Wrestling season is upon us. The NWCA All-Star Classic, the unofficial kick-off event for the season, took place last weekend and Iowa held Media Day for wrestling on Thursday. So the good news is that wrestling is back. The bad news is that Iowa wrestling won't really be back for a while yet. And I'm not referring to Iowa's Big Ten and NCAA title drought -- I mean Iowa literally won't be wrestling any matches (let alone matches of consequence) for a bit. While the season has fully gotten underway for several teams (Ohio State participated in the Michigan State Open last weekend and cleaned house, even without the Stiebers and Pitt and Edinboro, two top 20 teams, squared off in a dual meet Thursday night), Iowa is easing into the season.
Iowa's first competition of the season is the Luther Open on 11/15, followed by the Iowa City Duals against Baker, Cornell College, and Iowa Central Community College a week later. Unfortunately, those events tend to tell us very little about Iowa's wrestlers because the level of competition is so skewed. Even Iowa's first "real" dual meets of the season, against Iowa State on 11/29 and against Michigan State on 12/6, are unlikely to give us a good read on the Iowa team. While Iowa State is improving, they still have only a handful of highly-ranked wrestlers (five wrestlers rank in InterMat's top 20 at their respective weights). That's still better than Michigan State: the Spartans enter 2014-15 with zero ranked wrestlers at any weights.
The truth is, this Iowa team might remain a mystery to us for a long time. Midlands will probably be our first opportunity to really see how guys stack up against credible competition, but even that is hurt by the fact that several top programs will be at the Southern Scuffle instead. So maybe we'll have to wait until duals against Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, and Penn State in January and February that we're able to get a good read on the quality of this Iowa team. In the meantime, the sluggish rollout of the Hawkeye wrestling season has also slowed down my previews, but fear not: there should be plenty of preview goodness for you to enjoy over the next few weeks.
With the season officially upon us, several preseason (or by now, early season) polls are upon us. Iowa, unsurprisingly, ranks high in all of them -- and they're even atop one of them.
Iowa just barely edged out Minnesota for the top spot in the NWCA poll, despite having fewer first place votes (4 versus 7) than the Gophers. That suggests that the voters were more split on their rankings for Minnesota than they were Iowa; for Iowa to overcome Minnesota's edge in first place votes, there must have been a few ballots that slotted Minnesota at 3-4-5 instead. In any event: WOO #1 GO IOWA AWESOME.
And yet there's an mportant caveat here: the NWCA rankings are DUAL MEET RANKINGS. They are not TOURNAMENT RANKINGS. Flowrestling, for instance, does tournament rankings and they have Iowa slotted at #2, behind Minnesota. InterMat also does tournament rankings and they have Iowa slotted at #3, behind Minnesota (#1) and Ohio State (#2). (InterMat also has a dual meet ranking and Iowa slots in at #3 there as well, also behind Minnesota (#1) and Ohio State (#2).) Dual meet rankings have significant overlap with tournament rankings (BREAKING: if you have a bunch of good wrestlers, you're liable to good in dual meets AND tournaments), but they are not necessarily predictive of tournament success. The top tournament team over the past three seasons has been Penn State, while the top dual meet team has been Minnesota; that said, it's difficult to draw conclusions there when Penn State has elected not to compete in the top dual meet competition (National Duals). But I digress.
The full NWCA team rankings are available here.
In addition to the team rankings, there are also weight-by-weight individual rankings out now (InterMat listed first, Flowrestling listed second)...
125: Thomas Gilman (4, 5)
133: Cory Clark (5, 5)
141: Josh Dziewa (7, 8)
149: Brody Grothus (8, 8)
157: No Iowa wrestler listed
165: Nick Moore (7, 6)
174: Mike Evans (4, 4)
184: Sam Brooks (10, 7)
197: Nathan Burak (6, 6)
285: Bobby Telford (3, 3)
Matching those rankings at the NCAA Tournament next March would give Iowa 8-9 All-Americans, which would be tremendous... and yet it still might not be enough to claim Iowa's first national championship in five years. But more on that in a forthcoming post.
THE ZEN OF BRANDS
Tom Brands remains, hands down, the most quotable and entertaining Iowa coach.
Brands: "I don't remember not remembering."— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) November 6, 2014
THE 149-157 CONUNDRUM
As we enter the 2014-15 season, there are very few question marks about the Iowa lineup: we know who the starters are at the lower weights and we know who the starters are at the upper weights. There is a very big question smack dab in the middle of Iowa's lineup, though, as no one seems to know just who's going to be manning 149 or 157 for Iowa this season. Iowa has a host of options, but it's still very unclear who's going to be wrestling at which weight and who's going to win the starting gigs there. Media Days didn't do much to dispel that confusion.
Brandon Sorensen said he feels like 149 is his weight— Ross Bartachek (@RossIAWrestle) November 6, 2014
Quick hits from Iowa wrestling media day: Brody Grothus is staying at 149, along with Brandon Sorensen and Edwin Cooper.— Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) November 6, 2014
141/149: "Grothus is the returner at 149, Kelly is a veteran at 157, but there are some exciting names like Edwin Cooper and Sorensen"— Wrestling in Iowa (@IAwrestle) November 6, 2014
Well, I guess we know a little bit more now: we know that Mike Kelly is finally going to get a chance to wrestle at his most natural weight (157) and that Grothus, Sorensen, and Cooper are sticking at 149 and vying for the starting job there, so --
I wouldn't be surprised to see Cooper at 157 at some point.— Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) November 6, 2014
I continue to wish that these issues had sorted themselves out in the offseason and that one of Cooper, Grothus, or Sorensen had decided to move up to 157 to challenge Kelly. No offense to Kelly (who may well blossom a bit at a more comfortable weight, especially if his energy level at 149 was perpetually sapped by weight cuts), but it sure feels like those are Iowa's three best middleweight wrestlers this year and it would be nice to find a way to get two of them into the lineup and for the one who ends up at 157 to have adequate time to sufficiently bulk up with good weight. Oh well.
As noted, we know who's going to be manning Iowa's lightest weights this year: Thomas Gilman at 125 and Cory Clark at 133. They split time at 125 a season ago, with both recording some impressive wins and Clark ultimately winding up on the podium as an All-America at the NCAA Tournament. Gilman then went out and had himself a pretty solid summer on the freestyle scene, bringing home a bronze medal from the World Junior Championships. Suffice to say, neither Gilman nor Clark lack confidence.
"I wouldn't say we're the new McDonough and Ramos, I don't think that's a fair comparison" -Thomas Gilman— Wrestling in Iowa (@IAwrestle) November 6, 2014
"I think we're better than McDonough and Ramos and I'm putting that out there" - Gilman— Wrestling in Iowa (@IAwrestle) November 6, 2014
That's... pretty bold words. McDonough and Ramos combined for six All-America finishes, five NCAA Tournament finals appearances, and a trio of NCAA championships (numbers that might be glossier still if McD hadn't been hampered by a debilitating shoulder injury as a senior). McD and Ramos left behind some very big shoes, but Gilman and Clark have considerable talent themselves -- and they don't seem to be backing down from the comparison or the competition. That level of confidence and self-belief is certainly exciting to see.
RAGE AGAINST THE EARLY-ROUND EXITS
Brands, on Nick Moore: "He's training angry and alone." Said he's still not happy about last March.— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) November 6, 2014
Nick Moore has been positively snakebitten in March at the NCAA Tournament in recent years, bowing out far too early for a wrestler of his caliber. Moore established himself as a legitimate top guy at 165 (non-David Taylor divison) in the regular season a season ago, but then suffered a shocking, humbling, and far-too-quick exit at the NCAA Tournament. This year is his last opportunity to erase the memories of past NCAA failures and finally claim that podium glory that's eluded him so far in his career -- let's see how he does.
Seeing the strides that Gilman and Clark have made in the offseason might be the most anticipated aspect of this year's Iowa team (followed by the long-awaited Iowa varsity debuts of Edwin Cooper and Brandon Sorensen), but don't sleep on Iowa's newest upper weight wrestler, either.
Brands, on Sammy Brooks being the guy at 184: "Things come to mind, I feel like we're in good hands there."— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) November 6, 2014
Sammy Brooks filled in for former 184 mainstay Ethen Lofthouse last season while Lofthouse dealt with a minor injury and Brooks equipped himself very nicely in that interim stint -- so nicely that some folks wanted to see him keep the gig through the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Brands opted for the tried-and-true Lofthouse (a two-time All-American) and while hindsight makes it easy to question that decision, there's no doubt that Brooks is the unquestioned man at this weight this season. And he should bring some fireworks to the proceedings, too -- unlike many upper weight wrestlers, Brooks is decidedly unafraid of wrestling with an aggressive, attack-happy style that's very pleasing on the eyes.
THIS IS PROBABLY NOT A SIMPLE COINCIDENCE.
Earlier this fall, Iowa secured verbal commitments from two highly touted wrestlers affiliated with the Young Guns wrestling club, a Pennsylvania-area club run by former Hawkeye Jody Strittmatter. And look who happens to be featured in the new media guide:
THE NAME YOU MIGHT NEED TO KNOW IN JANUARY.
Josh Dziewa is Iowa's presumptive starter at 141 lbs, but his often-frustrating style (take a shot, Josh!) and annoyingly inconsistent results have given Iowa coaches and fans plenty of reason to speculate about who else might be able to man that spot. Last year, there weren't any particularly compelling options to choose from, but per Brands, that might not be the case this season.
Tom Brands said Topher Carton is the most improved guy on the team. #Hawkeyes— Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) November 6, 2014
The smart money is still on Dziewa keeping his job for the entire season, but it's encouraging to hear that Carton is looking good. For one thing, a little extra motivation might give Dziewa the kick in the pants that he needs. For another, it's gratifying to hear because it means Iowa may have a pretty solid upperclassmen to turn to next season after Dziewa has departed.
ON DUAL MEETS AND MULTI-MEET DAYS.
"We need dual meets" - Tom Brands— Wrestling in Iowa (@IAwrestle) November 6, 2014
"Nobody wants to watch 20-30 matches..fans can only eat so much popcorn" when asked about wresting two teams on one day (triangular)— Wrestling in Iowa (@IAwrestle) November 6, 2014
The sentiments expressed by Brands here certainly make a decent amount of sense... even if they don't appear to be consistently followed by the Iowa program itself. It seems odd to make that comment about nobody wanting to watch 20-30 matches... and then go do the Iowa City Duals in a few weeks, which will literally have Iowa wrestling 30 matches in a single day in a series of back-to-back-to-back dual meets. Unless this is Brands' way of criticizing the current format of the Duals, which brings in a trio of opponents that do little to prepare Iowa for the rigors of the regular season.