Come January, when the Iowa football team again goes into hibernation for another nine months, what's a Hawkeye fan to do? Well, pay attention to our
preseason consensus cellar dweller up and coming basketball team... but you could also give a little time to the wrestling team and their quest for a fourth national championship in the last five years. It is the one sport we're really, really good at, after all. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series for football, we bring you A Winner is You!, a weight class-by-weight class breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down each Thursday (ish) from the weight class we have the most confidence in to the weight class we have absolutely no clue about. Which is this one.
(Okay, so our starter at 149 probably won't be the Riddler. One, he's a criminal. Two, he's probably out of eligibility anyway. Three, Frank Gorshin is dead. Incidentally, Frank Gorshin was probably cooler than you.)
THE KNOWN QUANTITY and THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Well this is depressing. 149 checked in almost last a year ago during the A Winner Is You previews (and would have certainly been dead last if the Montell Marion situation at 141 had been clearer) and a year later the situation hasn't improved any. Last year the man with the unenviable task of replacing Brent Metcalf (remember him? He sure was good; back then 149 got the leadoff role in the AWIY rundown) was supposed to be Dylan Carew, a two-time state champion from Iowa City West. Then he tore up both knees after just a handful of matches, putting his season on ice. After Carew, Iowa tried a variety of options -- none of them too impressive. Jeret Chiri got the first try and wound up going 4-4; unfortunately he struggled against top-level competition and his losses weren't very close (pin, major decision, major decision, 11-4 decision). Then they gave Matt Ballweg a spin; he went 4-5 and routed a few nobodies and kept the losses closer, but still didn't manage to do too much. So the final guy to get a chance was Mark Ballweg, who had been displaced from his starting spot at 141 by the newly returned Montell Marion. Ballweg had a really nice season going at 141 (he actually finished with the second-most bonus points on the team, behind McD), but moving up to 149 proved to be a struggle: he went 1-5, including a pair of losses at the Big Ten Title that ended his season and kept Iowa from qualifying a wrestler at 149.
This year was supposed to be better, but thus far the early returns have been discouraging. Carew is nominally recovered from the double knee injury he sustained last year, but so far has wrestled only one match (an unimpressive 2-1 win at the Joe Parisi Open a few weeks ago) and seems to lack match fitness at the moment. Mark and Matt Ballweg have given way to a third Ballweg (Jake), who seemed promising. Jake went 19-2 during his redshirt year (including three tournament wins) and according to internet scuttlebutt was the most talented of the three Fabulous Ballweg Boys (he had three state titles to the two apiece that Mark and Matt won). So far this year he's gone 7-3, which includes a 3rd place finish at the Joe Parisi Open and a discouraging 1-2 mark against opponents at the Iowa City Duals last weekend. He has not exactly gone out and claimed the spot as his own.
And who else is there? Three other guys have competed at 149 so far this year - Jake Kadel, Ethan Owens, and Brodu Grothus - to mixed results. Kadel went 2-2 at Lindenwood and is a true freshman; he's going to be redshirting. Owens went 4-2 there and is a redshirt freshman (including a 6-0 loss to Jake Ballweg). Grothus went 5-0 there (1st place) and is also a true freshman, and while "true freshman" normally means "automatic redshirt," there's more buzz around Grothus potentially breaking into the line-up than most other true freshmen. In order to preserve the redshirt option, he won't be competing in any events except open tournaments until Midlands at the end of December, but he should have a good chance to state his case for the starting job there. There's also the chance that someone currently at a different weight moves to 149 to try and help out there; Michael Kelly (who wrestled at 157 and 165 a year ago) is still trying to make the cut down to 149 (per an intrepid member of the commentariat -- thanks!). And I suppose if literally all else fails, they could consider having Mark Ballweg bump up to 149 again.
So who wins the spot? Damn good question. I don't think we'll have a very good answer until Midlands is in the books. If he can get fit and get his mind right, Dylan Carew is probably Iowa's best option here. On the other hand, Jake Ballweg clearly has talent, even if he's struggled to show it so far. There are some who think that Kelly could do some damage at this spot if he can get his weight cut under control. And there's still the Grothus option, of course. Gun to my head, I think Ballweg ends up with this spot; Kelly seems to be struggling a lot with the weight cut, Carew's fitness is a persistent question mark, and I just don't really see them yanking Grothus' redshirt. But I'm by no means confident in that prediction; things are very much in flux at this weight and the picture could look much different a month from now.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
It's a shame that Iowa is so unsettled (and, frankly, uninspiring) at this weight because circumstances have left it bereft of a number of expected major threats. (It really is unfortunate that Iowa's two worst weights are 149 and 197; those are such relatively shallow weights that if Iowa had good options there, they would be heavy favorites to win a national title. Put, say, Brent Metcalf and Luke Lofthouse on this team and Iowa would be prohibitive favorites. Alas.) Last year's national champion, Kyle Dake, is taking his quest for a third straight national championship to his third different weight (157), and two of last year's other top four finishers (Boise State's Jason Chamberlain and American's Ganbayar Sanjaa) are gone (Chamberlain is redshirting and Sanjaa has also moved up to 157). That leaves just two returning All-Americans (it's not clear to me if 8th place finisher Derek Valenti is redshirting or not this year), 4th place finisher Jamal Parks (Oklahoma State) and national runner-up Frank "The Tank" Molinaro (Penn State). Molinaro was last seen getting ridden like a pony by Dake in last year's NCAA finals, but with Dake's move to 157 the Italian Stallion finds himself as the favorite at this weight class. The other national names to know at this weight are Mario Mason (Rutgers), Tyler Nauman (Pittsburgh, former All-American at 141), and Cole Von Ohlen (Air Force).
In terms of the Big Ten, Molinaro is (obviously) the favorite, with his biggest challengers expected to be Michigan's Eric Grajales (who wrestled Molinaro closely at last year's Big Ten finals), Illinois' Eric Terrazas, Purdue's Ivan Lopouchanski, Wisconsin's Cole Schmitt, Indiana's Taylor Walsh, Ohio State's Cam Tessari, and Minnesota's Dylan Ness (brother of former national champion Jayson Ness). They're all ranked in InterMat's top twenty, so this could be a rather challenging weight come conference season if Iowa doesn't find a good option here..
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
Um... pass? Seriously, until we know who's going to man this spot (and see them against legit competition), it's damn near impossible to provide any sort of informed prediction here. Based on what we've seen out of 149 thus far, I think we'd probably be doing really well to get a .500 record in duals and an NCAA qualifier out of this weight. Expecting a high finish at Big Tens or even sniffing All-America status at NCAAs is a little too pie-in-the-sky for now.