Iowa released their 2012-13 wrestling schedule earlier this week, which you can find here. Frankly, it was notable more for the events that weren't there than it was for the events that were there, namely the annual UNI dual meet and the Midlands Championships. Iowa has been a regular participant at Midlands for decades and UNI has been a near-constant opponent for several years as well, so it was jarring to see them both disappear from the upcoming year's schedule. What's to blame? Frankly, it might not be anything more scandalous than simple scheduling issues.
The Des Moines Register's Andy Hamilton got the scoop on the missing UNI dual from Panthers head coach Doug Schwab:
Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab said Wednesday the two programs "couldn’t make a date work this year" after the Panthers adjusted their schedule to add the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and take on schools such as Cornell, Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon State.
Iowa and UNI have traditionally met on the Thursday night before finals week in December; this year that was complicated by UNI's desire to compete in the Cliff Keen Invitational. It's hard to fault UNI for wanting to compete in that event -- it should be excellent experience for their wrestlers and a great opportunity for them. It's a shame that it comes at the cost of the Iowa-UNI dual, especially with the way Schwab has been improving the UNI program in recent years, but so it goes. (From an Iowa perspective, an easy solution would be to add them to the Iowa City Duals line-up, giving that event at least one quality non-Iowa team each year, but that wouldn't do much for UNI, since it would cost them a chance to host Iowa in Cedar Falls (mostly) every other year.)
The scheduling issue for Midlands isn't quite so cut and dry, but it's surely a little relevant that Iowa is scheduled to host Ohio State on 1/4/13, just five days after the conclusion of Midlands. In case you've forgotten, that would the same Ohio State team who ambushed Iowa in Columbus a year ago. And even if you had forgotten that, it's a good bet that Tom Brands hasn't forgotten it. Although I would bet you anything that if Brands does address Iowa's non-participation at Midlands, that he doesn't say it's because of the Ohio State dual.
There's also the fact that Midlands isn't quite what it was in the past -- several top teams have skipped out on attending it in recent years and some top teams that have gone have held out some of their best competitors (Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins of Arizona State a few years ago; Zach Rey of Lehigh and Ryan Flores of American last year), which has diminished the event. (The sad reality is that in some cases there's a competitive advantage to be gleaned by not competing; what might have happened if McDonough had a crack at Robles before the NCAA Tournament in 2011? If McDonough or Northwestern's Brandon Precin had managed to beat Robles at Midlands, that would have doubtless cost Robles the top seed at the NCAA Tournament that year. Likewise, by declining to compete, Rey and Flores avoided having to face each other, a showdown which would have added a loss to one man's record.)
That said, it's sad to see Iowa not competing at Midlands because it is still a very good event (if not quite as great as it has been in the past) and because it served as an excellent dry run for the multi-day individual tournaments at that end of the season that really matter: Big Tens and NCAAs. Will Iowa's wrestlers be hurt by not having the experience of making weight for a big tournament and by not having to wrestle multiple matches in one day? Perhaps. The tournament was also a helpful way for Iowa to settle weights that were undecided, since you could enter multiple wrestlers at individual weights. (Although on that point it should be noted that Iowa could still send a limited number of wrestlers to the event to compete "unattached", i.e., not officially affiliated with Iowa. That would be very useful for guys who need experience or guys who are neck-and-neck for a starting spot.)
But enough about who and what isn't on the schedule -- what about the teams that are on the schedule? Glad you asked. Iowa opens the season with (as usual) the Iowa City Duals, this time taking place the day after the Iowa-Nebraska football game. Iowa then hosts Iowa State in the latest showdown in that in-state
beatdown series. After hosting Iowa State, Iowa hosts Lehigh the following week (on the same day they would usually face UNI). The Lehigh meet is part of a decided Eastern flavor on Iowa's 2012-13 schedule. In addition to the Mountain Hawks, Iowa is also wrestling Buffalo, Edinboro (part of a home-and-home series, as noted by Hamilton), and, at the Grapple at the Garden event in Madison Square Garden, Bucknell and Hofstra.
Why so many East Coast opponents? I suspect there are a few reasons for that. First, it's an opportunity to see opponents that Iowa would otherwise not face until the NCAA Tournament and that experience could prove invaluable down the road. Second, even if Iowa doesn't face any of these opponents down the road, getting a taste of different opponents and different styles is always valuable. Third (and perhaps most importantly), it's tremendous recruiting exposure. There's a lot of wrestling talent around the midwest (which is how the Iowa program has flourished over the decades), but there's also a lot of wrestling talent out east (which is how Penn State and Cornell have risen to prominence lately), so it makes a lot of sense to be more accessible to that talent and to give East Coast recruits (and their parents) more opportunities to see Iowa wrestle. Fourth, there's also just something to be said for participating in an event like Grapple at the Garden -- how cool is it that Iowa is going to compete in a venue as storied as MSG? That's pretty awesome.
In terms of conference opponents, Iowa could scarcely have asked for a more difficult schedule -- it includes six of the other top eight teams in the conference. Penn State and Minnesota finished 1-2 at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments last year, Illinois made it to the Final 4 of the NWCA National Duals, and Ohio State toppled Iowa in dual meet action. Nebraska and Michigan are both talented dark horse programs as well. Northwestern (4-4), Indiana (0-8), and Wisconsin (0-8) fall off the schedule, while Michigan (4-4), Purdue (3-5), and Michigan State (1-7) rotate back on. Iowa gets a chance to avenge their dual meet losses to Penn State and Ohio State a year ago at the friendly confines of Carver Hawkeye Arena this year (and the Penn State meet should provide a very tasty appetizer to the Super Bowl), but those meets are sandwiched around a brutal-looking stretch of road duals in January: @ Oklahoma State, @ Michigan, @ Michigan State, and @ Minnesota. If Iowa's not careful, they could be out of the running for a Big Ten title before they even wrestle Penn State.
Of course, that's not exactly the Big Ten title Iowa wants to regain anyway. As always, the season will ultimately be defined by what Iowa does in March -- the Big Ten Tournament is March 8-9 in Champaign, IL and the NCAA Tournament is March 21-23 in Des Moines, IA. A year ago, the arrival of the wrestling schedule gave us an opportunity to plot out Iowa's path for their record-breaking unbeaten streak. There's no streak to worry about this year, just Iowa's attempt to regain its place atop the wrestling world. We'll have to wait until March to see if that quest is successful or not, but it should be a lot of fun to see how they handle the rigors of the regular season in the meantime.
(Big thanks to Andy Hamilton and KJ Pilcher for their help with this post; they both do great work and are well-worth reading. You can find more from Hamilton at his blog at The Des Moines Register and you can find more from Pilcher at the Gazette.)
Iowa also released an early roster for the 2012-13 season and while it's far from perfect -- incoming freshmen are still M.I.A., everyone who's listed as a SO should be listed as a RS FR, and some of the weights appear to be off (notably Mike Kelly, who's listed at 157/165 even though every indication is that he's going to be battling for the starting job at 149) -- it does provide a little information about the state of the roster heading into the 2012-13 season. Most notable is the fact that it seems to confirm a few rumors that have been floating around: that Jake Ballweg has left the team and that Grant Gambrall might be competing for the starting spot at 174.
There had been some scuttlebutt that Ballweg was calling it quits earlier this spring and his omission from this roster would seem to back that up. Matt Ballweg is the only Ballweg boy who makes the cut. Jake's departure removes one of the contenders for the starting spot at 149, but ultimately doesn't clear up much -- that spot is still likely going to be a battle between Mike Kelly, Brody Grothus, and (if his knees actually hold up) Dylan Carew.
Gambrall, meanwhile, is listed at 174/184, which would seem to support the rumors of him dropping down to 174 next year (with Ethen Lofthouse moving up to 184 and Mike Evans remaining at 165). That's not at all set in stone -- there have also been rumors of Gambrall staying put at 184 (about the only thing that does seem set in stone is the fact that we won't see a reprise of the ill-fated "Gambrall at 197" experiment next year) -- but it does seem to be an option on the table. Whether or not that would actually be a good option -- for Gambrall and/or Lofthouse -- is certainly debatable. I don't know how easy it would be for Gambrall to make weight at 174 or how effective he would be down there, nor do I know if Lofthouse would be effective at 184 (he would definitely be smaller than a lot of the guys at that weight, which could be a disadvantage). But... it does seem to be an option on the table right now.
Beyond those two tidbits, there really isn't much that's noteworthy about the roster, although it's still a little nerve-racking to see so few names at 197 and HWT (just Lira at 197 and Telford at HWT). Reinforcements are coming for 197 among the incoming recruits, but at HWT it might be a good idea to start casting our protective spells on Bobby.