The Big Ten dual meet season concluded on Sunday. Iowa's 31-7 win over Nebraska gave them an 8-0 mark on the season and an undisputed claim to being the best dual meet team in the Big Ten. One of the key reasons for their success this season was the top-to-bottom depth of Iowa's team; at every dual meet, Iowa was able to roll out multiple good wrestlers spread across several weights. Of course, that depth wasn't absolute -- there was a hole or two in the line-up. The Nebraska meet is illuminating in that regard: Iowa won eight matches (out of ten) and cruised to a 31-7 win, but one of the matches they lost was at 149, where Brody Grothus was defeated, 8-0. (The other loss was at 184, which has also been a sore spot for Iowa this year, although nowhere near as much as 149.)
Unfortunately, that loss was nothing new for Grothus: he went 0-5 in Big Ten dual meets this year. His tag team partner at 149, Mike Kelly, wasn't any better: he went 0-3 in Big Ten dual meets this year. Yes, Iowa's wrestlers at 149 combined to go 0-8 in Big Ten dual meet competition this year, with three losses via major decision. On the season, Kelly and Grothus were a combined 16-12 -- and several of their wins came in early-season tournaments against back-ups or smaller college wrestlers.
In fact, neither Grothus nor Kelly has won a match in a dual meet in 2013. Grothus' last dual meet win was a 5-4 decision win over Cornell College's Trevor Engle it the Iowa City Duals (he did have a first-place finish at the Roger Denker Open last month, which sounds good until you notice that he faced guys from Baker and Ouachita Baptist in the early rounds of that event), while Kelly's last dual meet win was a wild 21-13 major decision win over Buffalo's Blake Roulo in December. And, to be fair, the Grothus-Kelly hybrid (Grotly? Kelthus?) hasn't been losing to scrubs since then -- other than Michigan State's Dan Osterman (a fringe top-20 guy), every wrestler they've faced in 2013 has been ranked in the top-20.
Still, suffice to say that the situation at 149 was bad this year. Really bad.
It wasn't always this way, of course. In fact, it wasn't long ago at all that 149 wasn't a weakness, but rather the strongest weight on Iowa's team. From 2007-08 to 2009-10, the starting spot at 149 was manned by Brent Metcalf, who was just a little bit awesome. Three-time NCAA finalist. Two-time NCAA Champion. Two-time Big Ten Champion. 100-3 record. Purveyor of glorious ass-kickings like this:
Miss you, Brent.
So what's happened since then? Let's take a little trip down memory lane...
While replacing a wrestler as good as Metcalf was never going to be easy, Iowa had a solid plan in place: Dylan Carew. Carew was a two-time state champion out of Iowa City West and the 18th overall recruit in the 2009 recruiting class, per Intermat. He went 11-1 with three pins while redshirting in 2009-2010 (Metcalf's senior season) and was primed to be the man at 149 for Iowa for the next four years. Then he tore the ACL in his left knee before the season. Undaunted, Carew planned to try and wrestle anyway... until he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee just two matches into the season. Now in possession of zero functioning ACLs, the plug was pulled on Carew's season.
To replace Carew, Iowa tried a variety of options. Jeret Chiri got a few looks early in the season, but that experiment ended after a pair of major decision losses to wrestlers from Iowa State and Michigan State and a 1-2 record at Midlands. Matt Ballweg got the call next and while he went 4-5 with three bonus point wins in his stint at 149, those bonus point wins came against wrestlers from SIU-Edwardsville (twice) and a not-very-good Ohio State wrestler. He struggled to get on track against better competition. He gave way to his younger brother, Mark Ballweg, at the end of the season. The younger Ballweg had been wrestling at 141 earlier in the year (his best weight) while Montell Marion sat out the first half of the season to deal with some legal/discpline issues. Marion's return in January displaced Mark from the lineup. Mark replaced Matt Ballweg as the starter at 149, without much success: he went 1-3 in Big Ten duals. For the season, Chiri and the Ballwegs combined to go 2-6 in Big Ten duals. Nonetheless, it was Mark who got the call at 149 for the Big Ten Tournament, where he promptly went 0-2. Iowa did not qualify a wrestler at 149 for the NCAA Tournament, a year after they had the national champion at the weight. Oof.
Mind you, Iowa hadn't put all its "future of 149" eggs in the Carew basket. In the aftermath of the three-peat clinching national title in 2010, Iowa had signed a knockout class (#1 in the nation, in fact) that included a pair of wrestlers who projected as potential 149ers. The more decorated recruit was Jake Ballweg, the youngest of the Ballweg boys, but also the one with the most successful prep career -- he was a four-time state finalist and a three-time state champion, as well as a well-regarded recruit (d1collegewrestling had him as the 31st best recruit overall). The other recruit at that weight was Anthony Baldosaro, a two-time New Jersey state champion as well as Cadet Nationals champion in freestyle and a Beast of the East champion. d1collegewrestling had Baldosaro as the 79th best recruit overall in the 2010 class. Baldosaro never ended up making it to Iowa City (I don't recall the exact reasons; possibly homesickness), but Ballweg did and went 19-2 (with 4 pins) while redshirting. The present of 149 was rough in '10-11, but the future seemed bright enough...
As you might recall, though, things didn't go much better in 2011-12 at 149. With Carew's status unclear as he rehabbed from two torn ACLs, the starting job at 149 was wide open as the season dawned. Carew did end up wrestling at the season-opening Lindenwood Open in St. Louis, but after winning his opening match, he injury defaulted in his next two matches. Uh oh. Word soon emerged that Carew had re-torn one of his ACLs, which again put him out of commission for the season.
Attention turned to Iowa's other well-regarded recent recruit at the weight, Jake Ballweg. Ballweg had finished third at the Lindenwood Open and got the starting nod at 149 for the Iowa City Duals. Unfortunately, he went 1-2 there, losing to wrestlers from Baker and Iowa Central. D'oh. Still, while those were undoubtedly poor results, it was a surprise that Ballweg never again sniffed the starting lineup in 2011-12. It was especially weird since he did well at unattached events after the Iowa City Duals kerfuffle, finishing 3rd at the Grand View Open and 1st at the Duhawk Open and compiling a 9-1 record (with 5 pins) over that span.
Meanwhile, there was another freshman -- a true freshman, in this case -- who was generating buzz in the early going last season: Brody Grothus. Grothus arrived at Iowa as a lightly -recruited prospect (d1collegewrestling ranked him 109th in their 2011 rankings), with one Iowa state title and two state runner-up finishes to his name. But he finished 1st at the Lindenwood Open (scoring three pins along the way) and then 3rd at the UNI Open, going 5-1 with three bonus point wins. Heading into the Midlands, the talk was whether or not he could be the first true freshman to start for Tom Brands at Iowa. He did alright at Midlands (3-2), but a 15-7 major decision loss to teammate Mike Kelly essentially killed off the "should Grothus start" chatter.
Mark Ballweg was again drafted to fill in at 149 after his brother's inglorious 1-2 showing at the Iowa City Duals, but his performance (1-1 in duals, 2-2 at Midlands) was only so-so. Ballweg never looked truly comfortable at 149 and so he slid back to 141 for the duration of the season.
That meant the job at 149 fell to Mike Kelly. Kelly was a two-time Iowa State champion in high school, as well as d1collegewrestling's 74th ranked recruit in the class of 2010. He began the year vying for the starting jobs at 157 and 165, but with Derek St. John putting 157 on lockdown and Nick Moore and Mike Evans being better than Kelly at 165, he found himself aced out of both spots. So he worked on cutting down to 149, finally debuting there at Midlands, where he went 5-2 and finished in 5th place. It was a promising debut -- Kelly smoked his teammate Grothus (15-7) and beat current Illinois starter Caleb Ervin (9-3) and had an encouragingly close loss (1-0) to former Purdue standout Jake Patacsil.
Unfortunately, it was the 1-0 loss that proved more prophetic for Kelly's season than the wins; Kelly went just 3-9 for Iowa in dual meets the rest of the way (and one of the wins was via forfeit). He lost three matches by just one point, suggesting that he was close to getting over the hump. Kelly's problem at the time was his offense -- his defense was stout enough to avoid giving up too many points, but he struggled to generate offense from neutral and too many of his matches featured very few legitimate shots. Still, Kelly got the nod at the Big Ten Tournament, where he went 1-3. Despite the Big Ten getting a whopping nine qualifying spots at 149, Kelly was unable to secure one of them, and so Iowa again failed to send a wrestler to the NCAA Tournament at 149.
That brings us to this year and unless you've been living under a rock the whole time, you know that things still aren't too rosy at 149. The year began with Carew (injuries) and Jake Ballweg** (a focus on academics?) hanging up their headgear and calling it quits on their wrestling careers, leaving Iowa without the services of either of the top-20 wrestlers Brands & Co. had recruited to fill the void left by Metcalf at this weight. They received a further blow when Nate Skonieczny left the team at the beginning of the season, citing homesickness. Skonieczny's departure was less a blow for the 2012-13 season than it was for the future; as a true freshman, he was unlikely to start, but he was a serious blue-chip recruit (#15 in d1collegewrestling's rankings) and appeared to be - finally - the answer Iowa had been seeking at 149.
** EDIT: I phrased this poorly. My understanding is that Ballweg's issue wasn't BAD grades at all. Rather, he's an engineering student and decided that he would rather focus on his studies than wrestling.
That turmoil left Kelly, Grothus, and redshirt freshman Patrick Rhoads as the primary options at 149 for this season. Rhoads actually beat Kelly at the season-opening wrestle-offs and picked up an 11-5 win at the Iowa City Duals, but he disappeared into limbo after that. I'm not entirely sure what became of him this year, but it's possible that he's been dealing with some undisclosed injury or illness issues -- the only event he's competed in since the Iowa City Duals was the UNI Open, where he went 3-2.
Grothus got the nod at a few duals early in the season and went 1-2 before suffering an injury that kept him out of action for a few weeks. Kelly assumed the starting job after that and actually went 6-0 in November and December, picking up 4 major decisions along the way. Had Kelly finally turned the corner? Had the proverbial light finally turned on for him? He looked much more aggressive than he had a year ago and his offense actually looked, well, decent. Rotation struck again in January, though, with Kelly and Grothus splitting duals on several weekends.
Unfortunately, neither man had much success -- as noted earlier, Iowa went 0-8 at this weight in Big Ten duals in January and February (and 0-9 overall when you factor in the loss to Oklahoma State). Neither man emerged as a particularly good option at the weight. Kelly appeared to be the safer choice (his losses tended to be closer and he never conceded bonus points), while Grothus appeared to be more attacking and have more upside, but he was also riskier (three of his losses came via major decision).
That brings us to where we are now, on the eve of the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Things are still no clearer at this weight than they were when the season began three months ago (although if Kelly is injured or ill, as has been rumored, it may just be Grothus' job by default for the remainder of the season). We don't yet know how many automatic qualification spots the Big Ten will get at 149 this year, but does it really matter? Iowa will probably need to win at least 1-2 matches at the Big Ten Tournament to claim one of those spots in the NCAA Tournament and it's virtually impossible to have any faith in either Kelly or Grothus picking up those wins for Iowa. Kelly seems like the marginally better option since he's been closer to getting wins (as well as being better at avoiding giving up bonus points to opponents, which could be important if Iowa faces either Penn State or Minnesota at this weight), but his 0-3 record in Big Ten duals is still concerning. To do anything at the Big Ten Tournament (or make the NCAA Tournament) he's going to have to beat those guys at some point and he's shown little ability to do that yet. Time will tell, but it certainly looks as though we're headed to another early exit for Iowa at 149 in the Big Ten Tournament -- and a third-straight year of not qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
So the present at this weight is a bit grim -- does the future offer much hope that better days are on the horizon? Probably not, sadly -- at least in the immediate future. As noted earlier, the loss of Skonieczny was less hurtful in what it meant for 2012-13 (he was very unlikely to start this year) than for upcoming seasons. Skonieczny would have been well-situated to try and crack the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2013-14; instead, he's the third-straight blue chip wrestler at this weight to depart Iowa long before his eligibility was up, joining the likes of Carew and (Jake) Ballweg.
It's hard to blame Brands & Co. for the repeated failures at this weight. They've recruited well enough -- Carew, Ballweg, and Skonieczny were all highly-regarded coming out of high school -- and the things that led to their departures from Iowa have been largely out of Brands' control. Is it Tom Brands' fault that Dylan Carew's ACLs were flimsier than balsa wood? Is it Tom Brands' fault that Nate Skonieczny would have trouble adjusting to life away from home? Given some of the uncertainty surrounding Jake Ballweg's career and its end (it's still not entirely clear why he never wrestled a meaningful match after the Iowa City Duals last year or why he left the team this year), it's hard to know what role Brands played in events, but there's certainly been nothing to indicate that he drove him off or anything like that.
This year Iowa has again targeted wrestlers around this weight, bringing in Brandon Sorenson and Jake Marlin. Marlin projects around 141-149 right now, while Sorenson projects around 149-157, suggesting that he might instead be the successor to Derek St. John rather than the answer at this muddled weight. Both Sorenson and Marlin are vying to becoming 4-time Iowa state champions this year (and best of luck to both in that quest). Sorenson is the more decorated recruit (#35 in this class, per d1collegewrestling) of the two, but the reality is that they'll both be true freshman in 2013-14. We've only see one true freshman start at Iowa under Brands (Nathan Burak this year) and there were special circumstances involved there (Burak spent a de facto red shirt year at the Olympic Training Center last year; also, Iowa had virtually no other decent options at 197 this year). It's very, very likely that Sorenson and Marlin will sit next year; one of them may indeed be the future we've been hoping for at this weight, but we probably won't get a chance to see until 2014-15.
Unless Iowa decides to go after a JUCO recruit (something they've done rarely) at this weight or stumbles upon a promising transfer, the options for next year look a lot like what we saw this year: Mike Kelly or Brody Grothus. The dark horse contenders would be Patrick Rhoads or one of the guys the Iowa roster has listed at 149 (Jake Kadel, Connor Ryan, Joey Trizzino), but those guys have wrestled sparingly this year, which for now makes it tough to see them as strong challengers for a starting job next year. No, at the moment another year of The Kelthus (Grotly?) Experience seems like the most likely scenario next year. If that's the case, let's hope that one (or both) of those guys can improve considerably. It's sad to see what a shambles 149 has become for Iowa, given how great it was just a few years ago.