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Stuck In The Midlands With You: Iowa Wrestling Wins 22nd Midlands Title

Yes, this recap is very late. My apologies. I could blame the holidays and the glut of other Iowa athletic events lately, but... I just dropped the ball. It should have been up sooner. Mea culpa. -- RB

When does a fifty-point win feel hollow? When it comes on the heels of a 1-4 showing in the finals of the Midlands Championships, an event where Iowa showed enough weakness to indicate that there's still plenty of improvement to be made before they can claim Big Ten and NCAA crowns this year. Iowa reasserted their dominance over the Midlands Championships this year; a year after their three-year winning streak was snapped and they tumbled to a fourth-place finish, the Hawkeyes roared back to easily reclaim their title this year. A strong showing in the semifinal round (5-0) and the early consolation rounds on Friday made the win academic, but that did little to erase the bitterness of their 1-4 showing in the finals. Iowa had wrestlers in half of the finals matchups, but only one (Matt McDonough at 125) left the arena as a champion. Tony Ramos, Montell Marion, Ethen Lofthouse, and Bobby Telford all went home empty-handed.

In all, it was a good showing against a solid field -- and certainly a massive improvement from last year's ugly faceplant -- but it also showed that there's still considerable work to be done if Iowa wants to add to its Big Ten and NCAA title tallies. The good news? Iowa emerged from the Midlands muck last year to finish 2nd at Big Tens and 3rd at NCAAs, so there's certainly a blueprint in place for this team to follow.

1. Iowa - 152.0
2. Northwestern - 105.5
3. Oklahoma - 94.5
4. Virginia Tech - 76.5
5. Edinboro - 74.5

A more comprehensive breakdown follows...

125: #2 MATT MCDONOUGH (5-0, Champion)
W, FALL (6:01) Cameron Eppert (Purdue)
W, DEC (11-4) Erik Spjut (Virginia Tech)
W, MAJ DEC (13-4) #7 Jared Germaine (Eastern Michigan)
W, DEC (7-1) #3 Jarrod Patterson (Oklahoma)
W, FALL (4:02) #8 Jarrod Garnett (UN-Virginia Tech)

McDonough is who he thought he was -- and that's a very good thing. There was some concern with McD after the decision win over Spjut that maybe his early season malaise (weight cut woes? an illness? unreported injury?) was lingering on, but he stamped that out pretty well with his remaining matches. He looked much like the McD of old in stomping Germaine, controlling Patterson, and crushing Garnett. There are still a few things to work on -- he gave up early takedowns a little too often -- but by and large he seemed to be rounding into the McD of old by the end of this tournament. That's good news for us -- and very bad news for the rest of the nation. Perhaps the only disappointment from his tournament was that he was denied an opportunity to avenge his loss to Illinois' Jesse Delgado (Garnett pinned Delgado earlier in the tournament); we'll have to wait until Big Tens for that particular bit of revenge.

133: #1 TONY RAMOS (4-1, 2nd place)
W, TECH FALL (22-6, 7:00) Jose Mendoza (Cal State Bakersfield)
W, TECH FALL (21-6, 6:58) Ryan Fillingame (Adams State)
W, DEC (5-3) #9 Tyler Clark (Iowa)
W, DEC (6-2) #4 B.J. Futrell (Illinois)
L, DEC (6-4 OT) #2 Devin Carter (Virginia Tech)

This year's Midlands proved two things about Tony Ramos: he's very, very good (and absolutely dominant against lesser opposition) and he still has some definite flaws in his game. Ramos crushed his first two opponents (his win over Fillingame was particularly brutal; rarely will you ever find a better example of one wrestler crushing the spirit of another wrestler, but how else can you describe it when Fillingame is simply turtled up and praying for the referee to whistle the end of the match?), picked up a pair of solid wins over quality opponents (Clark, Futrell), and again struggled against a bigger, stronger opponent (Carter). Carter is certainly a good wrestler, but Ramos' struggles with his strength and size does not bode well for his upcoming match with Jordan Oliver. Of course, there's no shame in struggling with Oliver -- he's one of the five best wrestlers in the entire nation this year and few guys have been able to best him over the last few seasons. I think Ramos can still beat damn near everyone else in the nation (including Carter; he just needs to work at finishing shots better and attacking from different angles -- too often he went straight at Carter and got shrugged off by Carter and his tree trunk-like hips) and losing here may give him the chip on his shoulder that he needs to continue to improve his game.

133: #9 TYLER CLARK (5-2, 4th place)
W, DEC (2-0) Mike Demarco (Rutgers)
W, DEC (7-2) #8 Jordan Keller (Oklahoma)
L, DEC (5-3) #1 Tony Ramos (Iowa)
W, DEC (9-5) Mason Beckman (Lehigh)
W, DEC (8-4) Joe Colon (UNI)
W, DEC (5-0) #3 A.J. Schopp (Edinboro)
L, DEC (6-2) #4 B.J. Futrell (Illinois)

Poor Ty Clark. He's a very good wrestler who happens to be stuck behind an even better wrestler on the Iowa roster. Were he anywhere else, he would be an easy favorite to earn All-America honors and be ranked in the top ten. Alas, here he's behind Ramos, who bested him yet again in a head-to-head matchup and did better against common opponents (case in point: Ramos beat Futrell 6-2, Clark lost to Futrell 6-2). Outside of his opening win over Demarco, Clark's wins were fairly easy, though not dominant. Unlike Ramos, who pours on attacks to get bonus point wins, Clark too often gets solid decision wins. But at this point Clark is what he is: an excellent back-up and a strong training room partner. There's no shame in that and if Ramos were to go down with an injury, it's nice to know that Iowa has a more-than-capable runner-up waiting in the wings.

141: #1 MONTELL MARION (4-1, 2nd place)
W, FALL (0:43) Corey Phillips (Eastern Michigan)
W, DEC (9-6) Mike Depalma (UN-Edinboro)
W, DEC (6-1) Avery Garner (Utah Valley State)
W, DEC (3-2) #12 Adam Krop (Princeton)
L, DEC (5-3) #3 Kendrick Maple (Oklahoma)

If Matt McDonough is who we thought he was in a good way, then Montell Marion is who we thought he was in a bad way. Perhaps this is just the way it has to be at Iowa: there's always one wrestler who's massively talented -- but very frustrating to watch because he fails to exploit that talent to its fullest. From Ryan Morningstar to Alex Tsirtsis to countless other before them, they're guys who just make you pull our hair out on a regular basis. It doesn't make them bad guys or bad Hawkeyes... it just makes them frustrating. Marion entered the season with big talk about dominating the opposition and adding an asterisk to his name on the walls at CHA (an asterisk denotes that you were a national champion). We're still waiting for the dominance to show up and based on current form, Marion will be fortunate to finish in the top-4 at the NCAA Tournament, let alone contend for a title. Too often, he seems to wait far too long to press the attack, he's prone to some puzzling mental gaffes, and he seems to have regressed in some areas (he struggles to get out from underneath and get an escape at times). From the ears down, Marion is almost certainly national title-caliber. Unfortunately, from the ears up, Marion is too often lucky to be even an NCAA qualifier. Until that changes, expecting Marion to bring home some hardware this year is looking unlikely.

W, FALL (3:24) Danny Sabatello (UN-Purdue)
L, MAJ DEC (18-4) #3 Kendrick Maple (Oklahoma)
W, MAJ DEC (10-1) Colin Shober (Northwestern)
L, DEC (6-4) #6 Zach Neibert (Virginia Tech)

It's hard to know what to take from Ballweg's showing here. After another failed (and frustrating) move to 149 to try to patch over that black hole, Ballweg returned to his more natural spot at 141 and he seemed poised to do some damage here. He was ranked in the top-10 at 141 a year ago and is the favorite to win the starting spot at 141 next year, so there was reason to expect more than a 2-2 showing out of him here. Then again, maybe he simply ran into some bad matchups here; in the second round he drew Maple, who's just been a buzzsaw this year and in his second consolation match he lost a tight decision to the 6-seed, Neibert (currently 11th nationally, via InterMat). He also looked good in his two wins, steamrolling Sabatello and cruising over Shober. So what to make of Ballweg's weekend? I'm not sure. You'd hope he could keep it closer than he did against Maple, but with a slightly different draw he could have easily gone much farther at Midlands.

149: NR MICHAEL KELLY (6-2, 5th place)
W, DEC (7-3) Justin Deangelis (Oklahoma)
L, DEC (1-0) #2 Jake Patacsil (Notre Dame WC)
W, FALL (4:43) Frankie Porras (Purdue)
W, MAJ DEC (15-7) Brody Grothus (UN-Iowa)
W, DEC (9-3) Caleb Irvin (UN-Illinois)
W, MED FFT #12 Shane Welsh (Lehigh)
L, MAJ DEC (13-1) #6 David Habat (Edinboro)
W, DEC (3-2) #7 Josh Wilson (Utah Valley State)

Ladies and gentlemen, I think Iowa's 149 problem this season has been solved. Brands is still being a bit coy about it, but based on results so far this season, it's hard to envision anyone else manning this spot so long as Kelly can handle the weight cut here. He wrestled more matches here than any other Iowa wrestler (8) and picked up more wins (6), too. Two of those wins were via bonus points (three if you count the medical forfeit win he received) and he beat the 7-seed Josh Wilson (#12 nationallly, per InterMat). Perhaps his most impressive performance was a loss, though; his 1-0 defeat to Patacsil was far and away the closest match Patacsil wrestled at Midlands and with a less starstruck ref, Kelly might have even won (or at least taken it to overtime). (Patacsil appeared to get the veteran respect from the ref on some very generous no-calls re: stalling.)

The only real blip on Kelly's resume here was the 13-1 steamrolling he got from Habat (#8 nationally, per InterMat); beyond that head scratcher, Kelly did very well in his first sustained action at 149. He looked strong and tenacious; he's going to be a tough challenge for guys at 149. It's too soon to predict any sort of gaudy finish at Big Tens or NCAAs, but this weight definitely seems to have stabilized, which is a considerable improvement from what we saw out of this weight a few weeks ago.

L, DEC (10-4) Ben Dorsay (Maryland)
W, DEC (8-2) Josh Lauderdale (Stanford)
W, DEC (5-1) Andrew Youngblom (South Dakota State)
W, FALL (2:12) #10 Kevin Tao (American)
L, MAJ DEC (15-7) Michael Kelly (Iowa)

I think we can pump the brakes on the Brody Grothus hype train a little bit now. He didn't do poorly at Midlands, but he was pretty decisively handled in his two losses, including a 15-7 major decision defeat to teammate Mike Kelly. His most impressive win was the pinfall win over 10-seed Kevin Tao and looked promising in general, but this weekend revealed that he's probably not the answer for Iowa this year. He needs to redshirt, get stronger, and gain a bit more experience. Kelly may not be a long-term option at 149 (let's remember that he wrestled at 157 and 165 last year), so Grothus will likely have more opportunities to fight for this spot a year or two from now.

157: NR NICK MOORE (6-2, 7th place)
L, FALL (6:56) #3 James Fleming (Clarion)
W, MAJ DEC (11-3) Ray Schlitt (Bucknell)
W, FALL (2:02) Kyle Dooley (Illinois)
W, DEC (4-1) Ramon Santiago (Rider)
W, FALL (5:56) Casey Fuller (Edinboro)
W, MAJ DEC (14-4) John Greishelmer (UN-Edinboro)
L, FALL (1:52) #5 Steve Monk (North Dakota State)
W, DEC (9-5) #12 Daniel Kolodzik (Princeton)

Moore wrestled for Iowa at 157 in place of the injured Derek St. John and he was... decent. He had the distinction of wrestling the most matches of any Iowa wrestler at this event (8; Mike Kelly also had eight matches, but one was a medical forfeit, whereas Moore actually wrestled in all eight matches) and he picked up six wins, including four via bonus points. That's the good news. The bad news is that only one of his wins (the final one, over 12-seed Daniel Kolodzik) came against a seedeed opponent and both of his losses were by fall. The first one was a touch unlucky -- he had wrestled Fleming close and simply got caught when he tried to take a shot and win the match at the end of the third period -- but Iowa can ill-afford to have guys in the lineup who get pinned when they lose. But, in all fairness to Moore, this was hardly an ideal situation: he was wrestling down a weight from his preferred weight class (165) and serving as a short-term injury fill-in for DSJ. He also had miserable luck with the draw, getting the funky and talented Fleming as his first match. Moore is currently the odd man out in Iowa's middle weights (157-174); between DSJ, Moore, Evans, and Lofthouse, Iowa has four very capable, starting-caliber wrestlers... but just three starting spots.

165: #8 MIKE EVANS (4-2, 7th place)
W, DEC (8-1) Ethan Smith (Utah Valley State)
W, MAJ DEC (13-3) #9 Ben Jordan (Wisconsin)
L, MAJ DEC (15-7) #1 Steve Fittery (DC AC)
W, DEC (9-4) Corey Lear (Bucknell)
L, MAJ DEC (11-3) #5 Bekzod Abdurakhmonov (Clarion)
W, MED FFT #2 Scott Winston (Rutgers)

Outside of solving the mystery of 149, the most intriguing aspect of this particular Midlands was seeing where new starters like Evans and Bobby Telford stacked up against high-end competition. Both men had gotten off to flying starts this year, but precious few of those matches had come against quality opponents. As far as Evans goes, the answer seems to be that he has some work to do to catch up to some of the top names at this weight. There's little shame in losing to Fittery, but both of Evans' losses were worryingly similar: he gave up big move(s) early and dug himself a massive hole that was impossible to emerge from. His offense on his feet remains a work in progress and there's a legitimate concern that he doesn't (yet) have enough strength at 165 to fend off some of the bigger, stronger guys at this weight.

The good news is that he looked good in his wins, including a decisive win over Jordan (#8 nationally, via InterMat), and he's still very young. It's entirely possible (if not probable) that he'll be able to improve over the course of the season and be a far more dangerous wrestler come tournament time in March. In many ways, his redshirt freshman resembles St. John's efforts a year ago; St. John, of course, wound up Big Ten runner-up and 4th at the NCAA Tournament. If Evans is able to duplicate those results, he'll be doing superb. He certainly didn't take Midlands by storm, but there was still plenty to like about Evans' performance here.

174: #2 ETHEN LOFTHOUSE (4-1, 2nd place)
W, FALL (1:53) Robert Kellogg (Northwestern)
W, MAJ DEC (17-6) Mikey England (Iowa State)
W, DEC (4-3) #7 John-Martin Cannon (UN-Edinboro)
W, DEC (8-6) #3 Jordan Blanton (Illinois)
L, DEC (7-3) #5 Lee Munster (Northwestern)

The last time we saw Ethen against significant competition, he was coming off a weekend in which he scored an impressive win over Illinois' Blanton -- but also suffered an unimpressive loss to Iowa State's Spangler. Unfortunately, not much appears to have changed with Lofthouse in those intervening three weeks -- he's still the most maddeningly inconsistent wrestler on the Iowa team this side of Marion. In this tournament, for instance, he blew the doors off his early competition, then needed a last-second escape to beat Cannon and barely held off Blanton, before getting thoroughly owned by Munster in the finals. Munster is no slouch (he's a freshman, but was a blue-chip recruit), but Lofthouse looked sloppy in the finals and his attacks were far too one-dimensional. There's no denying that Lofthouse has the talent to become an All-American in March... but until he begins wrestling with much greater consistency, there's always going to be the nagging doubt that he's going to get tripped up in a match and bow out of the tournament early.

184: #8 VINNIE WAGNER (3-2, 7th place)
W, MAJ DEC (13-0) #9 Timmy McCall (Wisconsin)
L, MAJ DEC (16-8) #1 Robert Hamlin (Lehigh)
W, DEC (9-5) #6 Tony Dallago (Illinois)
L, DEC (4-2) #4 Erich Schmidtke (Oklahoma)
W, DEC (6-2) #7 John Dickson (Virginia Tech)

Wagner had the distinction of being the only Iowa wrestler to face seeded wrestlers in all of his matches (though he did luck out and get a bye in his first round, too); given that and the brutal draw he was saddled with (he was in the same mini-bracket as last year's national runner-up, Hamlin), I'd say he did pretty well to assemble a 3-2 record at Midlands. He beat a pair of wrestlers seeded higher than him (Dallago and Dickson and kept things competitive (4-2) in his loss to another higher-seeded wrestler. He got blown out of the water by Hamlin, which was unfortunate, but all in all, this was a nice test for Wagner against decent competition and he did fairly well. There were no knock your socks off results, nor anything to make you suspect that he could be an All-American at this loaded weight -- but he at least looked like he could hold his own with a lot of guys and perhaps pick up a win or two at NCAAs.

L, DEC (2-1) Clint Morrison (Rider)
W, DEC (4-1) Arber Bebo (Northern Illinois)
W, DEC (4-1) Dan Seidenberg (Rutgers)
W, MAJ DEC (10-2) #12 Tim Foley (Wrestling Roots)
L, DEC (4-1) #7 John Dickson (Virginia Tech)

Maybe we should start calling Fahler "Mr. 4-1." Fahler was a surprise entrant for Iowa in this year's Midlands (one presumes he took the spot of the injured St. John), but he acquitted himself fairly well. After a close early loss, he rattled off three straight wins on the backside, including a major decision win over a seeded wrestler (Foley), before his run came crashing to a halt. Fahler isn't ready to see regular action at 184 yet -- either Wagner or Gambrall figures to cover that spot for the remainder of this season -- but he remains an interesting name to watch in future seasons. He's just a redshirt freshman while Wagner and Gambrall are upperclassmen (senior and junior, respectively).

197: #7 GRANT GAMBRALL (4-2, 7th place)
W, MAJ DEC (10-1) Mike Lukowski (Northern Illinois)
W, DEC (6-4) #10 Nick Vetterlein (Virginia Tech)
L, DEC (4-1) #2 Joe Kennedy (Lehigh)
W, DEC (1-0) #11 Dan Rinaldi (Rutgers)
L, DEC (3-2) #6 Danny Mitchell (American)
W, DEC (3-1 OT) John Schoen (Northwestern)

Aside from clearing up the mystery at 149 and serving as a measuring stick at 165 and HWT, we were also hoping that Midlands might give us a better idea of what the hell to do with Grant Gambrall and the 184/197 condundrum. (Or at least tell us what seemed like the better option; we obviously have no control over Gambrall, his weight, or his overall health.) The verdict? Inconclusive. After opening festivities with an impressive major decision win, Gambrall's offense seemed to desert him for much of the rest of the tournament; over his final four matches, I believe he had just one takedown (a match-winner in sudden victory against Schoen). That's, uh, not good. I didn't think he was noticeably smaller than most of his opponents, but he did seem to lack the strength to finish his shots. Additionally, his defense kept him in all of his matches and he was able to ride well at times. He didn't do poorly at 197... but he didn't excel, either.

So what to do? Keep him at 197? Move him back to 184? Honestly, I have no idea. Given the options -- Gambrall at 184 and Lira at 197, or Wagner at 184 and Gambrall at 197 -- a fully healthy, well-conditioned Gambrall at 184 is definitely the best wrestler of that bunch and Iowa's best hope at earning high All-America honors in March. Unfortunately, it's decidedly unclear if Gambrall can be fully healthy and well-conditioned by then -- and get back down to 184, to boot. And even if he does, there's no guarantee that Gambrall matches last year's 3rd place finish or even finishes as an All-American, given the incredible depth and talent at that weight. Can he be an All-American at 197? I think it will be tough, but if he can improve over the next two months and get a favorable draw... maybe. I think Wagner at 184 is a better wrestler than Lira at 197, but I also don't think either is likely to earn All-America honors. I think, ultimately, it comes down to what Gambrall is comfortable with doing this year; if he can get down to 184 and be close to the wrestler he was last year, you take it and let the chips fall where they may. But if he'd rather stay at 197, so be it.

197: NR TOMAS LIRA (0-2, DNP)
L, DEC (5-3) #12 Ryan Smith (Cal Poly)
L, DEC (11-9) James Fox (Harvard)

The downside to moving Gambrall back to 197, of course, is that it moves the hole in the lineup in the upper weights from 184 to 197; Lira's 0-2 performance here did little to allay concerns about him at this weight. That his losses were close is a small comfort, but ultimately close losses don't help that much, particularly in a tournament setting. Lira is a grinder and a nice story, but barring considerable improvement in a very short period of time, he would be unquestionably the weakest link on this team.

HWT: #3 BOBBY TELFORD (4-1, 2nd place)
W, MAJ DEC (10-1) Cole Tobin (Wisconsin)
W, DEC (5-2) Dan Scherer (Stanford)
W, DEC (2-0) #11 Quintas McCorkle (Clarion)
W, DEC (4-2 OT) #10 Mike McMullan (Northwestern)
L, DEC (4-3 OT) #1 Jarod Trice (UN-Central Michigan)

As I said up above, we were hoping that Midlands would give us a better indication of how newcomers like Evans and Telford stacked up on the national scene. Before the tournament got underway, it seemed like Telford would face a particularly challenging road on the way to a potential Midlands title, as several of the top wrestlers in the nation were slated to be there. Then Zach Rey and Ryan Flores bowed out before the tournament kicked off and 2-seed Peter Sturgeon (Telford's semifinal opponent if results went according to plan) was upset, meaning Telford wound up wrestling just two ranked wrestlers (McCorkle and McMullan), although Trice, his finals opponent, would be ranked if he wasn't redshirting this year (hence the utterly absurd singlet he was wearing). McCorkle and McMullan are solid (McMullan handed Telford one of his only losses as a prep senior), but this wasn't Telford against the national elites. All in all, though, he did well, though he occasionally seemed too tentative and reluctant to go to his offense (it was a shock to see Trice be the more aggressive wrestler in the sudden victory period in their match). His defense was airtight, though, and he remains an impressive rider; the future is still very, very bright for Telford. He just needs to get better at taking those big hosses off their feet.

W, DEC (3-2) Roger Vukobratovich (Purdue)
L, DEC (4-3) #10 Mike McMullan (Northwestern)
W, DEC (4-1) Blake Herrin (American)
W, DEC (4-1) Blayne Beale (UNI)
L, FALL (2:12) #9 Connor Medbery (UN-Wisconsin)

Barring an injury to Telford, this might have been the last time we see Blake Rasing wrestle for Iowa -- in a high-profile setting, anyway. He may still wrestle in open tournaments, but that's probably it. If this was Rasing's last hurrah in an Iowa singlet, it was an underwhelming effort. Despite being seeded 7th, Rasing again failed to place at Midlands and wrestled the same low-intensity, attack-averse (until necessary in the third period, at least) that's been his trademark. To his credit, his losses were to solid competition -- McMullan is, as noted, likely to be a rising force in the heavyweight division this year and Medbery easily could be the same next year. Still, you might hope that a wrestler with Rasing's veteran wiles and experience could handle them here.

NEXT: A dual meet with Indiana Friday night in Bloomington and a potentially historic dual meet with Oklahoma State in Iowa City on Saturday night. More on that shortly.