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Better Luck Next Year: Iowa Wrestling Finishes Third At NCAA Tournament

When you've won 23 of the last 36 national titles, the standard for success is pretty clear: national title or bust.  But after a season like this, it's awfully difficult (if not harsh) to characterize Iowa's performance at the NCAA Tournament -- or over the course of the entire season -- as a failure.  There's no doubt that it was disappointing not to add another championship to the trophy case and that so many guys faltered over the course of the weekend.  But you also have to look at the context of the season and where this team was in November and December.  As Andy Hamilton noted:

Iowa started the season with eight new starters. The Hawkeyes were ranked 11th in the preseason by one publication and later dropped to 17th in the same rankings. They didn’t look like a team capable of claiming an NCAA trophy of any type in late December when they finished fourth at the Midlands Championships, losing eight consecutive matches at one point in the tournament.

When you have to replace eight starters (and it was nine until Montell Marion made his dramatic return against Penn State late in January) and plug in three freshmen and two sophomores with scant experience as replacements, there are going to be some growing pains.  That's not to say you can't win with youth -- Iowa's youth improved tremendously over the course of the season and put them in a spot to contend for Big Ten and NCAA glory and Penn State claimed both titles with a very young line-up -- but it does make things more challenging.  Young wrestlers haven't been through the grind of a season or the intense pressure of an NCAA Tournament.  And, frankly, most young wrestlers are still developing and still far below the level of the top guys at a weight.  Guys like David Taylor or Ed Ruth -- or, to use more Iowa-friendly examples, Brent Metcalf and Matt McDonough -- are the exceptions, not the rule.  Most young wrestlers take time to develop and add seasoning.

So this result is disappointing -- losing always is -- but it's also exciting because this was a team loaded with youth and inexperience -- and they still finished 3rd at the NCAA Tournament.  They lose just two seniors from this year's starting lineup (Janssen at 165 and Uncle Luke at 197), so there's plenty of reason to hope for bigger and better things on the horizon.  Of course, Penn State will also be returning a lot of talented youth and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.  Ditto Oklahoma State.  But that's a discussion for tomorrow.  In the meantime, congrats to Penn State, who again wrestled well and avoided any of the really disastrous sessions that sunk Cornell or Iowa.  Also, a tip of the cap to Quentin Wright, who deserves the Annual J Jaggers Award for "Dude who had a middling season but then went into BEAST MODE come tournament time."  Wright had a good excuse (his shoulder was all jacked up), but the difference between him during the dual meet season and him at Big Tens and the NCAA Tourney was striking.  Without his deep runs in both of those tournaments, Penn State isn't celebrating a thing this year. 

With Iowa being all but out of the team title race by the end of Friday evening's semifinal session and Penn State officially clinching the title on Saturday morning, Saturday's festivities were all but indidivudal accomplishment, about hoping the Iowa guys still alive in the tournament (McD, Marion, DSJ, Gambrall, and Uncle Luke) could finish as high as possible.  In McD's case that meant a second-straight national title; in the case of the others that meant a 3rd-place finish.  Only Gambrall was able to really end his Saturday on the highest note possible, since he won his third-place match; Uncle Luke finished well by winning the 5th-place match but he was unable to beat Trevor Brandvold in the consolation semifinals, while Marion and DSJ both lost painful (albeit in different ways) third-place matches.  Of course, no one suffered a loss more painful than the one suffered by Matt McDonough in the final at 125.

I still feel gutted that McD lost that match -- he's a great guy, a fantastic competitor, and a wonderful example of "the Iowa style" and I would have loved to see him win his second-straight national title (and keep alive the hope that he could become Iowa's first-ever four-time national champion).  But, at the same time, now that the initial emotions after the loss have worn off, I can't work up any animosity for Anthony Robles -- it just seems churlish at this point.  Am I going to dislike him because he has the audacity to wrestle an incredibly funky, unconventional style because he has one goddamn leg?  To be sure, he has some undeniable advantages as a result of his condition -- he has incredible mass and strength in his upper body (just take one look at his arms and chest compared to a guy like McDonough or Brandon Precin) and he forces his opponents to approach the match very differently -- but I'm guessing he'd trade that for the use of another leg.  He's done a remarkable job of adjusting to his condition.

Am I going to dislike him because ESPN (and other media outlets) fawned over him incessantly?  That was certainly annoying, but he almost certainly didn't ask for it.  By all accounts, he's a nice guy and a guy who simply worked his ass off to get to the point he's at now.  The truth is he wrestled well -- he took advantage of his strengths to grab hold of McD, get a takedown and turn him for nearfall points, netting him a solid 7-0 lead early in the match.  The fact that he spent the next two periods essentially stalling his way to victory was incredibly irritating -- but that's a problem with the system (indeed, with the sport itself) as much as it is with him.  Virtually everyone at that tournament took advantage of the officials' unwillingness to call stalling at some point -- even, yes, Iowa guys.  I wish Robles hadn't essentially turtled up for half the match -- but I'm more angry at the officials that allowed it to happen than I am at him for doing it. 

And, frankly, some of the blame for this loss goes to McD himself, who approached it with a flawed gameplan.  Robles is an exceptionally difficult wrestler to plan for (and beat), but he's not impossible.   Rushing in to engage him and attack is playing to his strengths, because it allows him to grab hold of you when he's at his freshest and strongest; guys like Precin and McD's Iowa teammate (and former 125-er) Tyler Clark were able to beat Robles in the past by maintaining distance and attacking from afar and trying to wear out Robles.  That approach might not be in line with McD's typical approach -- but Robles is hardly a typical opponent, either, so some tweaks may have been in order.  In any event, it's done -- Robles wrestled well and deserved to win.  McD will be back next year and if his performances after his first two career losses (after losing to Angel Escobedo at last year's Big Tens, he ran off five wins a row to take the national title and after losing to Precin at this year's Midlands, he damn near pinned everyone in sight on his way to this match with Robles), he'll be better than ever. 

1) Penn State -- 107.5
2) Cornell -- 93.5
3) Iowa -- 86.5
4) Oklahoma State -- 70.5
5) American -- 65.0
6) Arizona State -- 62.5
7) Minnesota -- 61.0
8) Lehigh -- 58.5
9) Boise State -- 57.5
10) Wisconsin -- 54.5

125: #2 Matt McDonough (4-1) 2nd place (All-American)
There's not much to say that wasnt said up above.  Until the Robles match, McD wrestled an excellent tournament, again besting his most frequent nemesis this year (Brandon Precin) and picking up bonus points in every other win.  I guess you could criticize him for "only" getting one pin if you were feeling especially dickish, but hey.  He was pretty clearly the best 125-er not named "Anthony Robles" this year.
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: W, FALL (2:31) Manuel Ramirez (UNC-Greensville)
Second round: W, MAJ DEC (14-4) Sean Boyle (Michigan)
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (11-0) #7 Ryan Mango (Stanford)
Semifinals: W, DEC (3-1) #3 Brandon Precin (Northwestern)
Finals: L, DEC (7-1) #1 Anthony Robles (Arizona State)

133: #6 Tony Ramos (4-2) R12
Tony got a nasty draw (starting off the tournament with a pigtails match against a guy ranked in the top-20 in the end of the season polls was one hell of a "Welcome to the NCAAs, bitch!" moment), especially since he drew some opponents who were really terrible match-ups for him.  Sentes' incredible length and strength gave Tony fits in the second round; ditto Ruggirello's strength on top in their Round of 12 match.  Ramos has had trouble getting out from underneath virtually all season (his undersized nature at 133 doesn't help) and that weakness was crippling in his two losses in this tourney.  Other than that, he had a solid tournament, picking up four wins (including an impressive tech fall demolition of Tyler Small and yet another nail-biter over David Thorn), but it's disappointing that one of Iowa's best and most exciting wrestlers couldn't achieve All-America status.  Part of that was the draw, but part of it was just Tony's own weaknesses being exposed: whether he's at 125 or 133 next year, he needs to work on getting out from underneath.  He spent almost five minutes getting ridden by Ruggirello, and while he managed to damn near come back and get the win in the third period with a flurry of offense, you can't spend that long on the mat and expect to have a very good shot at victory.
Pigtail round: W, DEC (6-3) Frank Cagnina (Lehigh)
First round: W, DEC (8-3) Jordan Keller (Oklahoma)
Second round: L, DEC (2-0) #11 Scotti Sentes (Central Michigan)
Consolations: W, TECH FALL (21-4) Tyler Small (Kent State)
Consolations: W, DEC (7-5 OT) David Thorn (Minnesota)
Consolations: L DEC (8-7) #5 Lou Ruggirello (Hofstra)

141: #5 Montell Marion (4-2) 4th place (All-American)
Oh, Montell.  On talent alone, Marion is one of the best wrestlers on the Iowa team -- he's quick, strong, and explosive -- but he also has some very bad habits that have turned into fatal flaws over the course of this season.  His first is a tendency to start slow and dig himself a big hole before turning on the scoring and winning late.  He did that against Andrew Alton at the Penn State dual and against Jimmy Kennedy both here and at the Big Tens.  Twice he was able to eke out wins anyway (against Alton and against Kennedy here when he grabbed a last-second takedown to slip by Kennedy's stall-tastic approach), but it's not a particularly sound way to approach a match.  Of course, he doesn't do that he's too often opening a match well, building a lead -- and then shutting things down and desperately trying to hang on.  That notably killed him against Russell at the dual meet and against Thorn in the third-place match here at NCAAs.  There was a questionable call involved in the Thorn match, but the overall point is this: Marion needs to wrestle much smarter, especially at the end of matches.  There's no question he has the talent to be the best at this weight -- but that won't happen so long as he keeps making mental gaffes. 
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: W, DEC (8-3) Stephen Dutton (Lehigh)
Second round: W, DEC (10-3) #12 Zack Kemmerer (Penn)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (8-7) #4 Jimmy Kennedy (Illinois)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-3 RT OT) #1 Kellen Russell (Michigan)
Consolations: W, DEC (7-3) #10 Todd Schavrien (Missouri)"
Third-place: L, DEC (4-3) #2 Michael Thorn (Minnesota)

157: #6 Derek St. John (5-2) 4th place (All-American)
Quietly, St. John has become one of the most consistently strong performers on the Iowa team.  Unlike Montell Marion, he hasn't quite shown the ability to compete with the very best guys in his division (he's narrowed the gap on Taylor, but still lags behind and Fittery just mauled him), but he also hasn't really shown the same tendency to give away matches with late takedowns the same way that Marion has so often this year.  He took care of business against the lower-seeded guys he faced in this tournament and was one of the few Iowa guys to finish above his seed.  He still has work to do -- in addition to catching up to the top guys at 157 he needs to work on increasing his margin of victory in wins against lesser opponents -- but he's really come on strong as a redshirt freshman. 
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: W, DEC (11-7) Frank Hickman (Bloomsberg)
Second round: W, DEC (8-2) #11 Walter Peppelman (Harvard)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (8-3) #3 David Taylor (Penn State)
Consolations: W, DEC (3-1) Mark Lewandowski (Buffalo)
Consolations: W, DEC (9-5) #7 Bryce Saddoris (Navy)
Consolations: W, DEC (6-1) #8 Jason Welch (Northwestern)
Third-place: L, MAJ DEC (13-1) #2 Steve Fittery (American)

165: #11 Aaron Janssen (3-2) R12
The plight of Aaron Janssen provides an excellent example of the importance of avoiding losses in the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament if your goal is to become an All-American.  Simply put, lose in one of those rounds and you dig yourself a deep hole that won't be easy to emerge from.  Lose in the first round and you need to win four matches in a row in the consolation bracket just to guarantee yourself a spot in the 7th-place match (at worst). Lose in the second round and you need to win three matches in a row to do no worse than that 7th-place spot and its guaranteed All-American status.  Of course, once you lose a match your margin of error is nil, which further complicates the situation.

By losing in the first round on a takedown in the closing seconds, Janssen put himself in the position of needing four straight wins to attain All-American status.  Ironically, in his very first match in the consos he wound up wrestling the man many expected him to face in the second round of the championship bracket -- 6-seed Dallas Bailey, who was also upset in the first round.  Janssen notched a solid win there, followed that up with a blowout win, and added one more win (over hometown friend Justin Kerber of Cornell) before coming up just short in his Round of 12 match.  That Janssen was able to battle back to get so close was impressive, but he needed to avoid putting himself in that position in the first place.
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: L, DEC (4-2) Peter Yates (Virginia Tech)
Consolations: W, DEC (10-6) #6 Dallas Bailey (Oklahoma State)
Consolations: W, TECH FALL (23-8) Justin Lister (Binghampton)
Consolations: W, DEC (6-2) #9 Justin Kerber (Cornell)
Consolations: L, DEC (9-6) #7 Shane Onufer (Wyoming)

174: #9 Ethen Lofthouse (1-2)
Ethen was hit with a difficult draw from the get-go -- a tough second-round match against Letts, the ACC Champion, and a potential quarterfinal match with 1-seed (and eventual national champion) Jon Reader -- but his showing was still a pretty big disappointment.  Lofthouse's unimpressive showing on the top half of the bracket was a downer but understandable (he'd beaten Letts earlier in the year, but Letts was coming off an ACC title and was wrestling much better), but his lousy performance on the consolation side was the real disappointment.  Meys shouldn't have been a huge obstacle for Ethen and if he had gotten by him, he would have had a match with Purdue's Luke Manuel (who Ethen had beaten twice at Big Tens) to get to the Round of 12.  He would have had a tough match with Penn State's Ed Ruth there, but he had wrestled Ruth tough at Big Tens and Ruth struggled at times in this tourney.  Ethen's performance was even more disappointing when you consider that he was one of the few Iowa wrestlers who had been a better tournament wrestler (finishing above his seed at Midlands and Big Tens) than a dual meet wrestler.  Like Rasing, Ethen picked a really lousy time to wrestle some of his worst matches of the year.
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: W, DEC (8-2) Dorian Henderson (Missouri)
Second round: L, DEC (8-3) #8 Mike Letts (Maryland)
Consolations: L, DEC (6-5) Hunter Meys (Boston)

184: #12 Grant Gambrall (6-1) 3rd place (All American)
If you had told me a week ago that Grant Gambrall would have been the second-highest finisher on Iowa's team, I probably would have assumed that it meant Iowa had an absolutely disastrous tournament.  If you had told me that he did that but that Iowa would also wrestle well enough to finish in fourth place, I would have asked you for a hit off whatever you were smoking.  It would be hard to find a more frustrating or inconsistent performer on the Iowa team this year than Gambrall; he was capable of really excellent performances, but also more than capable of some head-scratching (and terrible) performances.  Gambrall's problem never seemed to be talent (aside from some occasional struggles to get out from underneath), but rather mental (i.e., confidence) and physical (i.e., a questionable gas tank).  

When he started the tournament with an ugly, edge-of-your-seat win over a decent (but not great) opponent in Peltier, it seemed like an underwhelming performance was in the works.  And then he won again.  And again.  And again.  Along the way he picked up an impressive win over 5th-seeded LeBlanc and a dramatic OT win over 4th-seeded Rutt (reversing his loss to Rutt at Big Tens).  The pinfall loss to Wright was a turd in the punchbowl (and eerily similar to his pinfall loss to Rutt at Big Tens, when he dug himself an early hole and then made a rash challenge that his opponent turned into a fall), but he bounced back nicely with an impressive win over 3rd-seeded Bosak in the third-place match.  All told, Gambrall finished with more wins (6) than anyone else on the team (though if you remove his forfeit win over LeBlanc in the consos, his total of 5 wins ties him with DSJ and Uncle Luke), beat more top-5 seeds than anyone else (3; the most anyone else had was 1), had the second-most team points (16.5, behind only McD's 21) and was one of three Iowa wrestlers to finish better than his seed (DSJ and Marion also did), though he did so the most impressively, turning a 12-seed into a 3rd-place finish.  All things considered, it was one hell of a strong performance from Gambrall.  I'm more than happy to eat a little crow in this case.
Pigtail round: W, DEC (3-2) Corey Peltier (Maryland)
First round: W, DEC (8-5) Austin Trotman (Appy State)
Second round: W, DEC (8-3) #5 Joe LeBlanc (Wyoming)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (4-2 OT) #4 Travis Rutt (Wisconsin)
Semifinals: L, FALL (3:53) #9 Quentin Wright (Penn State)
Consolations: W, FFT #5 Joe LeBlanc (Wyoming)
Third-place: W, DEC (6-3) #3 Steve Bosak (Cornell)

197: #5 Luke Lofthouse (5-2) 5th place (All American)
By Friday night, once it became clear that Iowa's hopes for a fourth-straight national title had all but shriveled up and died in the wake of too many Iowa losses and too many Penn State and Cornell wins (too often of the bonus point variety, no less), I switched my hopes to just seeing Iowa guys gain as much individual success as possible.  The two things I was most hoping for were a second national title for McD (didn't happen) and All-America status for Luke Lofthouse (did happen).  If ever a single wrestler can be said to embody an entire team's season, Luke Lofthouse would have to be that guy for Iowa this year.  The theme for this season was "progress and development" and no one on the team better exemplified that than our beloved Uncle Luke.  He had just a .500 record (32-32) entering this year, couldn't beat upper echelon foes, and was widely known as "The Leg," for his ability to get to an opponent's leg(s) on a takedown attempt, but be unable to finish.

But this season the Albino Rhino transformed himself into a wrestler who could finish those shots, who could beat almost anyone, and who could be a viable All-American.  Which is precisely what he went out there and did, racking up lots of wins in the dual season, picking up runner-up honors at Big Tens, and making it squarely on the podium at NCAAs, finishing 5th.  It's an incredible testament to Lofthouse's perseverance, his work ethic, and his indefatigable motor, because he's certainly not the most physically gifted guy out there.  He's not the longest or the strongest, nor the most technically proficient.  He's just tenacious.  Unfortunately, as we saw in the finals of the Big Tens against Brandvold and again during this tournament with his rematch loss to Brandvold and his loss to eventual national champion Kilgore, tenacity can only take you so far.  If he and Brandvold wrestled ten times, Brandvold would probably win eight (or nine) times; he's just a better wrestler and he presents match-up problems that aren't easily solved.  Still, we salute Uncle Luke for rising as high as he did this year; he was a good guy and a great story and it was a lot of fun to see him succeed as much as he did.
Pigtail round: n/a
First round: W, DEC (4-1) Riley Orozco (Cal-State Bakersfield)
Second round: W, DEC (8-3) #12 Zack Giesen (Stanford)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (10-3) #4 Dustin Kilgore (Kent State)
Consolations: W, DEC (3-1) #11 Jerome Ward (Iowa State)
Consolations: W, MAJ DEC (10-2) #8 Matt Powless (Indiana)
Consolations: L, DEC (4-0) #3 Trevor Brandvold (Wisconsin)
Fifth-place: W, DEC (6-3) #12 Zack Giesen (Stanford)

HWT: #7 Blake Rasing (1-2)
I would love to know the stats on how many wrestlers have -- in the very same year -- gone from being Big Ten Champions to not being All-Americans at the NCAA Tournament.  Hell, to not even making it to the Round of 12.  I know no other Big Ten Champion this year fell that far; no other Big Ten Champion finished lower than 4th (that would be Trevor Brandvold at 197).  Sadly, Blake picked the worst possible time of the year to revert to "bad Blake," the tentative, unaggressive heavyweight who waited too long to try and make things happen.  He opened with an unimpressive win over ISU's Simonson, dropped a close one in OT to Oklahoma's Fernandez, and then got bounced from the tournament by Rutgers' Russo when he dug himself a hole too big to escape.  There was an element of bad luck in drawing the 4-seed in his first consolation match, but upsets are a fact of life at the NCAA Tournament and the best thing you can do is stay on the top half of the bracket as long as possible.  

There's no getting around the fact that Blake underachieved pretty dramatically; the confident, aggressive (relatively speaking, at least) wrestler we saw for the last few weeks of the Big Ten dual season and at the Big Ten Tournament was nowhere to be found in Philly this weekend.  The Big Ten didn't have the strongest roster of heavyweights this year, but they weren't chopped liver, either -- two guys (Minnesota's Tony Nelson and Indiana's Ricky Alcala) were All-Americans and a third (Penn State's Cameron Wade) was bounced at the Round of 12. Rasing contributed a whopping two points to Iowa's total this year; we're going to need better production than that out of this weight to regain the national title.  On a non-Iowa related note, props to Maryland's Spencer Myers, who lost his first match and then won five in a row in the consolation bracket to make himself an All-American.  In one of the strange coincidences of tournament wrestling, he wound up wrestling the same guy (Alcala) in his first match and his last match (the 5th-place match).  He lost both times.
Pigtail round: n/a
First round:  W, DEC (2-0) Kyle Simonson (Iowa State)
Second round: L, DEC (3-1 OT) #10 Nathan Fernandez (Oklahoma)
Consolations: L, DEC (8-6) #4 Dom Russo (Rutgers)

NEXT: Looking ahead to next year.