Border Bloodbath: Iowa Finishes 4th at 2013 NWCA National Duals

Tessa Hursh, The Daily Iowan

ugh

Well, that didn't exactly go according to plan. I knew going into the weekend that claiming another National Duals title would be a challenge for Iowa -- the field included Oklahoma State, the only team to beat Iowa in a dual this year, and Minnesota, who Iowa had only defeated by virtue of a tiebreaker the first time around. Beating both of them (as Iowa would likely have to do) would be difficult. Still, I hardly expected Iowa to perform this badly. After beating Cornell by an anxiety-inducing 21-16 score on Friday night, they followed that up losing to Minnesota 22-15 in the semifinals on Saturday and to Missouri, 18-16, in Saturday's third-place match. Out of 30 matches this weekend, Iowa wrestlers lost 17 of them. Three different weights (149, 184, 197) posted 0-fer records for the weekend. It was ugly. Very, very ugly.

Needless to say, this is not exactly an ideal time for the team to be slumping -- the Big Ten Tournament is right around the corner (two weeks away) and the NCAA Tournament begins just about ten days after that event. Winning a National Duals title may or may not be a big deal (Iowa's not hanging any banners in the rafters of CHA for National Duals titles, for what that's worth) but you'd certainly like to see them wrestling better heading into the two most important events of the season. From a more pragmatic standpoint, these losses are likely to prove costly to Iowa wrestlers when it comes time to seed the NCAA Tournament, which means (on paper) harder routes to the title (or podium) for those Iowa wrestlers.

Three weeks ago we were buzzing about this Iowa team on the back of their triumphant dual meet victory over Penn State, but now? Not so much. What's changed? There's been some definite slumping from one or two Iowa wrestlers in particular (and we'll get to them in a bit), but the biggest difference? Performance in close matches. We were riding high after that meet, but Iowa was only able to claim victory there because McDonough, St. John, and Evans all won close matches (and all scored points late to earn those wins). This weekend, Iowa went 4-12 in matches decided by four points or fewer. That's brutal. Flip a few of those around and Iowa has three dual meet wins and a National Duals trophy to add to their cupboard -- and we're likely feeling better about Iowa as a whole, too.

Ideally, Iowa would be able to wrestle fewer close matches because they're winning by lopsided margins, but that may not be realistic, especially with the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments coming up -- the competition is strong there and the matches figure to be tight there. So to be successful Iowa is going to need to figure out how to win those close matches.

One way they can do that? By wrestling smarter matches. There were too many times this weekend when Iowa wrestlers gave up takedowns late in periods or conceded a late escape; those cheap points too often led to wins for Iowa opponents. Iowa also struggled with making the correct strategic decisions at times. Against Missouri, Nathan Burak didn't take bottom* and attempt to escape, even though he was only down 1-0 at the time and an escape would have tied the match (and, as it turned out, sent things to overtime). Against Minnesota, Bobby Telford did take bottom against Tony Nelson, despite never getting no meaningful escapes against Nelson in any of the roughly five billion times they've wrestled in the past. Guess what? He still didn't get an escape here (though he did get an escape late in the second period after a Nelson reversal). What a shocker. Or there was Mark Ballweg against Minnesota, breaking down and walking into an easy takedown for Nick Dardanes, which emboldened him to go for a major decision (which he ended up getting). Hopefully mental mistakes like this can be fixed. There are some other more troubling fundamental problems with too many Iowa wrestlers (an unwillingness to take shots, an inability to finish those shots, too much difficulty riding opponents and escaping from opponents), but it may be a struggle to fix those issues by the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. At the very least, though, they can wrestle smarter.

* I'm not sure if this was Burak's decision or Brands' decision; either way, it seems like a bad one. Burak has been generally good at getting escapes this year.

So what now? As noted earlier, there are two weeks until the Big Ten Tournament kicks off. The results here were disheartening, but I suspect the coaches and wrestlers are taking it far worse than us. Hopefully they manage to use this experience as motivation for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. If they're able to use this disappointment to light a fire under themselves to wrestle better, harder, and smarter, then at least something good will have come from this miserable experience. As bad as they looked this past weekend, though, it's worth remembering that the results here should not be the gospel in terms of forecasting future results. Iowa can (and has) wrestled better than they did here, so they certainly can (and hopefully will) wrestle better in their upcoming tournaments.

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125: Matt McDonough (2-1)
Cornell: W, DEC (8-3) over #6 Nahshon Garrett
Minnesota: W, DEC (8-2) over #13 David Thorn
Missouri: L, DEC (4-0) to #4 Alan Waters

McD's weekend started on a bad note, with Garrett getting a lightning-fast takedown off the opening whistle. I thought we might be looking at a Jesse Delgado Redux, but after that rotten start, McDonough battled back to take control of the match and defeat a good wrestler by a solid margin. He did the same against Thorn on Saturday. Outside of 184, perhaps no one at Iowa faced a tougher slate of opponents than McDonough this weekend -- two top-10 guys and another (Thorn) who is a fringe top-10 guy. There's no doubt that McD doesn't look quite right (it's been very disconcerting to see guys like Megaludis, Delgado, and now Waters all ride him so well and his offense looks less crisp than we're used to seeing), but he's also faced a tougher schedule than anyone on the Iowa roster this side of Mike Evans. He's now 10-2 against ranked opponents on the season.

The reality is that this looks like a perfect storm of problems: for whatever reason (illness, injury, weight-cutting, etc.) McD has slipped a notch or two from the standard he established over the past several seasons, while a crop of very strong challengers (most notably, Delgado, Waters, and Megaludis) has emerged to threaten McD's spot at the top. That foursome seems to have separated themselves from the pack a bit and, frankly, I expect them to be the semifinals of 125 in some fashion at the NCAA Tournament. McD's loss here (and the weakness of Waters' remaining schedule) probably assures him of the #1 seed at NCAAs, though we can certainly debate the merits of him getting the nod there after wrestling only one of the Big Ten's "big three" while those guys wrestle one another several times.

I don't even know what an ideal draw would be for McD at this point: perhaps Megaludis in the semifinals (a very tricky opponent, to be sure, but also one that McD has gone 3-0 against, which is better than his combined 2-3 record against Delgado and Waters) and the winner of Delgado/Waters in the finals. And, if nothing else, at least McD has now wrestled Waters once and can work on figuring out a way to beat him next time (one idea: don't get taken down within the first 30 seconds of the match); when McD has had a another chance to wrestle opponents who've beat him in the past, he's tended to win the rematches. McD certainly has things to work on if he wants to add another Big Ten and/or NCAA title to his legacy, but I wouldn't go pushing the panic button just yet. The path to the top is still visible -- it's just a bit more treacherous than we thought it might be before the season began.

133: Tony Ramos (2-0)
Cornell: W, FALL (6:11) over Bricker Dixon
Minnesota: W, FALL (6:56) over #8 Chris Dardanes
Missouri: n/a (forfeit)

There aren't many Iowa wrestlers who can hold their heads high after this weekend, but Tony is certainly one of them. There's also no equivocating to be done now, either: Tony is Iowa's best wrestler, end of story. The two things Ramos has been knocked for in the past were his struggles on bottom and his struggles to get back points and pins. The former is a little hard to judge because he's spent so little time in that position this year (though he did manage to get an escape against a very tough rider in A.J. Schopp a week ago), but he's made huge strides in the latter. Getting tilts and nearfalls is still a bit of a challenge, but it's hard to argue with his pinning prowess: five of his last six matches have ended in pins and the one that didn't was a 9-0 major decision over #3 Schopp (and Tony had Schopp locked in a cradle for most of the third period but just couldn't quite get him on his back). He hasn't been pulverizing just scrubs, either -- two of those five pins have come against top-10 opponents (Illinois' Daryl Thomas, Minnesota's Dardanes). He's really working the cradle beautifully right now and it's a little mind-blowing to see him turning down easy takedown opportunities late in matches because he's focused on getting the cradle and a pin. But it's working and he's wrestling brilliantly right now.

141: Mark Ballweg (0-2), Josh Dziewa (1-0)
Cornell: L, DEC (3-1) to #13 Mike Nevinger
Minnesota: L, MAJ DEC (12-4) to #10 Nick Dardanes
Missouri: W, MAJ DEC (10-2) to Nicholas Hucke

The biggest disappointment with this Iowa team is probably the rapid collapse of Mark Ballweg. A few weeks ago, Ballweg was 18-1 and wrestling beautifully; he was wrestling hard against the top guys and holding his own and getting bonus points against the weaker opponents at this weight. He looked like a solid bet to be an All-American and -- who knows? -- if the draw broke right, maybe he could even go on a Dan Dennis-esque run through the tournament. Now? Just getting on the podium might be a big achievement for Ballweg. He's currently riding a three-match losing streak and while all three losses have been to ranked opponents, they're the sort of guys (especially Nevinger and Dardanes) that he'll need to beat to be an All-American this year.

The Dardanes loss was the most disappointing by far -- not just because it was a reversal of the 3-1 victory Ballweg scored over Dardanes earlier this season, but because it looked like he was just a broken man by the end of the match. He was just walking into takedowns by the third period and making it very, very easy for Dardanes to lock up a major decision for the Gophers. That was depressing to see; Ballweg looks bereft of confidence at the moment. Which is why I was a little surprised to see Dziewa get the nod for Iowa against Missouri on Saturday night; Hucke was an unranked opponent and (seemingly) the perfect sort of opponent to try and help Ballweg get his mojo back. Instead, Brands gave Dziewa a turn and while he did well (picking up a nice 10-2 major decision that should have been a first-period pin if the refs hadn't been incompetent), it was still strange to see Ballweg rested in that situation. After the meet, Brands said that the spot at 141 was still Ballweg's, so perhaps he just thought he needed a night off to get his mind right. Let's hope that Ballweg is able to use the next two weeks to rediscover the Ballweg of January and early February; that Ballweg could make a run for the podium at the NCAA Tournament. The Ballweg we've seen lately will likely be making an early exit from the NCAA Tournament if he shows up there.

149: Mike Kelly (0-2), Brody Grothus (0-1)
Cornell: L, DEC (3-1) to #14 Chris Villalonga
Minnesota: L, FALL (2:39) to #6 Dylan Ness
Missouri: L, DEC (8-2) to #15 Drake Houdashelt

Yep, 149 is still a black hole, in case you were wondering. Mike Kelly made his return to the line-up against Cornell and Minnesota, but the results were not much different than what we had seen from Brody Grothus. The selling point for Kelly-at-149 was supposed to be the idea that while he wouldn't give you much on offense, he would give you good defense and prevent opponents from scoring bonus points. Oops. Kelly did lose only 3-1 to Villalonga on Friday, but he got stuck in the first period by Dylan Ness against Minnesota, a result which dramatically shifted the meet in Minnesota's favor. Grothus got the nod against Missouri, but the result was the same: another loss. I can't even remember the last time an Iowa wrestler at 149 got a takedown. Sigh.

157: Derek St. John (2-1)
Cornell: W, MAJ DEC (12-3) over Jesse Shanaman
Minnesota: W, DEC (7-4) over Danny Zilverberg
Missouri: L, DEC (4-3) to #19 Kyle Bradley

Several Iowa wrestled tasted the bitter fruit of disappointment this weekend, but St. John felt its sting particularly acutely, losing his undefeated season (and, perhaps, a #1 seed at the NCAA Tournament) by giving up a takedown in the last 20 seconds of his match with Missouri's Kyle Bradley. It was an ironically appropriate way for DSJ to lose a match, sadly -- he's pulled several matches out in the past with late scoring moves of his own, so he was probably bound to get bitten by someone else doing the same thing to him. That result was frustrating, but his win over Zilverberg had its own frustrations -- he was inches away from securing a takedown in the third period that likely would have allowed him to secure a 10-2 major decision, but instead he allowed Zilverberg to slip free and score a takedown of his own, reducing St. John's victory to a regular decision. To be fair, Zilverberg wrestled the best weekend of his life in this tournament (in addition to his solid showing against St. John, he scored one of the weekend's most shocking upsets with his win over Virginia Tech's Jesse Dong on Friday night), but this was still a match were DSJ had a major decision in his grasp and let it slip away. Iowa can't afford to have its best wrestlers giving away bonus points like that. Still, if ever there was a loss that seemed likely to motivate a guy and inspire better results in the future, I think the Bradley loss could be it -- I'm eager to see how St. John responds from this loss at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

165: Nick Moore (2-1)
Cornell: L, MAJ DEC (13-4) to #1 Kyle Dake
Minnesota: W, DEC (3-2) over #14 Cody Yohn
Missouri: W, DEC (3-1 OT) over #16 Zach Toal

Aside from Matt McDonough, Nick Moore was the only other Iowa wrestler to face three ranked opponents this weekend and he put up a respectable 2-1 record in those matches. His weekend started on an ominous note, with a match against the fear some Kyle Dake, but Moore had a credible 13-4 loss to Dake and almost got a takedown late that would have reduced it to a regular decision. It wasn't a match anyone will be writing songs about, but he didn't look quite as overwhelmed as he did against David Taylor three weeks ago. But we already knew Moore wasn't touching either Dake or Taylor; the key for Moore is seeing how he can do against the rest of the field. He does fine against unranked opponents or guys ranked lower than him, as evidenced by his two wins here over wrestlers ranked #14 and #16, but he'll need to prove he can beat guys ranked in that #6-12 range if he wants to get onto the podium this year. Moore is one to watch, though -- with the right draw and a bit of improvement from him (don't be so afraid to take shots!), he could turn a few heads this March.

174: Mike Evans (2-1)
Cornell: W, MAJ DEC (11-2) over Duke Pickett
Minnesota: L, DEC (3-1) to #1 Logan Storley
Missouri: W, DEC (5-2) #13 Todd Porter

The Mustache Express hit a familiar stumbling block on its path to glory this weekend: Minnesota's Logan Storley. Storley beat Evans in a controversial 4-3 decision earlier this season and beat him in a contentious 3-1 decision here. The reversal that provided the winning points for Storley was the latest in an unwelcome trend; for all his skills on top, Evans gives up more reversals or quick escapes against top-notch opponents than anyone I can remember. He absolutely has to fix that if he wants to beat guys like Storley and Chris Perry. Other than that, he also needs to figure out how to get more takedowns; he was close on a few occasions against Storley, but wasn't able to finish the deal. Aside from the Storley match, Evans had a solid weekend, scoring a major decision win over Pickett (after he spent much of the match trying to crank Pickett over for a pin) and picked up a solid 5-2 win over Porter in the nightcap on Saturday. Porter is probably a bit underrated at the moment and has given Chris Perry fits in their last two matches, so that win was a nice one for Mike.

184: Ethen Lofthouse (0-2), Grant Gambrall (0-1)
Cornell: L, DEC (3-2) to #4 Steve Bosak
Minnesota: L, DEC (4-0) to #5 Kevin Steinhaus
Missouri: L, DEC (3-2) to #12 Mike Larson

Of the three Iowa weights to take donuts this weekend (this one, 149, and 197), 184 was probably the most disappointing, since Iowa has two former All-Americans manning this weight. Alas, despite those past accomplishments, neither Lofthouse nor Gambrall can seem to get things going against the better guys at this weight. Lofthouse lost a pair of 3-2 decisions to #4 Bosak and #12 Larson; the latter loss was infinitely more frustrating, since Lofthouse took a 2-1 lead into the third period but gave up two nearfall points and was never able to get an escape, leading to the 3-2 loss. Gambrall got the nod against Steinhaus and lost 4-0. It was the same old story for Gambrall there: able to get to his opponents legs, but not able to finish. I don't know what the answer for Iowa is at this weight; neither guy has been able to string together consistent results and it's hard to see either guy adding more All-America honors to their resume this year.

197: Nathan Burak (0-3)
Cornell: L, DEC (6-3) to Jace Bennett
Minnesota: L, DEC (9-3) to #10 Scott Schiller
Missouri: L, DEC (1-0) to #18 Brent Haynes

Burak's two-match winning streak came to a screeching halt this weekend as he ate three straight losses. The main culprit? An inability to finish his shots and secure takedowns. He was close to getting takedowns in all three matches, but failed to get even one takedown all weekend. Ugh. Worse, he got out of position on some of those attempts against Bennett and Schiller, which led to takedowns for them. In the end, it was much of the same thing we've seen out of Burak this year: promising, but inconsistent.

285: Bobby Telford (1-2)
Cornell: W, MAJ DEC (9-0) over Jacob Aiken-Phillips
Minnesota: L, DEC (3-1) to #2 Tony Nelson
Missouri: L, DEC (4-2 OT) to #1 Dom Bradley

Telford scored a major decision win in his first match of the weekend (a 9-0 win over Cornell's Aiken-Phillips which clinched a dual meet victory for Iowa), but came up short in his final two matches of the weekend, against #1 Dom Bradley and #2 Tony Nelson. Both matches were close, at least in terms of the final scores -- a 3-1 loss to Nelson and a 4-2 loss to Bradley -- but it's not clear to me if Telford is really that close to beating either guy. He struggled to ride both guys and wasn't able to get takedowns on either guy. For now, it seems like Telford just isn't on their level. Maybe he'll get there eventually, but he's not there yet.

This was a bitterly disappointing weekend, but hopefully one that can at least prove instructive for the guys on the Iowa team. If they want to win trophies this year, they're going to need to wrestle better than this. The good news is that (in most cases) we know that they're capable of doing so. The bad news is that we have no guarantee that they will.

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