Mixed emotions from NCAAs, but future has promise
Disappointing finish for Hawkeyes, but positive performance for Cyclones and Panthers
DES MOINES - Where you are usually depends on where you start.
The premise would explain the different views of the national finishes of the state's NCAA Division I wrestling programs.
Disappointment surrounds the University of Iowa's fourth-place finish, while optimism is more prevalent around Iowa State's improvement to place 11th and University of Northern Iowa's return to being a top-15 team at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Hawkeyes entered the tournament with title aspirations, which is an annual goal for one of college wrestling's most storied programs with 23 NCAA team titles. They finished a distant 30 points out of third behind Minnesota, runner-up Oklahoma State and Penn State, which won its third straight championship. It's a finish would be a banner achievement for many teams, but the Hawkeyes' standards are higher than most.
On the bright side, Iowa crowned its 79th NCAA champion in 157-pounder Derek St. John, who made his second straight finals appearance. Tony Ramos improved last year's third-place finish with runner-up honors at 133. Ethen Lofthouse was fifth at 184 and 174-pounder Mike Evans placed sixth. All return for next year.
Heavyweight Bobby Telford, an NCAA qualifier who was a 2012 All-American, gives Iowa five returning All-Americans and national qualifiers in sophomore Nick Moore at 165 and 197-pound freshman Nathan Burak, who reached the round of 12.
Throw in a highly-touted freshman class, including lightweights Cory Clark, who beat Illinois NCAA and Big Ten champion Jesse Delgado, Thomas Gilman and 184-pounder Sammy Brooks. The Hawkeyes, whose Coach Tom Brands declined media interviews Saturday night, certainly will be a formidable foe that can contend to repeat as Big Ten dual champions, but it will be tough to overcome Penn State, which returns NCAA champions Ed Ruth and David Taylor, who won in 2012, and two-time national runner-up Nico Megaludis.
“We have a great freshman class and we’re getting rid of a great senior class,” Lofthouse said. “We’ll just have to see what happens, I guess.”
The team finish was limited due to injury. Telford, seeded sixth at heavyweight, easily advanced to the quarterfinals - one win away from placing - and favored to reach the semifinals, but suffered a knee injury during his second-round win and was forced to default from the tournament. Senior Mark Ballweg entered the tournament with a knee injury suffered at the Big Ten Championships, falling a win short from being an All-American.
Evans cruised to a win over Missouri's Todd Porter to reach the top-eight, but returned with his left leg taped and went 1-2 afterward.
Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten or national title since 2010. Most programs would still consider that a crowning achievement, but seems like a long time with one for the high standards of the Hawkeyes.
“There’s always pressure to get that team national championship and individual national championship,” Lofthouse said. “That comes with being a Hawkeye and wrestling at the D-I level.”
Iowa State experienced a positive finish compared to a year ago. The Cyclones flirted with the top-10, climbing as high as an eighth Saturday. The Cyclones had three All-Americans of their seven qualifiers. Michael Moreno (165) and 197-pounder Kyven Gadson both placed sixth. Heavyweight Matt Gibson was eighth. Tanner Weatherman reached the 174 quarterfinals and was a win away from the podium. Iowa State national qualifiers Luke Goettl (141) and 184-pounder Boaz Beard returns, as does former four-time Iowa prep champion John Meeks (133).
Last year, the Cyclones failed to have an All-American for the first time in 50 years. After the 2012 NCAA tournament, Iowa State Coach Kevin Jackson said this season would be more indicative of the program’s direction. He confirmed that Saturday.
“I would say so,” Jackson said. “I think we left two All-Americans on the mat out there.
“I would say we’re starting to see where we’re heading. We have to go out and stay healthy and compete at the same level next year. I think our performance will speak for itself.”
Gibson and 149-pounder Max Mayfield were upper classmen in a young lineup. They will need to be replaced, but Jackson said the Cyclones have been trying to build depth and freshman Gabe Moreno, Michael’s younger brother, could step in at 149. Quean Smith and Tyler Swope are possible replacements for Gibson.
“We’ve shown we do have an environment where you can get to the NCAA tournament and you can perform,” Jackson said. “Now, it’s on them to do it.”
They will benefit from have credible leaders. Jackson said Gadson’s injury last year hurt the team, because he is a natural leader, who made helped spur fun and success. His influence was key this season and now Gadson, Moreno and even Weatherman will have a stronger impact to a team, looking to return to contender status.
“We have guys in the room that can speak from experience and not just speak because they’re down to lead the team,” Jackson said. “They’re speaking because they know what it takes to get on the podium here.”
UNI had their first All-American since 2010 and two All-Americans for the first time since 2005. The Panthers should be pleased. They jumped nearly 20 spots in the team standings, tying Pittsburgh for 15th with 34 points. David Bonin placed fourth at 157 and Ryan Loder placed seventh at 184. Two-time NCAA qualifier Levi Wolfensperger (133) and 141-pounder Joey Lazor made the round of 12.
This could be the cornerstone for the programs resurgence.
“As a staff, we said once we get guys on the stand it’s going to take off,” Schwab said. “Our young guys need to see that. We have two guys who got a taste you want more.”
The Panthers should expect more with the accomplishments and potential on the horizon. Loder, Wolfensperger and Lazor all return. Freshmen Dylan Peters (125) and Zach Witte (149) could make an impact for a lineup that returns most of its starters. Their work in the offseason will determine if they can continue the climb.
“This spring, summer and fall is critical that we continue to develop guys, and build on this,” Schwab said. “We have something we can point to now.”
Bonin is a senior and is a perfect example of reaping the rewards of hard work under Schwab and his staff. He recognizes something is special coming after he leaves.
“It’s coming,” Bonin said of the team’s future. “Things are meshing, and we are getting stronger and stronger.”
Schwab has been a part of national championship programs and prepares his current wrestlers in the same manner. He didn’t take the UNI post to be 15th in the country. Schwab wants to build UNI into a championship a program again.“If we continue to multiply our point totals, we’re going to start being in the hunt,” Schwab said. “It’s good steady progress, but we’re always looking for a little bit more.”