Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa freshman Spencer Lee captures NCAA wrestling 125-pound title

First Hawkeye true freshman to win it since 1993

CLEVELAND — Expectations for Spencer Lee have been sky high from the moment he announced he wanted to wrestle at the University of Iowa.

The prospect of a three-time World champion, training with Tom and Terry Brands at a school with recent lightweight success was accompanied with Lee’s potential to be one of college wrestling’s best ever.

Lee demonstrated why he garnered so much excitement during a dominant three-day stretch to close his first season as a Hawkeye. He capped his freshman campaign with a 5-1 victory over Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, winning the 125-pound title at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena in front of a single-session record 19,776 fans.

Teammates congratulated him shortly after he became Iowa’s first true freshman national champion since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993.

“I don’t know if it’s really set in,” Lee said. “I got to hug my teammates and my family. That was an awesome feeling. I got the best teammates in the world. And (Michael) Kemerer and (Brandon) Sorensen and (Alex) Marinelli, they’re great leaders and I can name the whole team. They did a good job of making me believe in myself and I think that’s why I’m here.”

Lee and Suriano were two of the favorites in a stacked bracket, despite being seeded third and fourth, respectively. Saturday night marked the first time they faced off since splitting two high school bouts.

Lee (22-2) opened the scoring late in the first period, getting a takedown with three seconds remaining. Lee said feeling that shot made him realize it would be available later. He capitalized in the third for insurance.

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“I think that was kind of the main thing,” Lee said. “I got the takedown. I knew it’s going to be there again and I got it in the end.”

Suriano had been stingy with three shutouts and a pin to reach the finals. Lee was able to stay focused and stuck to his strength, despite Suriano’s attempt to slow the pace.

“He kept trying to get to his angles,” Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands said. “He kept trying to get to his stuff. After a while, that stuff opens up and that’s really what happened.”

Lee produced one of the best runs to the finals. He whitewashed his first two opponents with 18-0 technical falls in both. Lee followed those bouts with pins over Oklahoma State All-American Nick Piccininni and Ohio State four-time All-American and 2015 NCAA champ, Nathan Tomasello, building leads of 11-1 and 8-2 at the time of the fall.

“It certainly shows what young guys can do,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “Give credit to our recruiting and give credit to Spencer Lee and it was really no hesitation when we were talking about the redshirt. It was a matter of talking it out, working it out with the knee and the rehab and the timing and threw him in there.

“He’s a very unique fellow.”

A year ago, Lee endured a knee injury, lost in his fourth Pennsylvania state finals appearance after winning three titles and had ligament surgery. He was determined to get healthy and comeback to wrestle this season.


He overcame a little rust, regaining his feel on the mat once he was able to practice again. He competed for the first time in December, having his redshirt pulled and officially beginning his title trek Jan. 5. This week marked the first time he wrestled without a bulky brace to protect his knee.

“The coaching staff did an amazing job making sure I was ready to go,” Lee said. “Look, I’ve got my brace off this week, right? They’re really careful. They want to make sure everything they did was the best decision for me, and that’s why my redshirt was pulled as well. And that’s basically it.”

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Lee was joined by Cornell’s 141-pounder Yianni Diakomihalis as champions, making it the first time since 1947 that two true freshmen won titles in the same year. Lee was reserved after his victory. The celebration was low-key, as if he was destined to be in the moment.

“Expected, yes, personally,” Terry Brands said. “Like it’s a personal thing that he expects that out of himself, but not taken for granted.”

Iowa had five All-Americans overall. Sophomore Michael Kemerer placed fourth at 157, senior Brandon Sorensen (149) and heavyweight Sam Stoll were fifth and freshman Alex Marinelli was sixth at 165. The Hawkeyes managed to place third with 97 points, including 30 1/2 bonus points.

Lee accounted for 27 team points, including seven from bonus results.

“It doesn’t feel good, but you do have to give some credit to some tough performances to get us in that position,” Tom Brands said. “We scored a lot of bonus points in this tournament. That’s something that we preach. That’s something that we maybe haven’t seen a lot of with Spencer Lee kind of leading the charge there.”

Iowa finished behind Penn State and Ohio State. When Penn State’s Bo Nickal pinned the Buckeyes’ Myles Martin in the 184-pound championship match, the Nittany Lions clinched their seventh title in the last eight years. Penn State crowned four champions and tallied 141 1/2 points, beating Ohio State by eight.

Ohio State heavyweight Kyle Snyder and Penn State 149-pounder Zain Retherford both became three-time NCAA champions. Snyder scored a takedown with about 20 seconds left to beat Michigan’s Adam Coon in his fourth finals appearance.

Stoll won the Gorriaran Award, going to the wrestler with the most pins in the least amount of time. He had three pins in 8:50. Nickal was named Outstanding Wrestler.

Northern Iowa entered the tournament with six qualifiers and five ranked wrestlers. Sophomore Jacob Holschlag was the lone Panther that wasn’t seeded, but he was the only one that made the podium.

Holschlag (23-12) pinned Cornell’s second-seeded Ben Darmstadt in 2:37, placing fifth at 197.

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“That was a pretty good way to end it, getting the fall there,” Holschlag said. “I knew he liked to come out front and get the assassin, so I just sat my hips in, hooked his head there, and I’ve been there hundreds of times in practice, so I just went with it.”

Two Panthers placed last year, but Holschlag was not one of them. He watched as both stood on the podium. Holschlag admitted he was jealous and was powered to join them as a national medalist.

“Those guys pushed me the whole way,” said the undersized Holschlag, a former 184-pounder who weighed in at a mere 194.6 Saturday. “This entire year, they pushed me. Now, I’m finally an All-American. It feels great and it’s a credit to those guys.”

UNI finished tied for 24th with 20 points.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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