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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Iowa wrestling has won 23 NCAA team titles.
The Hawkeyes haven’t added to that total in the last seven seasons. With defending champion Penn State returning a loaded lineup and Iowa graduating a strong group of seniors, the total may not change after next season.
The Hawkeyes will attempt to improve the fourth-place finish, building around two medalists and two more with national tournament experience.
“They have everybody coming back,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “We have two All-Americans, two thirds, and we have some freshmen in the stands right now watching and have a recruiting class coming in and we’ll keep making progress.”
Penn State could bring back 142 points. NCAA runner-up and Big Ten champion Ohio State can return all 110 points. Oklahoma State, which place third, received 85 points from underclassmen. Iowa only has 38 1/2 points coming back. Iowa has its work cut out to close the gap.
“You close it with tough wrestling,” Brands said Saturday night at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center. “There’s more to it than that and we’re not done with the tournament yet, so we analyze and we go forward like we did last year.
“We’ll get there.”
The talent waiting in the wings of the practice room and those waiting to step foot on campus next year will have to replace five senior starters, including NCAA champion and four-time All-American Cory Clark, three-time NCAA placewinner Thomas Gilman and two-time All-American and Big Ten champion Sam Brooks.
In addition to their contributions on the mat, the influence they have had on the program’s environment and the athletes who will assume their leadership roles.
“Part of a senior class that has been vital to a culture change a little bit,” Brands said. “When I talk about culture change I’m talking about being good leaders for our young guys, our incoming freshmen.
“They host recruits. They do it all. They’ve been on board every step of the way and that’s every one of those senior class.”
Gilman said he wants to train with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, so he could be around to help tutor the new leaders, like junior three-time All-American Brandon Sorensen and redshirt freshman Michael Kemerer. Both placed third Saturday. Kemerer seems eager to take the reins.
“We’ll be a young team next year so I have to take the stuff they (seniors) taught me and teach it to some of our younger guys,” Kemerer said. “We just have to get back to winning. It starts with our young guys right away getting them with the right mentality and turn things around.”
In addition to Kemerer and Sorensen, the Hawkeyes return three more with national tournament experience. Cash Wilcke was a victory away from All-American honors at 197 after receiving a late at-large bid. Joey Gunther made the 165-pound field.
Sophomore heavyweight Sam Stoll was ranked in the top 10 before a knee injury prematurely ended his season for the second straight season, despite qualifying for the NCAA meet in 2016. Steven Holloway filled in for Stoll and will be back.
Iowa freshmen Alex Marinelli and Kaleb Young placed at the Midlands Championships in their redshirt seasons. They are expected to make an impact in the middle-to-upper weights.
Lisbon four-time state champion Carter Happel was 22-3 during his redshirt season. Redshirt freshman Vince Turk, a two-time Illinois state champ and three-time state finalist, was expected to contend for the 141-pound spot before an early injury ended his season.
“They’re hard workers,” Kemerer said. “They are what the program’s about and they love Iowa. They love it out there. They’re getting better every day.”
The chore is much bigger than just replacing the holes created by graduation. They have to surpass what the seniors accomplished as a team.
“They have a lot of work to do,” Gilman said. “Not only to fill our shoes, but do more than fill the shoes. Obviously, our shoes weren’t getting the job done.”
The Hawkeyes have altered their recruiting approach and have started to attract high-profile blue-chip recruits like Kemerer, Marinelli and Young.
The 2017 recruiting class includes Pennsylvania three-time state champion, four-time finalist and three-time World medalist Spencer Lee, often regarded as the top recruit in the nation. He will be joined by Illinois upper weight champion Jacob Warner, a World medalist, Junior Nationals All-American Max Murin, from Pennsylvania, and Iowa state champions Zach Axmear (English Valleys) and Aaron Costello (Western Dubuque).
The 2018 class also has elite recruit Gavin Teasdale.
“Everyone knows the mentality part is getting the right guys in, getting that good culture and stuff like that,” Kemerer said. “Spencer’s tough. He’ll come in. We have good guys coming in. Our coaches know how to produce champions. It’s just going to take getting guys on board.”
Northern Iowa took some steps toward improvement, earning its third-highest finish under head coach Doug Schwab. The Panthers were 18th with two All-Americans.
Redshirt freshman Max Thomsen was fifth at 149 and sophomore Drew Foster was seventh at 184. They were part of seven qualifiers, including six that return next season. Sophomore Bryce Steiert is a two-time NCAA qualifier as well. Taylor Lujan (174) climbed the national rankings and Jacob Holschlag bumped up to make the 197 field. Both are freshmen. Josh Alber also won a match at 133.
“Certainly excited for the future,” UNI Coach Doug Schwab said. “How can you not be with what we have coming back? Now, it’s time to keep raising levels.”
Iowa State will begin its rebuilding project next season under newly hired head coach Kevin Dresser. Marcus Harrington (197) is the lone returning national qualifier for the Cyclones.
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