The team title had already been salted away, secured with a dominating and exhilarating performance in the semifinals on Friday night. It was, in fact, almost the exact opposite of Iowa's performance a year ago, when an ugly collapse in the semifinal round left the Hawks with only one man in the finals (Brent Metcalf), made the team title race an actual competition, and forced the Iowa wrestlers to regroup and do some damage in the consolation brackets. They did just that and eked out a second-straight title anyway, sweating the entire way until Northwestern's Jake Herbert clinched the victory by defeating Ohio State's Mike Pucillo for the 184-lb. title. A year later, the Iowa wrestlers sucked the suspense out of the team race by staying steady in the early rounds while many of their projected competitors (Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Iowa State) were imploding and suffering shock upsets that left them missing some key point-scorers in their quest to upset the Iowa juggernaut, and then putting the title out of reach by sending five men into the semifinals... and then sending all five into the finals.
At that point, Saturday's championship finals became about individual gratification: ending careers on a high note for the three seniors involved and making the rest of the nation take notice for the two underclassmen. Three champions later (and achingly close to four), it was mission accomplished and a much happier group of Hawkeyes than we'd seen after team triumphs at last year's NCAA Tournament (when only Metcalf made the finals, where he suffered an upset loss to NC State's Darrion Caldwell) and this year's Big Ten Tournament (when six Hawkeyes entered the finals and only two emerged victorious), where team victories were sullied slightly by individual failures.
It was only fitting that Iowa's triumphant finals session began with a Matt McDonough victory; he'd been Iowa's sparkplug all season, pacing the way in meet after meet with dominating wins to get things rolling. His win over Long (the fourth this season) wasn't half as dominating as most of his wins this season, but it was also the only one with an NCAA Championship on the line. Any win's a pretty fine win those circumstances. McDonough's win was nearly followed by another, as Dan Dennis was seconds away from knocking off his nemesis, Minnesota's Jayson Ness, only for Ness to pull off an incredible takedown and nearfall in the final seconds to win. The agony of that match was followed by Marion's loss to Cornell's wildly talented freshman, Kyle Dake. Brent Metcalf was there to stop Iowa's skid in title matches in the most-hyped and most-anticipated match of the evening, knocking off Lance Palmer and avenging both his Big Ten Tournament loss to Palmer and his NCAA Tournament loss a year ago. The evening wrapped up in style with Jay Borschel's dominant win over previously undefeated Mack Lewnes, giving Iowa its third national championship and solidifying this year's team as one of the greatest in Iowa's storied history. The trio of national champions was the most for an Iowa team since 1998 and the 134.5 team points were the 10th most in NCAA history.
The man of the weekend, for our money, was Jay Borschel. Matt McDonough and Brent Metcalf had excellent weekends of their own (as did Dennis and Marion, even if they didn't end in the fashion they would have wanted) and Ryan Morningstar's hard-nosed performance, gritting out a 7th-place finish on a badly injured knee deserves special commendation, but Borschel's performances on Friday and Saturday night were the sort of brilliance that won't soon be forgotten. No one would have dreamed that possible after the first four minutes of Borschel's semifinal match, when he was staring down a 9-3 deficit and his national title hopes were swirling down the drain. But the next ten minutes that Borschel wrestled -- the final ten minutes of his Iowa career, in fact -- were ten of the finest minutes any Iowa wrestler has had in recent memory. His comeback against Henrich was amazing, improbable, spectacular -- insert the adjective of your choice. His utter domination of Cornell's Mack Lewnes, the undefeated 1-seed at 174 and a man who hadn't been taken down by an opponent even once all season, was perhaps even more amazing. The shock on Lewnes' face when Borshcel recorded a takedown in the opening minute was apparent and he never seemed to recover the rest of the match... though it didn't help that Borschel showed why he's been so masterful at riding people all season, utterly smothering Lewnes and rolling to an incredible win. A win like that in the NCAA Tournament finals would have been impressive enough -- to do it against an opponent like Lewnes makes it the stuff of legends.
(Weight-by-weight breakdowns after the jump.)
125 -- Matt McDonough (37-1, RS FR) 5-0 at NCAA Tourney, 1st place, National Champion, All-American
R1: W, TECH FALL (15-0, 6:31) over Jason Lara (Oregon St)
R2: W, DEC (10-6) over Anthony Zanetta (Pitt)
QF: W, MAJ DEC (9-0) over Jarrod Garnett (Va Tech)
SF: W, MAJ DEC (14-3) over Cashe Quiroga (Purdue)
FIN: W, DEC (3-1) over #5 Andrew Long (ISU)
Meet the new boss, not quite the same as the old boss. No, he might be better. Or he might not, but by virtue of winning a national championship as a freshman, Matt McDonough is already one-up on the former face of the Iowa wrestling program, Brent Metcalf. The torch was passed last night (and Metcalf made it abundantly clear in his post-match comments) and from the looks of things, the Iowa wrestling program is in good hands. McDonough is a redshirt freshman with the wisdom and maturity of a grizzled veteran. McDonough steamrolled through the first four rounds of the tournament (stumbling only slightly against Pitt's Zanetta) before facing the wrestler he just can't seem to shake: Iowa State's Andrew Long. Long and McDonough battled each other on numerous occasions in the Iowa prep ranks and the duo had already faced each other three times this season before last night's final. But no matter the setting -- the Iowa-Iowa State dual, the Midlands Championships, the National Duals, the NCAA Tournament -- the result was the same: McD wins. Long has narrowed the gap in every match and he's undoubtedly a formidable foe (anyone who could knock off 4-seed Anthony Robles and 1-seed Angel Escobedo in the preceding rounds is a serious threat), but he still can't get past McDonough.
Like Metcalf, McDonough wrestled a more cautious, defensive match in the finals (at one point, Long actually had attempted more shots than McD), which may simply be the nature of the beast when you're wrestling an opponent who you have so much history with; when you wrestle someone four times in one season, there aren't many new tricks to whip out and even a lot of the old ones aren't going to work quite as well. Still, he managed to get the takedown he needed and use his defense to skillfully prevent Long from getting one of his own, which wound up being exactly what he needed to win the match. To be sure, McDonough also benefited from a favorable draw; Long was the only seeded wrestler he faced the entire tournament. But all you can do is wrestle whoever shows up on the mat across from you and McD did just that, massacring everyone he fought until Long, who he simply beat. The end result spoke for itself: a national championship for a redshirt freshman, Iowa's first freshman national champion since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993. Here's to hoping it's the first of many to come for the new face of Iowa wrestling.
FINAL GRADE: A
133 -- Dan Dennis (22-4, SR) 4-1 at NCAA Tourney, 2nd place, All-American
R1: W, DEC (6-2) over Kevin Smith (Buffalo)
R2: W, DEC (4-0) over Kelly Kubec (Oregon St)
QF: W, DEC (4-3) over #10 Nick Fanthorpe (ISU)
SF: W, DEC (5-3) (OT) over #3 Franklin Gomez (MSU)
FIN: L, DEC (6-4) to #1 Jayson Ness (Minny)
Sadly, Dennis' NCAA Tournament performance isn't going to be defined by his continued success against talented foes like Fanthorpe or (especially) Gomez. It's going to be defined by his "agony of defeat" moment at the end of his championship match with Ness. In ten seconds, Dennis went from finally topping Ness this season and winning a national championship to losing to Ness again and watching that championship slip through his fingers. The pain of this loss will linger for a long, long time. Until the final 10-15 seconds, Dennis had wrestled a nearly flawless match, perfectly executing his gameplan and frustrating Ness at virtually every turn. But those last 10-15 seconds... "Brutal" doesn't even begin to describe that loss. It's difficult to imagine a more painful way to lose. Your heart goes out to Dennis, who battled back from a painful injury earlier this season and wrestled two nearly perfect matches against the other two best 133-lb. guys in the nation (Gomez and Ness), only to come up just short and lose in excruciating fashion. Then again, as Ness pointed out in his interview afterward, he had Jesus on his side at the end there -- so I guess it was really a handicap match for Dennis. Maybe we should lobby a protest.
FINAL GRADE: A-
141 -- Montell Marion (27-6, SO) 4-1 at NCAA Tourney, 2nd place, All-American
R1: W, DEC (11-8) over Cole Von Ohlen (Air Force)
R2: W, DEC (10-5) over Conor Beebe (Cent Mich)
QF: W, DEC (7-5) (OT) over Germane Lindsey (Ohio)
SF: W, DEC (7-6) over #10 Tyler Nauman (Pitt)
FIN: L, DEC (7-3) to #1 Kyle Dake (Cornell)
Like McDonough, Marion caught a few breaks when the higher-seeded wrestlers on his half of the bracket began dropping like flies (3-seed Mike Thorn, who'd gone 2-1 against Marion this season, fell in the second round and 2-seed Jamal Parks fell in the quarterfinals), but full credit to him for being able to avoid getting bitten by that upset bug. Upsets are a fact of life at the NCAA Tournament and national championships are won by teams and individuals that can keep their shit together and keep winning. Marion did just that. Marion's two biggest problems this season seemed to be a lack of confidence and inconsistency; hopefully his impressive run through the NCAA Tournament proves to him that he's as good as anyone in the 141 lb. division -- he's beaten the 2- and 3-seeds before and he wrestled Dake hard (had he been able to secure an impressive-looking first period takedown the complexion of the match may have been different). He should not be lacking confidence going into next year, and hopefully his continued development and increased experience, coupled with his already prodigious athletic talent, will enable to move up one more spot on the podium at next year's national tournament.
FINAL GRADE: A-
149 -- Brent Metcalf (36-1, SR) 5-0 at NCAA Tourney, 1st place, National Champion, All-American
R1: W, MAJ DEC (15-6) over Trent Washington (UNI)
R2: W, MAJ DEC (20-7) over Kyle Borshoff (American)
QF: W, MAJ DEC (16-4) over #7 Mitch Mueller (ISU)
SF: W, DEC (6-2) over #3 Kyle Terry (Oklahoma)
FIN: W, DEC (3-2) over #1 Lance Palmer (Ohio St)
What more is there to say about Metcalf? No one on the Iowa team (and possibly no other wrestler in the country) was under more pressure this weekend than Metcalf -- the pressure to lead the Iowa team, the pressure to atone for his losses at last year's national championship finals and his loss to Palmer at the Big Ten finals two weeks, and, most of all, the pressure to live up to the incredible standard he's set and the legacy he's made at Iowa. Win or lose, his career at Iowa still would have been incredible -- it could hardly be otherwise with 107 career wins, multiple Midlands and Big Ten championships, a national championship, and dozens of memories and Youtube videos of his domination -- but it would have felt slightly tainted and underwhelming if he hadn't been able to wrap it up with a flourish and a championship. There is, after all, a significant difference between winning one national championship and winning multiple titles; dozens of guys at Iowa have won national titles, but only 21 had won two or more titles prior to Metcalf yesterday. And while he might not have ended his career in quite the dominant fashion that characterized it -- there was no dismemberment of Palmer, literally or figuratively, it was a win on the biggest stage, a win that Metcalf needed to have.
And it was a win that highlighted one of the less-mentioned aspects of his game: his mind. Metcalf wrestled the match that Palmer wanted -- low-scoring and defensive -- and still beat him at it. And his strategic gambit of taking neutral in the third period proved brilliant, as it prevented Palmer from utilizing his best asset: his riding game on top. By forcing Palmer to his feet, Metcalf dared him to complete a takedown to beat him... and since Palmer hadn't completed a takedown off of his own offense in six prior meetings with Metcalf, it was logical to assume it wasn't suddenly going to happen now. Farewell, Brent; aside from Shonn Greene, also a rather soft-spoken man who left his opponents bruised, battered, and bloodied, no other Iowa athlete over the last five years has been as dominant and captivating. You were something special. And we probably won't know exactly how special until another wrestling season starts next fall and you're not there to make the rest of the nation tremble in fear.
FINAL GRADE: A
157 -- Jake Kerr (13-11, JR) 2-2 at NCAA Tourney
R1: W, DEC (8-7) over Tejovan Edwards (Arizona St)
R2: L, DEC (8-1) to #1 JP O'Connor (Harvard)
CONSO R2: W, DEC (6-5) over #11 Robert Erisman (Okie St)
CONSO R3: L, DEC (5-1) to #9 Matt Moley (Bloomsburg)
Kerr's two wins this week were two more than Iowa got out of the 157 lb. spot a year ago, so in that sense, his tournament should probably be considered a success. After all, he could've been 0-2 and contributed just as much as if Iowa hadn't even qualified a man at 157. And, hey, Kerr kept it closer against eventual national champion O'Connor than O'Connor's semifinals opponent, American's Steve Fittery -- that counts for something, right? All kidding aside, Kerr essentially exactly lived up to the expectations we had for him before the tournament -- win a couple matches, get eliminated without challenging for All-America status. There was just nothing in his body of work this season to suggest a different result.
Morningstar and his mega-brace had an amazing tournament, all things considered.
165 -- Ryan Morningstar (30-8, SR) 4-2 at NCAA Tourney, 7th place, All-American
R1: W, DEC (4-2) (OT) over Donald Jones (West Va)
R2: W, DEC (3-1) over #10 Alex Meade (Okie St)
QF: L, DEC (2-1) to #2 Jarrod King (Edinboro)
CONSO R4: W, DEC (3-2) (2OT) over Justin Kerber (Cornell)
CONSO R5: L, DEC (2-0) to Nick Amuchastegui (Stanford)
7th-PLACE: W, DEC (3-2) over Chris Brown (Old Dom)
After Morningstar had defeated Brown in the 7th-place match on Saturday morning, Andy Hamilton revealed the true extent of Morningstar's injury: a torn MCL and PCL in his knee. As Morningstar himself noted, he was one bad hit away from blowing out his entire knee and needing reconstructive surgery. He could barely shoot off that knee, and yet he still managed to win four matches and become an All-American for the second-straight year. There's a (well-deserved) tendency to roll one's eyes when sportswriters go on about an athlete's "guts," "grit," "courage," and "tenacity"... but what else are you going to say about Morningstar? He wrestled six matches on a badly damaged knee against top competition, winning four and narrowly losing the other two. Morningstar may have been one of the most frustrating Iowa wrestlers to watch most of the time, but anyone who doesn't have a tremendous amount of respect for his efforts is a fool. Morningstar's clawed and scratched his way into a 3rd-place finish a year ago to secure Iowa much-needed points and while his points this year may not have been crucial to the team title, anyone in that locker room who wasn't inspired by his effort should have their heads examined.
FINAL GRADE: B+
174 -- Jay Borschel (37-0, SR) 5-0 at NCAA Tourney, 1st place, National Champion, All-American
R1: W, DEC (7-1) over Scott Giffin (Penn)
R2: W, MAJ DEC (10-0) over Daniel Rinaldi (Rutgers)
QF: W, DEC (3-0) over #10 Jordan Blanton (Illinois)
SF: W, DEC (10-9) over #3 Christopher Henrich (Virginia)
FIN: W, DEC (6-2) over #1 Mack Lewnes (Cornell)
What a tournament for Borschel, what a way to finish his Iowa career. It started in relatively unassuming fashion, with decision wins over Giffin and Blanton sandwiched around a major decision over Rinaldi, but turned into something incredible about midway through the second period of Friday's semifinal match with Henrich. After digging himself a massive 9-3 hole against Henrich, JayBo responded with one of the most thrilling comebacks in recent memory, rattling off a pair of takedowns and getting a couple stalling points against Henrich, and then riding Henrich out after his final takedown to secure the riding time point and the win. It was simply incredible stuff from a guy who seemed dead and buried. And to then turn around just utterly dominate the 1-seed in the tournament, a guy who hadn't given up a takedown all season... to take him down twice and just ride him mercilessly... well, the shocked look on Lewnes' face during that match said it all. Borschel just completely owned a guy who'd been untouchable all season. That's how you cap off a national championship.
FINAL GRADE: A
184 -- Phil Keddy (26-10, SR) 3-3 at NCAA Tourney, 8th place, All-American
R1: W, MAJ DEC (11-3) over Michael Salopek (Virginia)
R2: W, DEC (6-2) over #8 Louis Caputo (Harvard)
QF: L, DEC (6-4) to #1 Kirk Smith (Boise St)
CONSO R4: W, MAJ DEC (14-5) over Andrew Saunders (UNC Greensboro)
CONSO R5: L, DEC (5-3) over #5 Clayton Foster (Okie St)
7th-PLACE: L, DEC (9-5) to #3 Dustin Kilgore (Kent St)
In truth, Keddy's NCAA Tournament was a microcosm of his entire season: win some, lose some, look really good at times, and be unable to get over the hump against the top guys at other times. It was painful to see Keddy fall so short of his goals here, since he'd always been one of the most exciting Iowa wrestlers and one of the easiest to root for. Unfortunately, he could never find a consistent rhythm here, just like he could never settle into a comfortable groove during the season. Injuries played a part in Keddy's performance, too -- he didn't have to battle through a painful injury in the tournament like Morningstar, but the losses that resulted in part from his injuries early in the season left him with a brutally difficult seeding. And as lucky as McDonough and Marion were in their draws, Keddy was every bit as unlucky, drawing no less than four higher-seeded wrestlers in this tournament. That's a tall hill to climb, especially for someone whose form has been has up-and-down as Keddy. Keddy was also hampered by the fact that he seemed to have plateaued; after four years, his opponents had figured out his tricks and longer, taller wrestlers especially were able to frustrate him. Still, Keddy was able to attain All-America status for the third consecutive year, which is an impressive accomplishment, especially for someone who was so undistinguished as a freshman (14-17). He had a good career at Iowa; it just ended in disappointing fashion.
FINAL GRADE: C
197 -- Chad Beatty (17-5, SR) 3-2 at NCAA Tourney
R1: L, DEC (4-2) (2OT) to Alan Gelogaev (Okie St)
CONSO R1: W, DEC (5-4) over Dennis Drury (UNC)
CONSO R2: W, DEC (2-1) (2OT) over Joseph Kennedy (Lehigh)
CONSO R3: W, DEC (3-2) over Matthew Wilps (Pitt)
CONSO R4: L, DEC (7-4) to #5 Trevor Brandvold (Wisco)
If any Iowa wrestler has had a worse string of luck over the past three years than Beatty, I'd be stunned. From taking his lumps at a weight two classes higher than his normal weight three years ago to the various injuries he's battled over the past two seasons, Beatty's hasn't had much good luck fall his way. So it was understandable if you were hoping that just once Beatty might catch a few breaks. It didn't happen. Beatty got a brutally difficult draw, then lost his first match on a controversial call. Attaining All-America status became incredibly difficult at that point, as he would have needed to win four matches in a row just to get into the 7th place match. To his credit, Beatty did manage to win a series of three heart-stopping matches to put himself on the cusp of All-America status, only to come up just short in that crucial fourth match. Beatty ends his Iowa career as the only multi-year starter on these three National Championship teams to never attain All-America status, which I'm sure is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, being a three-year starter on three National Championship teams is nothing to sniff at; it just would've been nice if he could've ended his career with a trip to the podium.
FINAL GRADE: B-
Hwt -- Dan Erekson (16-2, SR) 4-2 at NCAA Tourney, 7th place, All-American
R1: W, DEC (11-6) over Clayton Jack (Oregon St)
R2: W, PIN (2:36) over #12 Scott Steele (Navy)
QF: L, DEC (6-2) to #4 Konrad Dudziak (Duke)
CONSO R4: W, DEC (4-1) over #6 Nathan Everhart (Indiana)
CONSO R5: L, DEC (3-1) (OT) to #9 Mark Ellis (Mizzou)
7th-PLACE: W, DEC (8-2) over #7 Jarod Trice (Cent Mich)
Of all the Iowa wrestlers not to make the finals and finish 7th or worse, Erekson may be the most disappointing. Kerr simply wasn't that good this year, Morningstar was battling the aforementioned knee injury, Keddy's been terribly inconsistent all season, and Beatty's just recently returned from a serious injury. Erekson, on the other hand, had looked so good for most of this season, was coming off a Big Ten Championship, and had looked excellent at last year's NCAA Tournament (finished 4th). And he looked strong through the first two rounds here... then just laid an egg against Duke's Dudziak. It's hard to say exactly what happened there -- Erekson looked a little sluggish and out of sorts and Dudziak is a talented wrestler and a difficult match-up -- but it ended Dan's title run. Still, he bounced back with another win over Big Ten runner-up Everhart and finished with a decisive win over Trice to clinch 7th after coming up just short against Ellis. Disappointing as it was to see Erekson not do better, the guys he lost to were last year's national champion and runner-up and at least he was able to finish off his Iowa career with a win.
FINAL GRADE: B-
This tournament represents the last hurrah for one of the finest collections of wrestling talent in Iowa history. By the numbers, their success is staggering: three straight national championships, three straight Big Ten championships, three straight Midlands championships, three straight National Duals championships, and a cornucopia (HA HE SAID CORN BECAUSE THEY'RE IOWA) of dual meet winning streaks (61 straight overall, 41 straight on the road, 25 straight at home, 27 straight over Big Ten foes), eight dual meet shutouts in the 2009-2010 season alone, and four individual national championships from three different wrestlers. Whew. Suffice to say, this has been one hell of a run for Iowa wrestling and it does feel like the end of an era, considering that seven starters from this year's team were seniors who wrestled their final matches for Iowa this weekend. The departing seniors have been mainstays of the Iowa team over the past three years -- Metcalf, Borschel, Keddy, Beatty, and Morningstar were all three-year starters and Dennis and Erekson both started the last two years -- and were essential to the success that Iowa's enjoyed. So other programs will be breathing a sigh of relief that their eligibility is finally used up.
Next season's team is going to look very different; it's a safe bet that McDonough and Marion will both be in the line-up, although there's no guarantee it will be at 125 and 141, respectively. The options for the other eight spots are plentiful and the competition will be fierce. Cornell, Oklahoma State, and Minnesota return many of the key players from their current teams and should be in the thick of the national title hunt. Cael Sanderson's been redshirting a few key figures and bringing in highly-rated talent to get Penn State into the mix as well. But whither Iowa? What of the poor Hawkeyes? Are they going to go quietly into the night without Metcalf, Borschel, et al.? Anyone who expects that is deluding themselves. Brands can recruit (his incoming class was rated the best in the nation) and his ability to develop talent should be painfully evident (If you need a refresher, take a gander at the stats above).
There's no doubt Iowa won't be the overwhelming favorites that they were this past year; despite being the three-time defending national champions, they may not even be the preseason #1 team, depending on how strongly they're penalized for having only 2-3 returning starters. But overlook them at your peril. The current national title run began three years ago with a team led by a defending national champion (Mark Perry) and featuring a slew of highly regarded but largely untested underclassmen (Brent Metcalf, Jay Borschel, Joe Slaton, etc.). Next year's team features a defending national champion (Matt McDonough), a national runner-up (Montell Marion), and a slew of highly regarded but largely untested underclassmen (Derek St. John, Dylan Carew, Tony Ramos, Nate Moore, etc.). We're not guaranteeing another national title, we're just saying... we've been here before and seen how this story can end.