While we try to figure out this mystifying football team and anticipate the return of our postseason-aspirant basketball team, there's another team that's worth discussing: the Iowa wrestling team. They'll be going after their fourth national championship in the past six years, so it behooves us to preview that quest. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series of football, we bring you A Winner Is You!, a weight-by-weight breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down from the weight we have the most confidence in to the weight we have absolutely no clue about. Enjoy!
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
And so we meet again, Mr. McDonough. For the third straight year, Matt McDonough and the 125 lb. weight class lead off the AWIY preview series. That tends to happen when you're the defending NCAA champion at the weight, a two-time NCAA champion, and a three-time NCAA finalist. Every year there's a little muttering about the weight cut and whether or not it would be better for the team if McD and Tony Ramos, Iowa's excellent 133er, swapped spots. Every year nothing changes. So we're going to presume that it's business as usual at the front end of the lineup again this season.
Which is just fine, because Matt McDonough is good. Really, really good. I wrote this about him earlier this year:
Three guys. That's it -- that's the list of Iowa wrestlers who made the NCAA Finals every year they were eligible. ... [Ed] Banach and [Lincoln] McIlravy are the only guys who would have comparable careers to McDonough if he wins a title next year. Three titles, four Finals appearances? That's the stuff of legends.
McD is already in pretty heady territory and he's already done things in an Iowa singlet that relatively few guys before him have ever done. He's already had a wonderful career. But that career isn't done, either, and he has the opportunity to write a final chapter that would put him among the all-time greats at Iowa. Which would be pretty damn cool.
He's on the precipice of history, of being included among some of the all-time Iowa greats. He's arguably the most dominant wrestler of the Brands Era (and only the existence of Brent Metcalf makes it "arguable"). He's the stud, the team leader, the bell-cow. He's (more often than not) a bonus point machine and the single scariest lead-off man in the sport (which is why we saw several meets last year start at weights other than 125; expect more of the same this year). He's the man and we have one more year to enjoy him twisting limbs, breaking wills, and pinning fools. Savor it. Guys like McD don't come along every year.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Just to be clear: there's no competition for this spot. It's McD's, no ifs, ands, or buts. But what would happen if (/knocks furiously on wood) he got injured and was forced to miss time? There are probably three options: have Tony Ramos move down from 133, start Matt Gurule, or pull a redshirt off Thomas Gilman or Cory Clark. None of those options is particularly appealing at the moment. Having Ramos come down to 125 would have made more sense a few years ago, when Iowa had another very capable option at 133 (Tyler Clark) and before he'd spent years getting accustomed to the 133 lb. weight class. Moving Ramos down now would probably result in two weaker weights rather than just one, which would be a pretty poor outcome.
Gilman and Clark have oodles of talent and could be future Iowa stars... but Brands' aversion to starting true freshmen is well known. Either of those guys would probably need to be monumentally impressive to get Brands to change his mindset on this point. Again, these guys definitely have the makings of future Iowa stars (particularly Gilman, who has apparently already turned a few heads in the Iowa practice room), but we're going to need to wait 'til 2013-14 to see that on display. Which leaves Gurule. He's not a sexy name and his results last year were decent but not stellar: 13-5, with a title at the Duhawk Open and a runner-up finish at the Grand Valley Open. Still, there's no point beating around the bush: Gurule would be a substantial step down from McDonough at this weight.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
It seems like there's a new nemesis for Matt McDonough every year. In 2009-10, it was Andrew Long (then at Iowa State), who battled McD in four memorable, thrilling scraps (13-7, 9-7, 9-8, 3-1), including the NCAA finals. In 2010-11, it was just Northwestern's Brandon Precin, who beat McD at Midlands before losing their final three encounters that year (including showdowns in the Big Ten Tournament finals and NCAA Tournament semifinals). In 2011-12, it was Minnesota's Zach Sanders... or at least it was supposed to be. A funny thing happened on the way to that rivalry, though -- it got hijacked by a pair of young guns, Illinois' Jesse Delgado and Penn State's Nico Megaludis.
Like Long and Precin before him, Sanders is gone -- but Delgado and Megaludis are both back and both loom as McDonough's greatest obstacles in his quest for a third NCAA title. Delgado handed McDonough his only loss last season (an 11-7 defeat in sudden victory at a December dual meet), though McD avenged that loss with a pair of wins (6-3 at the NWCA National Duals, 4-3 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals). Megaludis lost a pair of tight matches to McDonough (3-1 in sudden victory at a January dual meet, 4-1 in the NCAA Touranment finals). Of the two, Delgado is the far more threatening wrestler. Megaludis was ultra-defensive and, like Precin before him, quite good at stymieing McDonough's offense for long stretches of a match... but Delgado beat Matt, came close again in the Big Ten semis, and has a more awkward, funky style that could give McD fits. (Especially since he's being coached by an expert of "funk" in Mark Perry.)
Megaludis and Delgado figure to be the primary obstacles in McDonough's path for a third NCAA title at 125, but there could be a few other interesting threats: Hofstra's Steve Bonanno (CAA champ and NCAA 8th place finisher last year), Virginia Tech's Jarrod Garnett (three-time NCAA qualifier; red-shirted last year), Missouri's Alan Waters (Big 12 champ and NCAA qualifier last year), and Ohio State's Nikko Triggas (three-time NCAA qualifier; red-shirted the last two years). McD beat Triggas 9-1 (way back in 2009-10!) and pinned Garnett in 4:02 in the Midlands finals last year. I'm not sure any of these guys are really threats to McD... but they're names worth knowing.
12/16/12: vs. #4 Steve Bonanno, Hofstra (Grapple at the Garden; New York City, NY)
1/4/13: vs. #8 Nikko Triggas, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/1/13: vs. #2 Nico Megaludis, Penn State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/8/13: vs. #3 Jesse Delgado, Illinois (B1G dual; Champaign, IL)
(Rankings courtesy The Open Mat/Amateur Wrestling News)
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
National champion or bust. If you ask any Iowa wrestler about their goals for the season, that's probably the answer you'd get. Few of them have the ability to make that a realistic expectation, though. McDonough does. When you win an NCAA title as a freshman, you set the bar high. When you make the NCAA finals each of your first three years, you keep it high. And when you win two out of those three finals, you raise it even higher. So yeah: anything less than an NCAA title will be a disappointment where McD is concerned. But that's been the expectation for him ever since he won a title as a freshman in 2010 and the pressure hasn't gotten to him yet (an awkward matchup with Anthony Robles, on the other hand...). There are some quality challengers at 125 (see above) and the blueprint on how to stymie McD (tie up early and often, stall as much as the ref will let you get away with) is well-established; I don't think it will matter. I think McDonough makes it three titles in four seasons and writes his name among some of the all-time Iowa greats.
Administrative note: I meant to get this series started a bit sooner, so I'll be doubling up on installments for a few weeks in order to get this series done by the start of the season, November 16th.