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Iowa Wrestling: 2021 Team Champions and Spencer Lee Wins His 3rd Title

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One individual champ, three finalists, and seven All-Americans.

hawkeyesports.com

“F-excuses. Excuses are for wusses”

-Spencer Lee

THE IOWA HAWKEYES ARE 2021 NCAA TEAM CHAMPIONS!

SPENCER LEE IS A 3x CHAMP!

Sounds pretty damn good, doesn’t it?

This is the 24th team title in Iowa history and it will slide nicely into the trophy case. It’s been 11 years since our last crown, 2010, and while this is the highlight of the past 11 years, it is also one of the most bittersweet moments I’ve experienced in recent memory when it comes to athletics.

I’ve struggled with the approach of this writeup because there’s so much to unpack and so much of it isn’t, well, good. A team title is what we’ve been craving for a decade and I’m so damn proud of this team and their perseverance, but we definitely took it on the chin when the lights were the brightest. This was a dramatic final night of wrestling.

We clinched the title in the medal round and put an exclamation point on the capping when Tony Cassioppi defeated #4 Cohlton Schultz for the second time in as many days to take 3rd place. Things were looking peachy, the Iowa faithful were on cloud nine, but the dark ominous cloud that was Cael Sanderson was looming large in the finals. Waiting to make a statement and immediately shift our collective gazes to 2022 and beyond.

And that’s exactly what his squad did. The Nittany Lions roared out of the gate and won all four of their matches in the finals, including two heads-up battles with us. #2 Nick Lee broke through against Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer delivered his most un-Kemerer-like performance in about three years and was upended by #3 Carter Starocci. Both in sudden victory, nonetheless. Gut-wrenching.

Thankfully, like the savior he is, Spencer Lee dominantly and methodically won his 3rd title over #3 Brandon Courtney (ASU), 7-0, on two torn ACL’s.

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Yes, you read that right and you can hear it too.

This is deserving a post all by itself, so I’ll save it for later this week, but what else can be said about Lee? Guys, when this is all said and done, we’re witnessing not only the greatest Hawkeye wrestler, but one of the best in the history of the sport. He delivered on his promise and Captain Dan’d his team to the promised land and became the seventh 3x champ in program history and first since Joe Williams in ‘98.

He tied Gable Steveson (MINN) for the most team points in the tournament with 24.5 and outscored his opponents 59-8 over his five matches.

While Lee led the charge, this was a total team effort and that cannot be overstated enough. Without seven All-Americans, plus the contributions of Max Murin, Alex Marinelli, and Nelson Brands, this trophy would not be on its way back to the Mecca of Wrestling.

FINALS RESULTS:

125: #1 Spencer Lee dec. over #3 Brandon Courtney (ASU), 7-0

141: #2 Nick Lee dec. over #1 Jaydin Eierman, 4-2 SV1

174: #3 Carter Starocci dec. over #1 Michael Kemerer, 3-1 SV1

QUICK REACTIONS:

141: This was arguably the most aggressive we’ve seen Jaydin wrestle all year and it backfired on him. He simply burned himself out firing away over the first 4:30 of the match and it truly sucks to see a guy that’s worked so hard to clean up his wrestling, fall in sudden victory.

It hurts to say this, but hats off to Nick Lee. He made the adjustments and stayed away from Eierman’s wheelhouse. Even though their rivals, he respects JE’s positioning and counter-offensive so much, he didn’t dare take the bait. That’s self control.

I’m bummed for our guy, yes, but he went out doing what he thought he needed to do. He didn’t turtle up or give up and really that’s all we can ask for. I sure hope he comes back for one more year.

Plus, he genuinely seemed ecstatic during the team trophy celebration. Smiling ear to ear and that’s great to see.

174: This match was the most painful for me. I’m still trying to process where Kemerer went wrong. The way he rag-dolled his way through the semifinals I was sure it was going to carry over, but he just didn’t seem to be himself in this match. He wasn’t ever out of position, but the fire just wasn’t there and he was so hesitant to pull the trigger on the few quality looks he did see.

There’s no way around it though, Starocci made the adjustments and Kemerer didn’t. Cael had him prepped and ready to go, switching stances, giving different looks, and staying away from Kem’s wheelhouse. Seems similar to Eierman, yeah?

Starocci very rarely pressured and on the shots he did take, he didn’t allow Kemerer to hip in with those heavy hips and go behind. Kem is so dang good in those positions and taking that away was perhaps the biggest game changer.

TBH- you can see the shift when Kem gave up on the leg to avoid the stall warning in the early 2nd period. Looking back, perhaps he should’ve held on to reset and look for a longer ride. That quick escape gave Starocci confidence.

Spencer Lee said it best, “Excuses are for wusses,” and we don’t have any. Starocci was just better on this night. And that sucks.

125: Initially when I saw Lee sprint out of the tunnel without a hulking knee brace on either leg my reaction was “Free the Knee Pt. 2” but the excitement dimmed following a scoreless first period.

Lee had a couple good looks, but Courtney executed his plan and danced just out of reach for much of the match. The refusal to generate contact is an increasing worry for college wrestling, but I cannot fault Courtney for the tactic. Until it’s consistently called a stall, it will continue to happen. Mark Perry and the ASU staff had a solid game plan and for the most part, it kind of worked, until it didn’t.

Regardless of his refusal to square up, Lee powered through, dug deep, and found a way to win. It was noticeable he was missing his low end horsepower, which he explained in the edgy post-match presser.

Which, coincidentally, is the sharpest I’ve ever seen him react to the media. Lee and this team have been eating a lot of shit from Hawkeye haters and he finally unloaded. This version of Lee is all piss and vinegar. We can only hope he heals up fully in the coming years and can unleash this version of himself on the world. When that happens, he will be unstoppable.

Lee also touched on (in the interview below) not leading off, which was a silent worry of mine going into the night. Lee is the spark plug from this team and quite often as he goes, they go. Not being able to light that fuse for his guys and lead the charge, certainly didn’t help.

The Penn Staters of the world will take the opposite approach and say wrestling is wrestling, but no one can tell me that seeing #2 RBY knock off #1 Daton Fix wasn’t a momentum builder to kick things off.

Anyways, his demeanor is definitely new, but it’s something that’s been floating to the surface over the past few days. As fellow BHGP writer, Doug Saye observed, there was very little joy in the immediate aftermath. My guy is telling me he’s simply trying to process everything and the enormous weight the OTT coming up. Plus, he’s devastated for his fellow teammates that fell in the finals. He is so team oriented that I think he truly believes that if he’d gone first, and won, then Iowa would have rolled through the finals.

Honestly, I do too.

Coach Brands vs Coach Sanderson:

It was evident that Sanderson won the heads-up battles tonight and I’m really tired of saying that. I love Brands, his mentality, and everything he brings to the program... but our guys shuffle in the finals, especially against their PSU counterparts.

I wouldn’t trade our coaching staff or roster for anyone, but a hard evaluation needs to happen in the off-season. Brands did it for recruiting and changed his philosophy, now he needs to do it for individual preparations. We all knew Nick Lee and Carter Starocci were going to be dialed in, focused, and ready to go. They were going to make the adjustments, but we failed to anticipate what those were and if we did know, we neglected it.

So many times we hear our guys say something similar to, “If I go out and wrestle my match” but we continually see adjustments made against us. Rivals adapting to slow our pace or keep distance. It’s these in-match adjustments that derail us in the big moments and that’s something Brands & Co. must work on immediately.

That’s not to say that Tom didn’t do a bang up job for the two days before that, because he did. He had our guys rocking and rolling up until the finals and by far and away out-paced the rest of the field going 38-13 with 27 team bonus points. Brands had these guys ready to wrestle a tournament, Sanderson had his 4 finalist ready for a dual.

And that’s the difference.

INDIVIDUAL FINISHES:

125: Spencer Lee - 1st

133: Austin Desanto - 3rd

141: Jaydin Eierman - 2nd

149: Max Murin - DNP

157: Kaleb Young - 7th

165: Alex Marinelli - DNP

174: Michael Kemerer - 2nd

184: Nelson Brands - DNP

197: Jacob Warner - 4th

285: Tony Cassioppi - 3rd

TEAM STANDINGS:

  1. Iowa 129
  2. Penn State 113.5
  3. Oklahoma State 99.5

As I said, there’s a lot to unpack and analyze as we turn our attention to 2022. Self reflection, recruiting, improvement, and especially enjoyment. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a deep dive and analyze the stats and results of this championship run. Some questions we’ll be asking is: who is coming back and who isn’t? Is this the last we’ve seen of Marinelli and Kemerer? How is next season shaping up and are we built for another run? Was this the last ride with Marinelli and Kemerer? Recruiting styles?

We’ll also go head first into Spencer Lee and the Olympic Team Trials that is rapidly approaching in two short weeks.

So, we took it on the chin and still came out victorious and now Tom Brands and the Iowa Hawkeyes are NCAA Champs again. While it may not have been the ideal finals we were hoping for, this team delivered under an unprecedented amount of pressure and survived and that’s what champions do: SURVIVE.

My heart breaks for the guys that didn’t go out with a win, but we live and die as a team and in 2021, we lived. Enjoy the NCAA Championship! This team rose to meet the challenge and delivered on their promise.

Even with all the negative feedback we’re going to read over the next few days about us stumbling across the finish line and how salty we are, just take a look at the cover photo above. That is a happy group of CHAMPIONS (except Terry because he doesn’t have smiling muscles).

We had two guys fall, a leader get hurt, and champion emerge as a Legend and they celebrate as one. This is as complete of a team as we’ll ever see.

IOWA HAWKEYES 2021 NCAA CHAMPIONS