlands (where was waxed by Oklahoma's Kendric Maple, 18-4) and a first-place showing at the Duhawk Open. All told, he went 13-3 for the year, wrestling mostly lesser competition. Not great, but not awful, either.
Ballweg finds himself in a bit of a battle with Josh Dziewa to replace Marion as the starter this year, but it seems like his past starting experience (and his head-to-head wins over Dziewa) have given him a slight edge in the competition so far. Assuming he holds onto the job, Ballweg should be a solid option for Iowa, able to beat the guys he should beat (and pick up bonus points, too; Ballweg is one of the better pinners on the team) -- the bigger question is how well he can compete against the elite guys at the weight. Even in his impressive 2010-11 season, he wrestled relatively few top guys at 141; the way the schedule broke that year, the top guys happened to hit Iowa's schedule after Marion had returned to the lineup. His match with Maple at last year's Midlands was a disaster. So the jury's still out a bit on what Ballweg can do against the best of the best at 141 -- how much he's improved over the last two years and how well he's able to compete with those guys will go a long way in letting us know just how steep the drop-off will be from Marion (a two-time NCAA finalist and three-time All American).
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
The main option here for Iowa is Josh Dziewa, the sophomore who finds himself battling Ballweg for the starting spot. As noted above, Ballweg seems to have the inside track on that spot, but Dziewa is good enough that a slump by Ballweg would probably cause Brands to let Dziewa (pronounced "Jeh-va," incidentally) get a crack at things. Dziewa bumped up to 149 early last season to try and fill that spot for Iowa, and while the matches were exciting (all five of his matches at 149 either featured 20+ points combined or a pinfall), the results were not (he went just 3-2). So he dropped back down to 141, where he scored a first place finish at the Grand View Open and a second place finish at the Duhawk Open (behind Ballweg, who beat him 12-2 in the final). Dziewa has talent and an unconventional, funk-heavy style that makes him fun to watch and hard to gameplan for, but also somewhat inconsistent. (It's a little bit like being a knuckleball pitcher -- when your funk is working, you might be just about unstoppable, but if it's not quite clicking, you might get taken to the woodshed.) For now, he's probably idling behind Ballweg for another year and looking at a potential starting spot in 2013-14.
The other options include junior Nick Trizzino (who went 8-1 last year, but didn't compete at the recent wrestle-offs, which may not be a good sign), sophomore Ethan Owens (who went 18-7 last year, but has been consistently behind Ballweg and Dziewa), redshirt freshman Jake Kadel (5-7 last year), and true freshman Connor Ryan. Blue-chip recruit Nate Skonieczny would also have been an option here next year (and beyond), but Brands confirmed last week that he had left the team (although he also left the door open to a possible return).
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
Remember when we previewed 133 and I discussed the established wrestler clearing out of that weight? Well, Tony Ramos' gain could be Mark Ballweg's pain. Last year's top three finishers at the NCAA Tournament (NCAA champion Kellen Russell, NCAA runner-up Montell Marion, and Boris Navachkov) have all departed, but three other All-Americans are returning -- Oklahoma's Kendric Maple, Oregon State's Mike Mangrum, and Ohio State's Hunter Stieber. All three will be very formidable opponents and will vie for an NCAA title this year.
Stieber is just the tip of the iceberg in the Big Ten, too: Wisconsin's Tyler Graff (a two-time All-American and Big Ten runner-up two years ago) is jumping up to 141 from 133 and he's being joined by Illinois' BJ Futrell (himself a two-time All-American). Throw in Minnesota's Nick Dardanes and Michigan's Steve Dutton and the Big Ten has five of InterMat's top 11 wrestlers at 141. Ballweg better be ready for some fierce competition in the B1G this year.
On a national level, in addition to Maple and Mangrum, Harvard's Steven Keith, Edinboro's Mitchell Port, Hofstra's Luke Vaith, and Virginia Tech's Zach Neibert will be contenders for All-America honors this year. This has been an exceedingly top-heavy weight class for the past few years, but this year it looks to have significantly more depth -- which should make for an exciting chase for titles... but also a more difficult path to the podium for Ballweg.
THE KEY MATCHES
12/1/12: #18 Luke Goettl, Iowa State (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
12/16/12: #7 Luke Vaith, Hofstra (non-conference dual; New York City, NY)
1/4/13: #4 Hunter Stieber, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/18/13: #11 Stephen Dutton, Michigan (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/26/13: #8 Nick Dardanes, Minnesota (B1G dual; Minneapolis, MN)
2/8/13: #5 B.J. Futrell, Illinois (B1G dual; Champaign, IL)
2/16/13: #6 Mitchell Port, Edinboro (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
On the bright side, Ballweg won't have to face any of InterMat's top-3 wrestlers (Maple, Mangrum, Graff) during the regular season. The downside is that he'll have to wrestle pretty much every other guy in InterMat's top-10. That's not going to be fun. But Ballweg should have plenty of experience with top competition prior to the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and he'll hold his seeding destiny in his hands -- beat some of these guys and he'll wind up with a solid seed. Lose to them all and he's going to have a lot of work to do in March to claim any honors.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
Ballweg isn't a completely unknown quantity -- he got a good run in the starting lineup two years ago, after all -- but he's still a bit of a mystery. We haven't seen him against most of the currently ranked wrestlers at 141 and his experience against top wrestlers at this weight is also fairly limited. He's done pretty well against the competition he has faced and his pinning ability is exciting, but we really don't know that much about him yet, which makes projecting him for big-time honors feel a little premature. The potential is there, but we'll need to see more before we can make any predictions with confidence. I think he can crack the top-4 at the Big Ten Tournament, though, and be a fringe All-American contender -- maybe falling short in the Round of 12.
B1G: top 4, NCAA: All-American