While we try to forget
figure out this miserable mystifying football team and celebrate 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 and THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Someday I will do this preview and end with a weight other than 149. I believe that -- I really do. But that year is not this year. It's still a wicked bit of irony that this weight has gone from Iowa's strongest weight during the Brent Metcalf years to its weakest weight in the years since Metcalf graduated. As we did last year, I'm going to lump the first two categories of our preview format together, since a) we don't really have a known quantity and b) we have a few options.
The clubhouse leader for the spot is redshirt freshman Brody Grothus. Grothus wasn't a blue-chip recruit (ranked #108 overall by d1collegewrestling), but he won a state title during a 52-0 senior season and he was a prolific pinner in high school; 115 of his 175 career wins were by pinfall. There was some talk that Grothus might even man the starting spot at 149 last year as a true freshman, but that ended after a decent-but-not-great showing at Midlands (capped off by a 15-7 major decision loss to Mike Kelly, the eventual starter at 149) and Grothus ended up taking a redshirt year after all. He went 18-6 during that redshirt year; interestingly, half of those losses came against fellow Iowa wrestlers (two losses to Jake Ballweg in addition to the Kelly loss). Grothus has a reputation for being a bit of a "big move" wrestler and going for big throws and high-scoring moves, which is great... when it works. It can also backfire and leave him more vulnerable to big moves himself. That said, he's an offensive, attack-happy wrestler, which is the sort of wrestler that Brands tends to prefer. If he can shore up his defense and show an ability to score consistently on opponents, he'll likely be the man at this weight.
If Grothus isn't the man at this spot this year, it will probably be Mike Kelly. Kelly started a good chunk of last year at 149 for Iowa, with deeply frustrating -- and underwhelming -- results. He went 9-13 at 149... but six of the wins came at Midlands. (Two of his nine wins also came via forfeit.) He lost a lot of close matches -- six by two points or less -- which might suggest that he wasn't that far from being a very solid option at 149. On the other hand, his severe lack of offense was a real problem last year. He struggled to finish shots and in several of his matches, the only points he scored were via escape. The thinking was that Kelly struggled with the weight cut, which seemed plausible since he started the year at 157 and he came to Iowa as a candidate at 157 or 165. The hope was that he might have more offense this year if he'd spent the off-season prepping to be at 149. The results at the wrestle-offs suggest otherwise, although that's also a very small sample size. Kelly should get some opportunities to wrestle unattached at some tournaments in the early season; if he impresses there -- and shows some offense -- he might get another crack at the starting job.
Beyond Grothus and Kelly, there are a host of options, although no one who's probably ready for the big-time now. Patrick Rhoads, who came to Iowa as a 157er, dropped down to 149 to compete for that spot this year after going 6-4 during his redshirt year last season. Jake Kadel, another 149er, went 8-8 during his redshirt year last season. Per the official roster, there's also Joey Trizzino (9-3 at 157 and 165 during his redshirt year last season), Jeret Chiri (didn't compete last year), and true freshman Connor Ryan. The official roster also lists the oft-injured Dylan Carew (the guy who was supposed to be the replacement for Metcalf several years ago), although I'm not sure about his current status. (Jake Ballweg was an option last year, but he left the program to focus on academic pursuits in the off-season.) Whew.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
Last year's national champion, Penn State's Frank "The Tank" Molinaro is gone, but six of last year's NCAA All-Americans are back, including the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-place finishers (Minnesota's Dylan Ness, Binghamton's Donnie Vinson, Ohio State's Cam Tessari). More importantly, they've been joined by a pair of new or returning big names at the weight, Oklahoma State's Jordan Oliver and Boise State's Jason Chamberlain. Oliver has been an elite wrestler since he arrived in Stillwater; he's a three-time All-American, two-time NCAA finalist, and the 2011 NCAA champion. Of course, all of those accomplishments happened at 133, two weight classes lower than this. Oliver made the move to 149 with an eye to his future; he intends to compete at around 145 lbs. on the international scene after he leaves college. He wrestled at that weight in freestyle competition this past off-season and did well, so there's definitely reason to think he'll do pretty well at 149 in college. Chamberlain took an Olympic redshirt last year, but was a 3rd-place finisher at the 2011 NCAA Tournament. There's also Penn State's Andrew Alton, who went 30-10 as a true freshman at 141 two season ago, before redshirting last year. All told, 149 looks like a pretty deep weight this year.
THE KEY MATCHES
11/16/12: #10 Derek Valenti, Virginia (non-conference dual; Chattanooga, TN)
12/6/12: #18 Shane Welsh, Lehigh (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
12/16/12: #8 Justin Accordino, Hofstra (non-conference dual; New York City, NY)
1/4/13: #7 Cam Tessari, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/6/13: #14 Ivan Lopuchanski, Purdue (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/13/13: #1 Jordan Oliver, Oklahoma State (non-conference dual; Stillwater, OK)
1/18/13: #11 Eric Grajales, Michigan (B1G dual; Ann Arbor, MI)
1/26/13: #3 Dylan Ness, Minnesota (B1G dual; Minneapolis, MN)
2/1/13: #6 Andrew Alton, Penn State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/10/13: #13 Jake Sueflohn, Nebraska (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/16/13: #17 Dave Habat, Edinboro (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
Whoever mans this weight for Iowa this season will get quite a bit of experience against top competition -- matches against 11 of InterMat's top-20, including half of the top-10. Grothus will get an early taste of high-end competition when he faces Virginia's Valenti tomorrow and January will be an almost uninterrupted streak of matches against ranked opponents. In fact, the Big Ten schedule in general looks very daunting -- six of the eight conference dual meets will pit Iowa's 149er against a ranked opponent.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
We ask so little of this weight, yet it continues to disappoint us every year. Is this the year that trend reverses? Hopefully... but it's difficult to have too much confidence in that when Iowa's going to be starting either an untested guy or a guy who underwhelmed at the spot last year and when the competition seems pretty daunting. If Grothus or Kelly can finish in the top half of the Big Ten and qualify for the NCAA Tournament -- and win a match or two there -- then I think we'd probably have to consider that a success for this weight this year. Hopefully we see some results this season that give us reason to have higher expectations next year.
COMING TOMORROW: A preview and open thread for Iowa's season-opening dual meet triple-header.
COMING NEXT WEEK: A look-ahead at some of Iowa's biggest dual meets this season, as well as a breakdown of the top contenders for the NCAA Tournament.