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Close But No Cigar: Iowa Loses Big Ten Wrestling Tournament By A Point


This seems like as good a representation of any of how close this tournament was.
(Original photo credit: Matthew Holst / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

It was the closest Big Ten title race in the 98-year history of the event, decided by one measly point in the final matches of the competition.  In terms of drama and excitement, you could scarcely have drawn up a better script (although you have may have used someone more thrilling than lumbering heavyweights, I suppose). Iowa's had plenty of close call wins in the past, but unfortunately they came up just short yesterday.  Whenever you lose by such a close margin, there's a natural inclination to second-guess earlier results and point at things that could have gone differently; that tendency is only exacerbated when you look at a wrestling tournament, an event that's made up of dozens of smaller, discrete events.  You could literally point to dozens of different matches that Iowa could have won or perhaps gotten bonus points in that would have made the difference in the team score.  But that's a rather pointless and unfair exercise for a few reasons.

One, it does a disservice to Penn State.  I'm not sure Iowa really "lost" the tournament so much as Penn State flat-out "won" it.  They sent five finalists -- and crowned champions in all five matches.  Their wrestlers not only won consolation matches, they dominated them, earning vital bonus points in many of them.  We mentioned that it might come down to bonus points and, sure enough, they were critical in the final tally.  If you want to look at why Penn State won and Iowa didn't, look at two stats: Penn State went 5/5 in championship finals while Iowa went 2/4 and Penn State earned 15.5 bonus points over the course of the tourney while Iowa earned 12 bonus points.  They took care of business and for that you can only really take off your cap and applaud them.  Iowa had 7/10 guys finish 3rd or better and put up enough points to win the title most years -- just not this year, when Penn State's five champions was just enough to eclipse our depth.

Two, is there really anything to be gained by assigning a scapegoat?  And how would you go about doing it anyway?  To be sure, there were some painfully close, gut-wrenching losses in the semifinals (the Marion match especially leaps to mind, since he seemed to have it in the bag with a minute to go), but there were a lot of losses and a lot of missed opportunities.  Aside from McD and Rasing, every Iowa wrestler lost at least one match.  No one pinned their way through the tournament (though McD, bless his heart, tried his damndest), which means there were bonus points left on the table.  If you want to play the blame game, there's plenty of blame to go around.  There's no point singling out one guy and heaping it all on him. 

125: (1) Matt McDonough -- 3-0, 1st place finish
133: (3) Tony Ramos -- 3-1, 3rd place finish
141: (2) Montell Marion -- 2-2, 4th place finish
149: (n/a) Mark Ballweg -- 0-2, n/a finish
157: (2) Derek St. John -- 3-1, 2nd place finish
165: (4) Aaron Janssen -- 3-1, 3rd place finish
174: (5) Ethen Lofthouse -- 4-1, 3rd place finish
184: (3) Grant Gambrall -- 2-2, 5th place finish
197: (2) Luke Lofthouse -- 3-1, 2nd place finish
HWT: (3) Blake Rasing -- 3-0, 1st place finish

1) Penn State -- 139
2) Iowa -- 138
3) Minnesota -- 109.5 
4) Wisconsin -- 103.5
5) Michigan -- 86.5
6) Illinois -- 64
7) Northwestern -- 62
8) Ohio State -- 57
9) Purdue -- 51
10) Indiana -- 50
11) Michigan State -- 49.5

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the tournament (aside from the absurdly close margin of victory -- or defeat, depending on your perspective) is the way that youth was served.  8 of the 20 finalists yesterday were freshmen, more than any other class (there were also 3 sophomores, 4 juniors, and 5 seniors).  Only one of the ten winners was a senior (Brandvold at 197), which means there's a good chance that you'll be seeing a lot of these same faces for the next few years.  Given the general high quality of the wrestling on display in the finals, this isn't really a bad thing at all.

This youth movement is also reflected in the composition of Iowa, Penn State, and Minnesota, the top three finishers at this year's tournament.  Iowa sent 3 freshmen, 3 sophomores, 2 juniors, and 2 seniors to the tournament this year.  Penn State sent five freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors, and one senior to the tournament (and four of their five finalists were freshmen or sophomores).  Minnesota sent four freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors, and two seniors.  On every team (aside from perhaps Minnesota and Mike Thorn), the best wrestlers were freshmen and sophomores.  All of these teams are loaded with young, skilled guys -- and at least in the case of Iowa and Penn State (and probably at Minnesota, too), I know there are more talented freshmen waiting to try and fight their way into the lineup next year.  These teams are poised to dominate the Big Ten for the forseeable future and close, exciting title races like this year's may prove to be the new norm, rather than the exception.  Ohio State will get better (they endured a toxic combination of injuries and inexperience this year, for the most part) and Wisconsin is attracting some elite talent that will keep them in the mix -- but right now the Big Ten looks like a three-horse race for a while and those three horses are young, talented, and deep.

Looking at things weight-by-weight:

125: (1) Matt McDonough (3-0) Big Ten Champion
Is there really much more to say about McD?  He's simply incredible.  He won his first two falls by pinfall in five minutes -- combined.  And then he won the rubber match with Brandon Precin in the finals, scoring the winning takedown in the final minute of the match.  In fact, he did three things in that match that he'd failed to do in their prior encounters: he didn't give up an early takedown to Precin, he managed to get a quick escape, and he got to Precin's legs and was able to get a takedown of his own.  McD is simply remarkable -- and he's just a sophomore. We have two more years of this to enjoy.  The big question coming out of his performance this weekend is whether he did enough to secure the 1-seed at the NCAA Tournament.  He has an excellent resume (23-1, with 19 bonus point wins, including 13 pins), but Anthony Robles has a very good one, too -- and he doesn't have a loss.  It's a significant decision because it will likely decide whether or not he has to beat Precin (again) just to get to Robles or if he gets to take on the winner of Robles-Precin in the finals.  
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, FALL (3:30) (8) Thomas Kelliher (WIS)
Semifinals: W, FALL (1:24) (5) Sean Boyle (MICH)
Finals: W, DEC (3-1) (2) Brandon Precin (jNW)

133: (3) Tony Ramos (3-1) 3rd place finish
It was a solid weekend for Tony, but not a great one.  He finished exactly at his seed and avenged a loss from earlier in the season (Futrell beat him 9-6 at Midlands), but he also missed a golden opportunity to get to the finals and failed to get any bonus points (aside from the forfeit points that were gifted to him).  He was good, but there's also plenty of room to get better.  He had a tight, nervy opening match with Thorn and then couldn't get any offense going against Graff (which, admittedly, is easier said than done) and couldn't get a much-needed escape, either. The weekend moved Tony's record against Top 10 guys to 2-2 (he split two matches with Futrell, beat Andrew Long, and lost to Graff) and he's clearly come a long way from where he was earlier this season.  The one thing he needs to work on is opening up a bit more with his offense.  He has the motor to wear guys out, but he needs to get points to make that effective.  He did a nice job of bouncing back on Sunday in the consos after the gutwrenching Graff loss on Saturday night; in all likelihood, he'll need to make some hay for Iowa in the consolation rounds at the NCAA Tournament, too. 

Ramos' weekend also highlights the importance of seeding (a point also underlined by Ethen Lofthouse): had Ramos been given the 1-seed (as he arguably should have been, considering his 8-0 dual meet record and win over PSU's Long) and beaten the guys he beat this weekend, he would have ended up in the finals.  Whether or not he would have beaten Graff or Long there is largely irrelevant -- he would have finished with (at worst) 2nd-place placement points, which would have been enough to send the title back to Iowa City.  That isn't to wave away his performance -- ultimately you have to go out and beat the guys who are in front of you and he didn't quite do that (while Long did) -- but it does show that seeding really does matter.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (4-3) (6) David Thorn (MIN)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-1 OT) (2) Tyler Graff (WIS)
Consolations: W, MED FFT (8) Ian Paddock (OSU)
Third-place: W, DEC (6-2) (4) BJ Futrell (ILL)

141: (2) Montell Marion (2-2) 4th place finish
A frustrating weekend for Marion, to say the very least.  On one hand, it really shouldn't be a huge surprise that Marion would go 2-2 and finish in 4th place -- 141 is a murderously tough weight in the Big Ten, with five of the top seven guys nationally residing in our fair league.  This weekend showed that they're pretty evenly matched, too -- witness the close matches that they all had with one another here (both the Russell-Kennedy and Marion-Thorn matches in the semis went to overtime) -- although Russell is also a step ahead of the rest.  That said, the disappointment for Marion is that he's clearly capable of so much more.  He has incredible physical talent, but sometimes makes some very poor decisions during matches.  He had a 5-1 lead in the third period against Thorn and could have erased Thorn's riding time advantage by holding him down for 15-20 seconds.  He didn't, went too conservative the rest of the match, and wound up losing in OT.  And this isn't a one-time problem, either: he was in largely the same position against Thorn and Russell in the regular season and wound up splitting those matches. That's something he needs to get sorted out in a hurry with the NCAA Tournament looming.  The big question is where his 2-2 weekend drops him in the NCAA seeding process; my guess is he lands somewhere between 4-6.
Pigtail round: N/A
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (14-4) (UN) Mitchell Richey (IND)
Semifinals: L, DEC (7-5 OT) (3) Mike Thorn (MIN)
Consolations: W, DEC (3-2) (5) Andrew Alton (PSU)
Third-place: L, DEC (9-6) (4) Jimmy Kennedy (ILL)

149: (UN) Mark Ballweg (0-2) n/a place finish
It's difficult to find much fault with Ballweg's effort, particularly when he was achingly close to winning his first-round match against Grajales, a guy who not only went on to be the runner-up at this tournament, but who dominated Ballweg to the tune of a 13-3 major decision earlier in the year.  One win and Ballweg could have given Iowa ten automatic qualifiers to the NCAA Tournament, but frankly the size difference here is just too much for him right now. Ballweg tried hard, but he couldn't quite get it done here.  The good news is that I would be stunned if we weren't much better at this weight a year from now, whether it's being manned by a bulked-up Ballweg or someone else.
Pigtail round: L, DEC (5-3) (6) Eric Grajales (MICH)
Consolations: L, DEC (7-3) (5) Colt Schmitt (WIS)

157: (2) Derek St. John (3-1) 2nd place finish
St. John, like so many guys on this Iowa team, is a guy who started the year slow (he looked fairly terrible in December, frankly, and was one of many Hawkeyes to endure an embarrassing Midlands), but who's come on strong in January and February.  Hell, you can even measure his growth just by looking at his performances against David Taylor in January and yesterday.  In January, Taylor throttled him and dominated the match from the opening whistle; yesterday, DSJ was able to avoid many of Taylor's attacks and even led for most of the first period.  He still has ground to make up on the sainted one -- his footwork is a little too slow and his takedown attempts aren't quite crisp enough -- but he's made immense progress.  Two months ago, I was dreading what he would do at the NCAA Tournament, but now I'm excited.  He's beaten some quality wrestlers and looked so improved that he really ought to be able to make some noise in Philadelphia.  Though it would be nice if he could avoid Taylor in the bracketing; at some point, he may catch Taylor, but I'm not sure that will be this year.
Pigtail round: W, FALL (2:05) Sean Nemec (OSU)
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (13-4) (7) Sean McMurray (MSU)
Semifinals: W, DEC (5-2) (3) Jason Welch (jNW)
Finals: L, DEC (8-3) (1) David Taylor (PSU)

165: (4) Aaron Janssen (3-1) 3rd place finish
Janssen was one of three Iowa wrestlers to finish better than his seed (Lofthouse the Younger and Rasing were the others), which is a nice feather in his cap.  Frankly, his most impressive performance might have been the one he didn't win against Howe.  Moral victories don't usually mean a whole lot when it comes Iowa wrestling, but Janssen's effort against Howe does deserve some commendation: he wrestled Howe tougher than anyone else all weekend and Howe is a guy who has never -- never -- lost a match against a Big Ten opponent and who's a three-time Big Ten Champion now.  Yet Janssen was an escape away from knocking him off in the semis.  Importantly, Janssen also didn't let that loss linger; he bounced back to win a pair of matches today (including avenging his loss to Cody Yohn from the dual) and generally looked very solid.  He's another guy who's going to need to make a lot of hay in the consolation bracket for Iowa.
Pigtail round: n/a
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (7-4) (5) Conrad Polz (ILL)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-2 OT) (1) Andrew Howe (WIS)
Consolations: W, DEC (3-1) (6) Dan Yates (MICH)
Third-place: W, DEC (4-2) (3) Cody Yohn (MIN)

174: (5) Ethen Lofthouse (4-1) 3rd place finish
Outside of Iowa's two champions, it's not too hard to argue that Ethen Lofthouse had the best weekend of any Hawkeye here.  He had more wins (4) than anyone else, finished higher above his seed (2 spots) than anyone else, avenged losses from the regular season (over Manuel and Glasser), and had a very solid performance against Ruth -- that might have been a win if he could have just escaped in the second round.  After a disappointing and frustrating regular season (especially February), Lofthouse put together a very strong tournament performance.  (He was also one of the few Iowa wrestlers to perform well at the Midlands, which gives us added hope for the NCAA Tournament -- maybe he's one of those guys who just turns it up in a tournament setting.)  Of course, his performance is also instructive for showing the importance of seeding and performing well during dual meet season.  If he holds on and wins against Manuel and Glasser at the dual meets this year, he probably secures the 2-seed, which would have enabled him to avoid Ruth until the finals -- and, yeah, those extra placement points would have been handy.  But that shouldn't overshadow the fact that he did have a mighty fine weekend and did better than expected.
Pigtail round: W, DEC (3-2) (UN) Ben Friedl (ILL)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (5-2) (4) Luke Manuel (PUR)
Semifinals: L, DEC (3-2) (1) Ed Ruth (PSU)
Consolations: W, DEC (6-3) (3) Scott Glasser (MIN)
Third-place: W, DEC (4-1) (4) Luke Manuel (PUR)

184: (3) Grant Gambrall (2-2) 5th place finish
Outside of Montell Marion, no one had a more disappointing weekend than Gambrall,  Sometimes (like EL) guys use the tournament as an opportunity to get a fresh start and wrestle at a higher level.  And sometimes (like GG) guys who have been struggling just keep right on struggling.  Gambrall struggled to beat Kissel, got dominated by Steinhaus, and got pinned in the second period against Rutt.  About the only good thing he did was record a major decision win (and get some much needed bonus points) in his 5th-place match.  Gambrall's problem doesn't appear to be in his arms and legs -- it's in-between his ears.  Raw talent can usually carry you only so far; at some point you need to dig deep and win a few damn matches.  On the other hand, Gambrall also didn't lose any matches he wasn't expected to lose in terms of seeding and history: he lost to the 2-seed Steinhaus (who had already beaten him earlier in the year) and he had the misfortune to draw the 1-seed Rutt in the consolation semifinals.  It's difficult to expect too much from Gambrall at the NCAA Tournament at this point, though.
Pigtail round: n/a
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (5-4) (6) AJ Kissel (PUR)
Semifinals: L, DEC (4-1) (2) Kevin Steinhaus (MIN)
Consolations: L, FALL (4:19) (1) Travis Rutt (WIS)
Fifth-place: W, MAJ DEC (10-2) (5) Tony Dallago (ILL)

197: (2) Luke Lofthouse (3-1) 2nd place finish
Aside from the fact that Lofthouse's loss wound up dealing another blow to Iowa's hopes of repeating as Big Ten champs, it was frankly most gutting from an individual standpoint.  Of all the Iowa guys at this tournament, the guy I most wanted to see emerge as champion was good ol' Uncle Luke.  The Stormin' Mormon.  The Albino Rhino.  "Granpa."  He had a list of nicknames as long as his arm and though he wasn't as dominant as McD or as gifted as Marion or as hyped as DSJ, he was utterly beloved because he was in so many ways the quintessential Iowa guy -- even if he came from Utah.  He was (no lie) a 7th-year senior (hello, Mormon mission) who had scraped and battled his way from a rocky start (he went 8-17 in 04-05) to emerge as a legitimate contender as a senior.  He was living, breathing proof of what happens when a guy buys in fully to the philosophy and lifestyle that Brands espouses. 

And while there's no getting around the fact that you need blue-chip talent to be at the top of the heap in wrestling (Iowa isn't on its current run of national championships without the prodigious talents of guys like Mark Perry, Brent Metcalf, and Matt McDonough), you also need guys who don't necessarily have all that talent, but who bust their asses off and through sheer determination and effort turn themselves into formidable wrestlers.  If you wanted to make a football comparison, you might say Lofthouse was like Dallas Clark -- a lightly recruited guy (or a walk on, in Clark's case) who endured some struggles early in his career before really blossoming into a huge talent as an upperclassmen.  Clark's Iowa career ended with a Mackey Award win and a first-round selection in the NFL Draft; Lofthouse will have to make do with a runner-up finish at the Big Tens and whatever may come at the NCAA Tournament.  Based on his struggles with Brandvold (a guy who was simply bigger, longer, and more skilled than Lofthouse), it's difficult to predict ultimate glory for him there -- but you never know.  We'd be fools to count Uncle Luke out now, after he's already come so far.
Pigtail round: W, MAJ DEC (12-4) (UN) John Schoen (jNW)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (5-2) (7) Joe Barczak (ILL)
Semifinals: W, DEC (9-3) (3) Logan Brown (PUR)
Finals: L, DEC (5-2) (1) Trevor Brandvold (WIS)

HWT: (3) Blake Rasing (3-0) Big Ten Champion
And finally we have Blake Rasing, unquestionably one of the best stories of 2011 season for Iowa.  The idea that he could be a Big Ten Champion would have seemed utterly ludicrous at the beginning of the year and even as recently as January when he was struggling to get wins over anyone.  But things finally started clicking into place for him in February when he picked up a few wins over ranked opponents and they carried over into this tournament as well.  He's always had pretty solid defense, but now that he's bringing some pretty good offense to bear in his matches as well.  The bracket did open up nicely for him with upsets of the 1- and 2-seeds, but credit to Rasing for taking full advantage of the situation and winning out anyway.  And given how even the Big Ten heavyweights were all season, it's not as though there was a stark difference between the top seeds and everyone else.  But big kudos to Rasing for improving so much over the course of the year -- I know I never expected him to come this far.  He's gone from a guy who we would felt fortunate to get any points from at the NCAA Tournament to a guy we can probably reasonably expect to contend for All-America status.  That's pretty damn impressive. 

Also impressive: Rasing's win makes this the third straight year Iowa has had the Big Ten Champion at heavyweight; the Iowa program has been more renowned for its prowess at the lighter weights under Brands, but I don't think any other weight has crowned as many individual champions for Iowa as heavyweight has during Brands' tenure (maybe 174).
Pigtail round: n/a
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (3-2) (6) Eric Bugenhagen (WIS)
Semifinals: W, DEC (2-0) (7) Joe Rizqallah (MSU)
Finals: W, DEC (5-2) (4) Tony Nelson (MIN)