This time, there was no tie. There was no awkward joint trophy-holding between Tom Brands and Tom Ryan. There were no wildly disparate reactions from the winning teams. Unlike the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago, there were no winning teams -- there was just a singular winner: the Ohio State Buckeyes. They built on their shared title with Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament in Columbus and comfortably locked up a team championship -- the first in the history of their program -- at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis this weekend. Congrats to the Buckeyes.
FINAL TEAM STANDINGS
1) 102.0 Ohio State
2) 84.0 Iowa
3) 75.5 Edinboro
4) 73.5 Missouri
5) 71.5 Cornell
6) 67.5 Penn State
7) 66.0 Oklahoma State
8) 59.5 Minnesota
9) 59.0 Nebraska
10) 56.0 Virginia Tech
The chatter before the tournament was about how wide-open the field was -- unlike the last four seasons, when Penn State entered the tournament as a presumptive favorite, there was no clear-cut top contender this year. Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio State entered as the main challengers, with Minnesota lagging just behind them. But where Iowa and Missouri's title bids ran into potholes and came off the rails, Ohio State just kept chugging along, with their expected stars (125er Nathan Tomasello, 165er Bo Jordan, 197er Kyle Snyder, and, of course, 141er Logan Stieber) mowing through the field and a surprise star exceeding expectations (184er Kenny Courts). While Ohio State didn't officially lock up the team championship until the consolation round on Saturday morning, the title was effectively won with their impressive work on Friday.
After suffering a handful of losses (some surprising, some less so) on Friday that knocked a few wrestlers out of the championship bracket (most notably #4 Jonni DiJulius at 133 and #6 Josh Demas at 157), Ohio State went a perfect 5/5 in the quarterfinal round; they followed that up with a 3/5 performance in the semifinal round. Iowa went 3/5 in the quarterfinal round (decent) and just 1/3 in the semifinal round (poor), which ultimately wasn't enough to close the gap on Ohio State. Missouri also had three winners in the quarterfinal round and just one in the semifinal round; their losses were even more painful since their semifinal losses at 125 and 197 came directly against Ohio State wrestlers. Those losses represented 14-point swings.
For Iowa, though, their Friday failures were only part of the story. Iowa may not have lost the tournament on Thursday -- but they certainly dealt themselves some painful wounds in the process. Suffering four losses in the first round was extremely damaging. The losses by Mike Kelly (at 157) and Nick Moore (at 165) were not particularly surprising -- both were unseeded and facing wrestlers who had beaten them earlier in the season (though Moore also had a win this year over his opponent, Northwestern's Pierce Harger) -- but they were damaging. (Even more damaging was the fact that both guys then lost their first matches in the consolation bracket, ending their tournaments. A combined 0-4 mark and 0 points was not what we were hoping to see from 157 and 165.
But shock upset losses by #3 seed Bobby Telford at 285 (to unseeded Spencer Myers, who Telford had handled fairly easily in a win earlier in the season) and #5 seed Josh Dziewa at 141 (to unseeded Kevin Jack) were far more damaging. Both were seeded to comfortably make the podium as All-Americans; Telford was seeded to make the semifinals and Dziewa was seeded to at least make the quarterfinals. The easiest way to make the podium and earn All-America honors is to make a deep run through the championship side of the bracket; by losing their first match of the tournament, Dziewa and Telford made it very, very difficult on themselves (as well as costing themselves any shot of vying for a national championship). Telford was able to do just that, winning five straight matches before falling to #5 seed Connor Medbery in the consolation semifinals and getting sent to the 5th place match. Dziewa was not, losing to #3 seed Lavion Mayes (himself the victim of an early upset) in the Round of 24. Dziewa at least managed to win two matches before bowing out (two major decision wins, in fact, including a surprising 18-4 smashing of Minnesota's Nick Dardanes) and so was able to contribute 3 points to Iowa's team total. Still, that was far less than we were hoping to get out of Dziewa after seeing his #5 seed and his strong performance at the Big Ten Tournament a few weeks ago.
Iowa's lone championship finalist was Cory Clark, rising from the #3 seed to face #13 seed Cody Brewer from Oklahoma. Brewer, egregiously under-seeded by the NCAA due to a relative lack of matches (and big wins), had been on a tear all tournament -- he pinned Northwestern's Dom Malone, then recorded back-to-back-to-back major decisions of #4 seed Johnni DiJulius, #12 seed George DiCamillo, and #1 seed Chris Dardanes, the latter in jaw-dropping 15-3 major decision fashion. Unfortunately for Clark and Iowa, Brewer carried that form into the final. He led 4-2 after the first period and 10-5 after the second. He slowed down considerably in the third period, but with a big lead established he could afford to coast out that period and he picked up an 11-8 decision victory. His early lead came off a series of sharp takedowns, many of which caught Clark out of position after a bad shot from Clark. Clark was not tentative or lacking in offensive risk-taking in this match... but he was lacking in good offense. He didn't finish a takedown until the third period and it wasn't hard to see why -- his shot attempts in the first and second periods just weren't very good.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow -- and a disappointing capper to what had already been a very disappointing and frustrating tournament performance -- but it shouldn't obscure what was overall a very strong tournament performance from Clark. He toppled UN Ronald Perry, #14 Rossi Bruno, #6 Earl Hall, and #7 Jimmy Gulibon on his path to the finals, avenging an earlier loss to Gulibon in the process and dominating Bruno for a major decision. It would have been nice to get more bonus points along the way (and, obviously, win the title), but Clark's performance was overall a clear bright spot for Iowa -- particularly considering that just a few months earlier he'd be mired in a rut. It was hard to see him as an NCAA finalist when he was losing 4 out of 7 matches in January and February. He turned his season around after that, though, and finished strongly, with a 3rd place finish at the Big Ten Tournament and a runner-up finish here at the NCAA Tournament (which kept alive Iowa's streak -- 26 years and counting! -- of placing at least one wrestler in the NCAA Tournament finals).
Alas, Clark was one of the only real success stories for Iowa at this event. Like Telford and Dziewa, Brandon Sorensen also suffered an early upset loss -- he fell to #13 seed Charles Cobb via 4-3 decision in the second round on Friday night, but he fought back to a 4th place finish with five straight wins in the consolation bracket to get him into the 3rd place match (which he lost, 3-1 in sudden victory, to #2 seed Jason Tsirtsis). In fact, thanks to a major decision he picked up along the way Sorensen actually recorded an extra 0.5 points that he likely wouldn't have scored if he had simply wrestled to seed in the championship side of the bracket, lost in the semifinals, and won a decision to get into the 3rd place match. (He would have scored 14.0 points that way, while he actually scored 14.5 points for Iowa.) That said, the early loss also cost him any shot he might have had at upsetting #1 Drake Houdashelt in the semifinals and getting a shot at an NCAA title.
Telford ended up with a 5th place finish, below his #3 seed, but still recovered to have a pretty strong tournament for Iowa after his shock loss in the first round, thanks to a pair of pins he picked up in the consolation rounds. Telford ended up scoring 13.5 points for Iowa, which is likely as much as he would have scored for wrestling to his seed, losing in the championship semifinals and wrestling back to a 3rd place finish. (Had he done that he would have scored 13.5 points for Iowa, minus any bonus points he might have accrued.) The costs of dropping to the consolation rounds are obvious -- you forfeit any shot a national championship and have to wrestle more matches -- but there are some benefits as well. There are a greater number of opportunities to score bonus points and (for the most part) easier opponents to face (and score bonus points on). Edinboro's A.J. Schopp would be the poster boy for this phenomenon: he lost in the first round of the tournament but went to on to score 21 points (about as many as four actual champions scored; Drake Houdashelt, Matt Brown, and Nick Gwiazdowski each scored 22 points, while Gabe Dean scored 21 points). Schopp pulled that off by winning seven straight matches in the consos (finishing 3rd) and recording four pins. That's the way to do it if you find yourself in the consolation bracket.
Nathan Burak, Thomas Gilman, and Mike Evans also ended up having decent tournaments for Iowa. Burak wrestled far better than his 7th place finish suggests. He notched two major decision wins for Iowa (18-4 and 12-2 in the first two rounds) and generally looked more aggressive and active throughout the tournament than he had through much of the regular season. His losses (and 7th place finish) came down to unfortunate bracketing as much as anything -- Burak lost to eventual national champion (and ice cream craver) #3 seed Kyven Gadson in the quarterfinals, then met eventual 3rd place finisher #2 seed Morgan McIntosh in the consolation quarterfinals. Burak wasn't able to beat either guy (who might be the two best 197ers in the country this season), but it's not hard to imagine him placing a bit higher if the luck of the draw had enabled him to avoid those guys. 7th place was a disappointing finish for Burak, but his overall performance was strong. The key for Burak will be replicating this performance next year -- if he can do that, he can certainly contend for higher All-America honors.
Thomas Gilman suffered one of the most shocking losses by an Iowa wrestler at the NCAA Tournament, going down in 0:52 seconds to unseeded Zeke Moisey, a surprised finalist at 125 lbs from West Virginia. That result was a bitter disappointment since Gilman seemed to have an excellent opportunity to make the 125 lb finals, but it shouldn't completely obscure what was overall a good tournament performance for Gilman. He avenged an early-season loss to #3 seed Joey Dance with a thrilling comeback win in the quarterfinals and recorded a decisive win over #2 seed Nahshon Garrett (via pin!) in the consolation semifinals. He looked better in his 3rd place match against #1 seed Alan Waters than he had against Waters at the National Duals finals a few weeks ago; Gilman took a 4-3 lead over Waters into the third period and while he ended up losing 8-4 after Waters countered a Gilman shot into a takedown (with back points) of his own, it was still encouraging to see Gilman have success on offense against such a defensively sound wrestler. There's certainly room for improvement for Gilman, but this is a performance that can he can build from.
And finally there was Iowa's final All-American, #3 seed Mike Evans. For the second straight year Evans battled his way to the championship semifinals. And for the second straight year Evans came up just short in his bid to make the NCAA Tournament finals. There was no lingering controversy this year like there was a year ago, with his uncalled defensive pin against Chris Perry, though. Evans simply wasn't able to complete a takedown on Brown this time. It was disappointing that Evans again lost both of his matches in the consolation bracket and had to settle for 6th place, but his overall Iowa career was good (three All-America finishes), even if it wasn't as great as we hoped it would be.
In comparison to the rest of Iowa's senior class, of course, Evans stands out as one of the only real success stories. Evans and Telford were each three-time All-Americans and while it's a shame they were never able to finish higher than 4th place at the NCAA Tournament, three-time All-America status is not something to be completely dismissed, either. Still, ultimately the much-hyped recruiting class of 2010 will be remembered for what it didn't do -- no individual Big Ten or NCAA champions (or even finalists), no team national championships, and just the one Big Ten team national championship (shared with Ohio State). The 2015 NCAA Championship was one last chance for this group -- which comprised half of Iowa's ten starters this season -- to seize glory and be the group that brought the national title back to Iowa City. That didn't happen. Iowa's five seniors combined to score 25.5 points -- well less than one-third of Iowa's total team points (84.0).
Gilman on 2016 after no Hawkeye senior finished top four: "We’ve got a lot of big shoes to fill, but then again the shoes aren’t that big."— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) March 21, 2015
Thomas Gilman's quote may not have been the most tactful response, but it's not untrue, either. Iowa's senior class brought big expectations, but they didn't produce big results. Bobby Telford and Mike Evans won't be the easiest to replace as three-time All-Americans who contributed 22.5 team points this season. But Josh Dziewa, Mike Kelly, and Nick Moore? They combined to go 2-6 at the NCAA Tournament and contributed 3.0 team points. They aren't leaving a high bar for the guys who step in to replace them.
Iowa returns a good core from this team: Gilman (4th place), Clark (2nd place), Sorensen (4th place), Brooks (DNP), and Burak (7th). (Brooks, like Burak, can lament the cruelty of the bracket; his only two losses came to the wrestlers seeded #1 and #3.) Iowa returns four All-Americans and though he struggled at times this season, I still believe that Sammy Brooks absolutely has All- America caliber talent at 184 lbs. The key for them -- and for Iowa -- is the progress they're able to make between now and next year. Iowa needs them to be vying for spots higher up the podium than they were this year. Aside from them needing to make that leap up in quality, Iowa will also need to figure out how to replace the five departed seniors. At a few weights, there are obvious answers -- Sam Stoll is Iowa's only other heavyweight, so the currently redshirting freshman is the obvious pick to replace Bobby Telford at 285. Alex Meyer ably filled in for Mike Evans earlier this year at 174 and he should be able to step in at 174 next year and give Iowa a very good option at that weight.
But the questions are much less clear at 141, 157, and 165. Iowa has some strong middleweight prospects in the pipeline, but they'll either be true freshmen next year (like Michael Kemerer, InterMat's #13 overall recruit) or they're a year away from joining the program (like Alex Marinelli, InterMat's #4 overall recruit in the Class of 2016). Edwin Cooper and Brody Grothus will likely battle for the starting job at 157 (assuming Brandon Sorensen stays at 149). Patrick Rhoads (who went 8-4 this year at 157 and 165), Logan Thomsen (13-4 this year at 157 and 165) and Burke Paddock (19-5 this year at 174) are the most likely suspects to replace Nick Moore at 165. Topher Carton (12-4 this year at 141), Seth Gross (12-4 at 141), and Logan Ryan (22-6 at 141) were likely going to battle to replace Josh Dziewa at 141, but recent events have probably placed Carton firmly in the driver's seat for that spot now.
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It's worth putting our disappointment in perspective at this year's finish, too. Iowa finished 2nd -- albeit a pretty distant second -- to Ohio State. That's their best finish here since winning the championship in 2010 (Iowa finished 3rd in 2011 and 2012 and fourth in 2013 and 2014). Obviously, second place is disappointing -- it's not first place (duh), which is what we wanted to see and what was there for the taking. Ohio State won and they deserved to win, but their performance in the NCAA Tournament this year was not so stunning that Iowa had no chance to beat them. If Iowa had wrestled better and got contributions at more weights, they could have brought home a 24th national championship to Iowa City.
The 2nd place finish also feels a little hollow when Iowa failed to claim any individual national titles at this event; it's the first time since 2011 (when Matt McDonough get Robles'd in the finals at 125 lbs) that Iowa didn't have an individual national champion. Iowa's team finishes over the last three years have been worse than they were this year, but at least the individual championships claimed by McDonough (2012), Derek St. John (2013), and Tony Ramos (2014) gave us something to celebrate.
That said, Iowa still out-paced all of their rivals but Ohio State. Missouri entered this tournament as one of the favorites to win it all. They assembled the best team in the history of Missouri wrestling... and finished in 4th place, almost 30 points off Ohio State's championship pace. Minnesota, which spent much of the year as a major contender for the title, flamed out on the way to an 8th place finish, just 0.5 points better than Nebraska. Iowa shot themselves in the foot on Thursday, but still had chances to contend on Friday and Saturday (although the chances on Saturday were more mathematical than realistic). Again, there's no doubt that Iowa's 2nd place finish was disappointing and a bitter pill to swallow -- but it's also less bitter than what some of Iowa's biggest rivals this year had to swallow.
The obvious question after all that is to ask what Iowa needs to do get back on top of the college wrestling mountain... but that's a topic for another post this week.