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Iowa Wrestling: Hawkeyes win the Midlands Championships Team Title

We had five individual champs, set a new team points record, and crowned a champion of champions.

Lugo celebrates with head coach Tom Brands.
Darren Miller/

This was one of the more dominate all-around team performances we’ve seen from an Iowa squad in a tournament setting in quite some time. While the Midlands wasn’t as loaded as it was a decade ago, it’s still an incredibly competitive event filled with NCAA qualifiers, All-Americans and former champions alike. The later rounds, specifically the finals, are equivalent to that of the quarters/ semifinals in March and anytime you can win those matchups, especially early in the season, it is impressive and can be a huge confidence builder for later on.

Our #1 Ranked Hawkeyes steamrolled through the competition and sent seven wrestlers into the finals with another five in medal matches on the backside of the brackets. By the time the quarter-finals came around at the end of Day 1 we all but had the team title locked up, but the previous points record of 189, set in 2014, was still in doubt.

It took a complete team effort to run down the record, but it’s even more impressive when we take into account that Spencer Lee medically forfeited out after the quarters and we didn’t have a representative at 174lbs. Despite being shorthanded we continued to rack up the points and ended the tournament with an unprecedented 196.5pts.

Team Race:

1. Iowa 196.5

2. UNI 101

3. Illinois 94.5

4. Wisconsin 93

5. Princeton 84.5

We had five Midlands champs, three more than last year’s showing. Max Murin, Pat Lugo, Kaleb Young, Alex Marinelli, and Tony Cassioppi all came out on top. The Bull led the way with 29 points and recorded four pins along the way to be named The Midlands Champion of Champions. In the finals match he soundly defeated the #6 ranked David McFadden (VT), 5-3, and avenged a butt-whoopin’ he received for the VT wrestler in the 2018 NCAA’s.

1st Place:

141: Max Murin

149: Pat Lugo

157: Kaleb Young

165: Alex Marinelli

285: Tony Cassioppi

2nd Place:

133: Austin DeSanto

184: Abe Assad- wrestling unattached

3rd Place:

184: Cash Wilcke

4th Place:

149: Vince Turk

197: Jacob Warner

6th Place:

125: Spencer Lee

149: Jeren Glosser

There’s an absurd amount of data to dissect here, too much to cover in a single write up, but I’ll attempt to pull out a handful of key tidbits before I wrap this thing up.

Most of my takeaways are overly positive, but the biggest negative is that of Jacob Warner, who tanked out in the semis and hit rock bottom in the following medal round. Inevitably, Warner is going to slide down the rankings, but that should be expected after a performance like that. Thankfully, he has four top 10 ranked opponents left on his schedule to rebound and get back to where he wants to be.

We are STACKED at 149lbs. Not only did Pat Lugo knock off the overall #1 ranked wrestler in the country, Austin O’Connor (UNC), our backups of Jeren Glosser and Vince Turk took O’Connor to the brink in the quarters and semi’s, respectively. Both guys lost on late TD’s. Glosser was up 5-4 before giving up a TD with around :10 seconds left, while Turk took him into SV1. Had Turk been ready to go at the whistle, it’s entirely possible he’d have been facing off with Lugo in the championship round.

Lugo impressed in his finals match and is wrestling the best I have ever seen him. If this is any indication of what's to come, he’s converting himself into a legit title contender before our eyes. We’ve known for years he had the abilities to beat the top ranked guys, after all he did upset then #2 ranked former Hawkeye Brandon Sorensen in 2017 and pinned 3x AA Matt Kolodzik (Princeton) during his redshirt season in 2018. He’s also had a strong defense and is a good scrambler, but it was his inconsistency to finish his shots that’s kept him from reaching the top. This year, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I wouldn’t say he’s lighting it up offensively, but on the shots he is taking, he’s finishing at a high rate.

Last season he’d go for a low single or blast double and get hung up underneath, this year he’s finding the angles and not giving up. Pulling the leg in, popping the head out, or dumping his opponent and working around. It’s great to see the improvement and he’s at the perfect weight to learn from guys below and above him, namely Spencer Lee and Marinelli. Lugo will undoubtedly be the new #1 ranked 149lber in the country, now it’s time to see how he does with a target on his back.

It was nice to Kaleb Young rebound. He didn’t blow anyone’s socks off this tournament, but he seems to have regained some swagger and flashed his offense when he needed it. But wow, his scrambling was top-notch. He’s not afraid to scrap in awkward positions and that’s what makes him so dangerous. Plus his ability to score late with the match on the line seems to be coming back, which is something that’s been lacking to start this season.

“I think there’s confidence. I’m comfortable there. Probably more comfortable than I should be, because that’s not where I want to be. I don’t want it to come down to overtime or sudden victory.

Because what if I slip on a banana peel or a guy from Army in the stands throws a banana down on the mat and I slip and give up a takedown? If I’m up 8-2 at the end of the match, or 13-1 at the end of the match, then it doesn’t have to come down to that. I don’t have to worry about slipping on a banana peel. If I do slip on a banana peel, I still win 13-3 and get the major. So, I think there’s confidence, but that’s not where I want to be. It’s good to be comfortable in those situations, but it’s even better being comfortable whipping tail.”

-Kaleb Young

What a quote… He’s a mini Tom Brands in the making.

Max Murin is in a similar position to Lugo, he’s finding ways to finish, which was his main issue last year. He’s wrestling with more confidence and he just looks mean and tough out there. Marinelli is Marinelli and I wouldn’t expect anything less from him. After his collapse at last year’s NCAA’s he’s appeared to have upped his game and for lack of a better expression, he’s wrestling like a man possessed. And by that, he’s wrestling with attitude, strength, and determination. He’s simply manhandling everyone in his path. He’s bulling people over out there and more than living up to his name.

Big Cass soundly defeated #8 Matt Stencel (Central Michigan) 5-1 in the finals. Stencel pinned Cass in last year’s midlands. It was a great test for our heavyweight and he aced it. He’s only going to get better with more matches, but his improvement from this time last year is noteworthy.

Austin DeSanto was the lone attached wrestler to fall in the finals. He lost a close match to #2 Seth Gross (Wisc), 6-5. DeSanto had an uncharacteristically poor 1st period that saw him in a 4-0 hole, which was simply too deep to overcome. But he wrestled smart and with conviction over the final two rounds and damn near pulled off the comeback. He was in deep and rounding the corner as time expired, another :10 seconds and he would’ve secured the TD and the win.

This is a learning lesson for Austin and he’s going to come back more focused and ready to go right off the whistle next time. He knows what he needs to do to finish at the top of this weight and he’ll make the proper adjustments.

Spencer Lee forfeited out after the quarters and Michael Kemerer didn’t compete at all. I wouldn’t put too much stock into either account or lose sleep over it. Lee just won the US Open a couple weeks back and was dominating his way through this field before Tom Brands pulled the plug. If anything, I’d say both instances were purely precautionary. Though, I did hear some murmurs of Kemdog being ill. Either way, he was in Abe Assad’s corner along with Cory Clark and Sammy Brooks, if he wasn’t okay he wouldn’t have been there.

Also, Brands mentioned Lee getting enough matches to qualify for the RPI rankings, which directly impacts the NCAA seedings. I believe he needs 17 matches to reach that qualification. Lee is 6-0 with nine more duals on the horizon. Include an additional three or four from Big Tens and he’s at his mark. Kemerer is 4-0 and may struggle to meet that, but if he knocks off #1 Mark Hall (PSU) in the conference tournament then it ultimately doesn’t matter. Either way, both guys are fine and trending in the right direction.

What do we make of our 184lbers? I do not know. Nelson Brands arguably has the more impressive wins, but has plummeted back to earth. Cash Wilcke beat Brands in the blood round at Midlands, sending Nelson home and taking 3rd place for himself. After falling early in the tourney, Cash had a great consolation and tallied off six consecutive wins to take the next best thing.

Now, we must factor in young Abe Assad who knocked off two ranked opponents, #21 Zach Braunagel (Illinois) and #19 Travis Stefanik (Princeton), en route to a finals appearance, placing higher than both Wilcke and Brands.

Though he lost to #4 Taylor Lujan (UNI) in the finals, 4-0, he was the aggressor for much of that match and got in deep several times, but failed to convert those attempts into points. Like Murin and Lugo before him, that’s something he will improve on. The big question is: can he improve enough this year to give us team points come March?

As of right now, my gut says this is Wilcke’s spot, but the emergence of Assad has made this complicated situation, well, more complicated.

“We’ve got three options there. There’s a certain Midlands factor for weight classes.”

-Tom Brands

24 hours ago I was confidentially saying, “NO!” to pulling Assad’s redshirt. Now? Well after listening to Brands and seeing his reaction, I just don’t know. Tom and Terry are going to put the best guy on the mat, regardless of who has what name or who is the fifth year senior. The guy that earns it is going to go… This could be an intense battle right up until the Big Ten tournament three months from now.

The coaching staff has most of these guys dialed in already, which is a great sign. But the heart of the dual schedule is quickly approaching, and we’ll find out soon enough how we really stack up against the best of the best. Are we simply content to compete or are we going to prove to everyone out there that we’re legit title contenders and run the gauntlet?

Next up we travel to Bloomington to face Indiana on Friday, January 10th.