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Iowa Wrestling Wins 34th Conference Championship; Iowa Team, Fans Miserable Anyway


Not the happiest championship team you've ever seen.

Looking at the final stats of this year's Big Ten Tournament, it appears to have been yet another dominant, overpowering victory by the Iowa wrestling team in a season full of one-sided beatdowns.  It was... and it wasn't.  Iowa did rack up 156.5 team points, the most by any team in eight years.  They did have the title locked down before the championship matches even began and ended up winning by 37 points.  They did have two individual champions, as many as any team there.  They qualified a wrestler at each weight class for the NCAA Tournament.  By most standards, the tournament was a smashing success and another indicator of Iowa's greatness this season.  So why, then, did it feel more like a funeral than a celebration for much of the finals?  Three main reasons: expectations, attitude, and the mythology of Brent Metcalf. 

125: Matt McDonough -- 3-1, 2nd-place finish
133: Dan Dennis -- 2-1, 2nd-place finish
141: Montell Marion -- 4-1, 3rd-place finish
149: Brent Metcalf -- 2-1, 2nd-place finish
157: Jake Kerr -- 2-2, 4th-place finish
165: Ryan Morningstar -- 3-2, 4th-place finish (incl. one injury default)
174: Jay Borschel -- 4-0, 1st-place finish (BIG TEN CHAMPION)
184: Phil Keddy -- 2-1, 2nd-place finish
197: Chad Beatty -- 1-3, 6th-place finish (incl. two injury defaults)
Hwt: Dan Erekson -- 4-0, 1st-place finish (BIG TEN CHAMPION)

1) 156.5 IOWA
2) 119.5 MINNESOTA
3) 109.0 WISCONSIN
4) 102.5 OHIO STATE
5) 91.0 PENN STATE
6) 76.0 PURDUE
8) 64.0 ILLINOIS / 64.0 INDIANA
10) 57.5 MICHIGAN
11) 20.0 just NORTHWESTERN

After placing all ten wrestlers in the semifinals and placing six wrestlers in the Championship finals, visions of the sort of ridiculous dominance that Dan Gable's teams used to display began dancing in Iowa fans' heads.  Why couldn't we get ten finalists and turn the Big Ten Tournament into a de facto Iowa vs. the Big Ten All-Star Team dual?  Why couldn't Iowa get six individual champions?  The reality is that while this is a very, very good team, particularly in dual meet settings, it's not an invincible team and it doesn't have unstoppable wrestlers at each weight -- not even close, in fact.  Iowa's strength over their past two national championships has not been from having a stable of elite champions -- it's been from having a stable of deep, dependable, very good wrestlers who can rack up a lot of points -- but not necessarily championships.  Two years ago, Iowa only had two national champions (Mark Perry and Brent Metcalf); last year they had none.  These are not teams like the ones Gable rolled out in the early/mid '80s that were loaded with national champions and just ground the rest of the nation beneath their heels.

While Iowa may have greater balance and depth than any other Big Ten squad, the other Big Ten squads do have individual talents that are excellent.  Matt McDonough has had a magical run at 125 as a redshirt freshman this year... but he was still a redshirt freshman facing Angel Escobedo, a fifth-year senior, two-time defending Big Ten Champion, and 2008 National Champion.  He's no slouch.  Dan Dennis may have two wins over Jayson Ness, but Ness has also been absolutely steamrolling people this year (including Dennis at last month's dual).  He didn't win Big Ten Wrestler of the Year for nothing.  Likewise, John Dergo has been a terror at 184 this year.  Montell Marion and Ryan Morningstar were tripped up by guys that they'd beaten at last month's dual meets (Mike Thorn and Colt Sponseller)... but they're also not so much better than their foes that victories can simply be assumed.  The reality is, when top-level talents square off, the results are going to be close more often than not and they aren't always going to cut Iowa's way; we're good, but not so good that we can simply roll over everyone.

Of course, the expectations Iowa fans have are fueled by the insane culture of success that Dan Gable and Tom Brands have cultivated in the Iowa wrestling program.  And not just any success, either -- dominant success.  After his first national championship as a coach, Brands was famously quoted as saying that he wouldn't be satisfied until they had ten champions and 300 points.  Mere winning has never been enough for Brands or Gable; it's been about domination and destruction.  That's a wonderful attitude to have -- to an extent.  From a coaching standpoint, it's great -- having something to strive for (an ideal of perfection) is great for motivational purposes.  But to what extent should fans buy into the culture espoused by Brands & Co.?  Let's be clear: this is not about "accepting mediocrity" or any other such bullshit.  Hoping for excellence and dominance is one thing; not being able to enjoy an impressive win -- even if it's not as outrageously dominant as we'd hoped for -- is another thing.  Down that road lies the insufferable arrogance of Ohio State fans.  The reality is that seven of Iowa's ten wrestlers met or exceeded their seed at this tournament -- and one of the ones that failed to do so was arguably seeded too high based on his physical condition.  The level of success Iowa wrestling has enjoyed -- and is enjoying this season -- is remarkable and it's only bred even greater expectations in the fanbase.  Expecting greatness is fine, but it shouldn't prevent us from still being able to enjoy the very good.

But perhaps nothing was a greater contributing factor to the malaise that infected the Iowa fans during the finals than the loss of Brent Metcalf to Lance Palmer, that overgrown Oompa Loompa from Ohio State.  Aside from Tom Brands himself, no other figure has been more symbolic of Iowa wrestling over the last three years than Metcalf, a slightly undersized kid from Michigan with an unstoppable motor and an unrelenting drive to succeed and dominate.  Metcalf has never been one to be happy to with a simple 3-1 decision victory -- he wants to push the action and get points, points, and more points.  When he emerged on the scene in 2007-2008, Iowa fans took an immediate liking to him because he represented the cherished "Iowa style" better than anyone in years.  He was exciting, fearless, and seemingly unstoppable.  As he continued to not just beat foes, but utterly maul and humiliate them, his status as a folk hero grew and grew.  Despite being a rather soft-spoken and understated when not competing, he's spawned a frequently hilarious Twitter feed, plenty of absurd pieces here at BHGP, and innumerable fawning tributes here and on Iowa message boards all over the interwebs.  The only other Iowa athletes who've been lionized as much as Metcalf over the past three years are Shonn Greene and Adrian Clayborn (and arguably Ricky Stanzi, although more for his patriotism than his on-field play). 

It's all been fun, but it's perhaps obscured the truth, which is that while Metcalf is a very, very good wrestler and as dominant as anyone we've seen in years and years... he's not unstoppable.  He's not the greatest champion to ever come through Iowa.  There have been greater wrestlers in the past and there will likely be wrestlers greater than him in the future.  Hell, if he doesn't figure out how to beat Palmer again within the next two weeks, he's not even going to the most decorated (in terms of the most important criteria: national championships) Iowa wrestler of the Brands Era.  Lest we forget, Mark Perry did win national championships in 2006 and 2007.  But throughout Iowa's recent three-year run of dominance, some names have come and gone, others have risen and fallen, and there's been only one real constant: Metcalf.  He's 103-3 at Iowa, so it's not surprising that Iowa fans have come to see his wins as a predictable (but pleasant) part of the normal routine.  His dominance has become so expected and so routine that a simple decision victory made people wonder what was wrong.  And on the rare occasions when he actually did lose... hello, apocalypse.  (See: last year's NCAA Tournament, a win which also felt a bit hollow.)  A team triumph without a win by Iowa wrestling's most beloved son would have been like Shonn Greene getting stuffed for 35 yards in 2008 and Iowa winning anyway... x100.  It does just feel a bit wrong... but it shouldn't obscure the reality of the situation.  Improvement can certainly be made by many guys on the team, but excessive hand-wringing over a 37-point win is asinine.

125: There's little bad that can be said about Matt McDonough's performance at the Big Ten Tournament.  He tore through his early competition with two major decisions and a pinfall.  He came up short against Escobedo in the final, but as noted above -- Escobedo is an exceptionally tough and experienced wrestler.  He represented a significant step up in quality for McD and while he came up short this time, he didn't get embarrassed and he hopefully learned some things that will come in handy if he meets up with Escobedo at the NCAA Tournament in two weeks.  McDonough was also tabbed Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Iowa's first since Steve Mocco in 2000), a very deserving honor after the incredible season he's had.
Pigtail round:
W, FALL (4:33) over Brenan Lyon (MSU)
W, MAJ DEC (13-5) over #7 John Deneen (ILL)
W, MAJ DEC (8-0) over #3 Eric Sanders (MIN)
L, DEC (6-4) to #1 Angel Escobedo (IND)

133: Dennis's performance at the BTT basically confirmed what we've seen all year: he's good and very dependable, generally speaking, but he can't seem to find that next level.  It's what keeps him from turning a solid, but rote win over a guy like Paddock into a more dominant, emphatic victory and what keeps him from being able to beat Ness right now.  Dennis' two career wins over Ness might as well have been a lifetime ago; whatever advantage Dennis had over him is now completely gone and he's the one struggling to catch up now.  He badly needs to try and learn a few new tricks in the next few weeks if he wants the result of a third match with Ness to be any different.  On the plus side, his incredible run of success against Gomez continues.  As good as he's been against Gomez, though, I really hope he doesn't have to make it five in a row at the NCAA Tournament; their matches have been so close and decided on such thin margins that you have to think the result is going to be flipped at some point.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (4-0) over #7 Ian Paddock (OSU)
Semifinals: W, DEC (5-4) over #3 Franklin Gomez (MSU)
Finals: L, DEC (9-3) to #1 Jayson Ness (MIN)

141: On the surface, Marion generally did what was expected of him at the BTT: he beat the guys he "should" beat and came up short against the guy who was "better" than him and he locked up qualification for the NCAA Tournament.  On the other hand, he got absolutely thrashed by the guy who was "better" than him (a guy who he also beat down badly at a dual less than a month ago, no less) and needed some very late comebacks to pull off wins in the quarterfinals and consolation rounds.  Props to him for being able to gut out those wins, of course, but nerve-wracking wins like that against "lesser" competition don't do much to inspire a great deal of confidence in him having the level of consistency needed to do some damage at the NCAA Tournament.
Pigtail round: W, MAJ DEC (14-5) over Mark Weber (MICH)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (7-5) over #6 Juan Archuleta (PUR)
Semifinals: L, MAJ DEC (12-3) to #2 Mike Thorn (MIN)
Consolations: W, DEC (11-6) over #8 Cole Schmitt (WIS)
Third-place: W, DEC (5-2) over #6 Juan Archuleta (PUR)

149: The hyperbolic response to Metcalf's loss in the finals would be to declare his tournament a complete failure since he didn't accomplish his one main goal (a third-straight Big Ten Championship).  But that would be unfair and ridiculous.  He was at his unstoppable best in avenging his DQ win over Bertucci and while it took him longer than normal to get going against Molinaro in the semis, he eventually was able to pour it on and secure bonus points.  But that final... in truth, it was just a perfect storm of bad events for Metcalf.  Palmer is the sort of wrestler that's given Metcalf difficulty in the past (a strong, athletic guy with stout defense), Palmer had a solid gameplan that he was able to execute nearly flawlessly (avoid getting down by a lot early, control riding time, attack late), and Metcalf seemed uncharacteristically sloppy and tentative at times.  He struggled to finish a few shots that he normally gets fairly easily.  He spent most of the second period getting ridden out by Palmer (which seemed to both energize Palmer and sap some of Metcalf's own energy and confidence).  And he put himself in an unusually bad position in the third period during the scramble that allowed Palmer to get the clinching takedown and nearfall points.  He was also the victim of an odd -- if not outright bad -- call on a stall warning early in the second period that didn't help his cause (although I'd emphasize that was not why he lost; he lost because Palmer was better on this day).  The key question is: was this a flukish loss or is Metcalf in trouble if they meet up in Omaha in two weeks?  A little from column A, a little from column B.  It's hard to envision Metcalf making quite as many mistakes as he did today or looking quite as sloppy at times.  On the other hand, Palmer has always been a difficult match-up for Metcalf.  It's tough to bet against Metcalf after everything he's done at Iowa, but it's no slam dunk, either.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, FALL (1:08) over #8 Nick Bertucci (PUR)
Semifinals: W, MAJ DEC (12-3) over #4 Frank Molinaro (PSU)
Finals: L, DEC (9-3) to #2 Lance Palmer (OSU)

157: There was one goal for whoever was tabbed at 157 in this tournament: qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  Kerr got the nod and he did just that.  He beat two guys seeded lower than him, lost to a guy seeded higher than him, and finally lost to a guy seeded lower than him who simply got on a hot streak at the right time.  He never looked terribly impressive and expecting him to be an All-American at the NCAA Tourney is a stretch (to be charitable), but he did what he needed to do at this tourney.  Given how ridiculously shaky 157 has been this season, that'll have to do.  Hopefully he can win a few matches at the NCAA Tournament.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (5-3) over #5 Sean Nemec (OSU)
Semifinals: L, DEC (6-2) over #1 Colton Salazar (PUR)
Consolations: W, DEC (5-3) over #6 David Johnson (MICH)
Third-place: L, DEC (6-4) to Anthony Jones (MSU)

165: Amidst all the sturm und drang of Iowa's disappointing finals session, there was one legitimate significant negative to the proceedings -- Morningstar's potentially serious knee injury in the closing seconds of the third-place match.  As maddening as he can be (and there's been arguably no more maddening wrestler to watch at Iowa in the Brands Era -- even Mark Perry looked like an offensive dynamo in comparison to Morningstar), he was pretty damn successful and he came up with a handful of crucial points for Iowa in last year's national championship run.  So if he is unable to go in two weeks (there was speculation that it was an ACL or MCL injury), that will be a pretty significant absence.  As for this tournament... well, prior to the injury, it was classic Morningstar: razor-thin match after razor-thin match, coming out on the right side in a few (Yohn, Young), and on the wrong side in others (Sponseller).  It's Morningstar.  He is what he is and he's not bloody likely to change at this late stage in his career.
Pigtail round: W, MAJ DEC (8-0) over Jason Martin (PUR)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (3-0) over #7 Cody Yohn (MIN)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-1) to #3 Colt Sponseller (OSU)
Consolations: W, DEC (4-3) over #5 Paul Young (IND)
Third-place: L, INJ DEF to #4 Dan Vallimont (PSU)

174: Until Erekson ended the tournament on a high note with his win, Borschel's win at 174 was the lone bright spot for Iowa during the finals.  It was the sort of classic Borschel performance we've come to expect this season: consistent, dominant from on top (he breaks guys down and smothers them better than anyone right now), and capable of pulling off some great takedowns if needed (he had one in a scramble sequence that was just tremendous).  He doesn't get quite as many bonus points as a guy like Metcalf, and he may not be as flashy or as exciting... but he's brutally effective and we'll happily take that right now.  And if he can just avoid Zeerip and his "incredibly strong strength" at the NCAA Tournament, well, that would be just great, thanks.
Pigtail round: W, FALL (3:53) over Nick Avery (IND)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (2-0) over #8 Justin Zeerip (MICH)
Semifinals: W, DEC (6-0) over #5 Jordan Blanton (ILL)
Finals: W, DEC (8-1) over #3 Scott Glasser (MIN)

184: Keddy's Big Ten Tournament performance in a nutshell?  Better, but not quite there yet.  He avenged an earlier loss to Erwin, stomped all over Young, and came up just short against Dergo, who's been having an amazing year at 184  After spending some time in the wilderness earlier in the season (possibly literally; you never know what sort of batshit training exercises Brands will come up with), he definitely seems to have things together now and he looks more and more like the Keddy of old.  His biggest problem now is that his main weapon (his double underhooks to a takedown) just isn't working consistently anymore; guys have seen it too often and know how to deal with it.  He needs to tweak his attacks a little.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (14-4) over #6 Kaleb Young (MIN)
Semifinals: W, DEC (4-1) over #2 Dave Erwin (PSU)
Finals: L, DEC (5-3) to #1 John Dergo (ILL)

197: A Big Ten Championship would have been nice (and as good a feel-good story as any this weekend, given the rough and tumble career he's had at Iowa), but given Beatty's physical condition (his matches Saturday were his first in over two months), simply doing enough to ensure qualification for the NCAA Tournament may have been all we could have reasonably expected from him.  And he was able to do that.  He looked solid, if a bit rusty and lacking in conditioning (as expected after a layoff like that), so hopefully he's able to improve on this performance at the NCAA Tournament.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (6-0) over #8 Cody Magrum (OSU)
Semifinals: L, DEC (7-6) OT) to #5 Sonny Yohn (MIN)
Consolations: L, INJ DEF to #7 Logan Brown (PUR)
Fifth-place: L, INJ DEF

Hwt: Erekson almost ended the Big Ten Tournament with a bang, as he was inches away from securing a pin within the first thirty seconds of the match.  Alas, he couldn't quite get it locked in and wound up having to settle for a 9-6 decision victory.  Erekson actually scored more team points than any other Iowa wrestler at the Big Ten Tournament, so why does he have a lower grade than Borschel?  Admittedly, it's splitting hairs a bit, but the way he ran out of gas in his final two matches (and especially the final against Everhart) was a little concerning and suggestive that perhaps his conditioning still isn't up to par after his lengthy lay-off earlier this season.  Or maybe he simply used up too much energy in the pinning attempts in the first period.  Either way, aside from that, Erekson was excellent at this tournament; his quickness at the beginning of the match was simply too much for most of his opponents and by the time he wore down or they caught up, the lead he'd established was too much for them to overcome.  If Erekson can continue to improve his conditioning over the next few weeks, he'll be a definite contender for a title at the NCAA Tournament.
Pigtail round: W, MAJ DEC (9-1) over Martin Smith (ILL)
Quarterfinals: W, FALL (1:17) over #7 Ben Apland (MICH)
Semifinals: W, DEC (5-2) over #3 Cameron Wade (PSU)
Finals: W, DEC (9-6) over #1 Nathan Everhart (IND)