Iowa wrestling seniors will be vital to overcome top teams

Hawkeyes look to overcome Penn State, Ohio State and Oklahoma State in team race

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Penn State is the defending national champion.

Ohio State dethroned the Nittany Lions as conference champions. Oklahoma State has a fully-loaded team, qualifying all 10 wrestlers.

Iowa has a tough task ahead to finish ahead of all three and capture its first national title since 2010. The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes have nine qualifiers for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center, beginning Thursday at 11 a.m.

Of those Iowa qualifiers, five are part of a senior class that some tagged as the top recruiting class of 2012 prep seniors. They have contributed plenty to the program, but an NCAA title has previously been out of reach.

“Great group of guys,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during a pre-tournament news conference at Scottrade Center. “Great leadership. Fun to be around, fun to coach. They are one of a kind.”

All but one senior has earned All-American honors already and are seeded. Thomas Gilman is the top seed at 125 pounds, entering the tournament with a spotless 27-0 mark. The two-time All-American is looking to improve last year’s runner-up finish.

Read more: Gilman eyes last shot at national title

“We’ve still got to be ready, still got to be fired up, still got to be motivated,” Gilman said as one of three seniors on a panel of top-seeded wrestlers Wednesday. “So, I look at it no different, stayed disciplined and stay focused and just take it one match at a time.”

Senior Cory Clark (15-3) is seeded fourth at 133, reaching the NCAA finals the last two years and trying to become Iowa’s 19th four-time All-American.

Two-time conference champion Sam Brooks (24-2) is third at 184, while 174-pounder Alex Meyer (24-7) is the lowest-seeded senior at No. 11.

“But the other thing about this group is they’re here to compete,” Brands said. “So let your best wrestling shine right now.”

Redshirt freshman Michael Kemerer (27-2) is seeded second at 157, while 2016 national finalist Brandon Sorensen (26-4) is fifth at 149.

If the Hawkeyes want to have a chance at their 24th NCAA team title, they will need to maximize points from each of the seeded wrestlers and receive a contribution from unseeded qualifiers Topher Carton (141), Joey Gunther (165) and 197-pounder Cash Wilcke.

Penn State announced Wednesday that No. 3 seed freshman Nick Suriano was scratched due to an ankle injury that has kept him off the mat since the NWCA National Duals at Oklahoma State. His absence was the difference between the Lions and Buckeyes at Big Tens.

“Yeah, well, we were trying to give him as much time as possible,” Penn State Coach Cael Sanderson said. “And it was going to be a day-before type of decision. We were trying to get him to a point where he would be competitive enough to compete and to protect himself. I don’t feel like he’s in that position. So, he’s not going to wrestle.”

Penn State dropped to eight wrestlers in the field. All but one is seeded fifth or better, including Nos. 1 Zain Retherford (149) and 157-pounder Jason Nolf. They will have to find a way to make up for those lost points.

“I think the team’s going to compete the same way regardless,” Retherford said. “We want to score as many points as we can in the amount of time that we have out there on the mat. So that doesn’t change at all.”

Ohio State won the 2015 title in St. Louis. The Buckeyes have nine qualifiers, including top-seeded and former national champions Nathan Tomasello (133) and heavyweight Kyle Snyder. Myles Martin, seeded sixth at 184, is a returning NCAA titlist. They will have to recapture the magic that allowed them to move six into the Big Ten finals.

“So, we’re going to have to wrestle really tough this weekend,” Ohio State Coach Tom Ryan said. “And they should trust their preparation and be excited about it, because it’s an exciting time.”

Oklahoma State was second last season and hasn't won the team race since 2006. Nine Cowboys are projected to be All-Americans with one more seeded ninth, which is one win shy of the podium.

Oklahoma State Coach John Smith said the Cowboys will need the balance to add to the program’s 34 NCAA team titles.

“We have some numbers here,” Smith said. “And we have positioned ourselves well after the Big 12, gave ourselves an opportunity. That’s all I was asking for. And then they responded.”

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

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