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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — On a day that started with promise that fizzled by its conclusion, Cory Clark provided a positive for the Iowa wrestling team.
The senior 133-pounder will hope to add one more by the end of Saturday night.
Clark scored two takedowns in the third period to upend Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello Friday night, earning a third straight trip to the finals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center. Clark was the lone winner of four Hawkeye semifinalists.
He has one final chance for a national title, placing second each of the last two years.
“I mean every year I’ve thought I was capable of winning this tournament,” Clark said. “I thought I was the best guy at my weight when I put my best self out on the mat. I think the same tonight. I think the same this year and tomorrow night if I go out and put my best self out on the mat and come out the way I want to there is no question in my mind am I going to win that match.”
Getting to the finals was in doubt before late heroics led to a 7-4 victory in a rematch of the Big Ten finals that Tomasello won with a last-second escape.
After an escape to start the third, Clark scored two takedowns, notching the final one with 18 seconds left and adding a point with 1:11 of riding time.
“Tough match, good, hard-fought match,” Clark said. “Wasn’t pretty in my favor, but I got the 'W' and I’m always just out there to wrestle hard and when I got out there I felt real loose and I felt relaxed and I felt really good.
“When I’m feeling that way I’m tough to beat. I may not hit the prettiest shot or may not hit the legs in finish, but I’m tough to beat and I think that showed.”
Clark (19-3) was impressive countering Tomasello’s shot the exact same way, tying up his head and lacing his leg through to hook Tomasello’s for the scores. He realized he was getting in that position in an early match and that it came up often against teammate Thomas Gilman.
He was able to execute it when he needed most.
“I don’t think it’s something where Cory Clark is looking to go to that hold,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “He’s a complete wrestler. He experiments a lot. That’s something that since last fall he’s been working on. It’s a good hobby for him.”
This season has had its share of adversity. Clark can be seen with his shoulder and wrist wrapped for competition. He missed more than a month of the season due to injury. He’s been able to persevere and earn another shot at a title.
“First of all, one of my main goals as a competitor is to show no pain, show no emotion,” Clark said. “So, that sucks that you noticed that hurt. To be honest, we’re in the national finals. It doesn’t matter if you cut my arm off. Doesn’t matter what kind of pain I’m in. Doesn’t matter at this point. Tomorrow is what matters and I’m not going to sit here and say this hurts or this hurts, and once the tournament is over I’ll be glad to sit down and tell you what hurts.”
Clark will face a familiar foe in the finals. South Dakota State’s Seth Gross became the Jackrabbits’ first national finalist, beating Oklahoma State’s second-seeded Kaid Brock, 12-4, for his third straight bonus-point victory of the tournament.
Gross (34-1) was a former Iowa wrestler, but was dismissed from the team following an arrest in Marion that landed him in jail exactly two years to the day he earned a trip to the NCAA finals.
“Looking back that day I never thought I would be wrestling in the NCAA finals two years from now,” Gross said. “I thought my wrestling career was over. It’s an amazing feeling. Can’t thank God enough. Just trying to use the best of my opportunity, my coaches that God has given me and everybody that was rooting for me. I’m doing this for them.”
Besides Clark, little else went the way of the Hawkeyes, who finished with five All-Americans and dropped to fifth in the team standings.
They received a shock to open the semifinals. Gilman had been one of the most dominant wrestlers in the country. He entered Friday night unbeaten, advancing with a pin over Oklahoma State’s Nicholas Puccininni.
Gilman was on a quest for a perfect season and the last missing achievement of his college career. Lehigh’s Darian Cruz had other ideas, scoring a takedown with 16 seconds left in sudden-victory overtime for a 4-2 victory.
“We got taken down in overtime,” Brands said. “We’ve got a fighter there and a guy that’s hurting.”
The pair was scoreless going into the last 10 seconds of regulation with Gilman expecting a point for 2:00 of riding time from a second-period rideout.
Cruz was able to score a takedown with six ticks left, but Gilman forced overtime with an immediate escape, tying it at two apiece.
Gilman (30-1) wasn’t able to get to his offense from the neutral position, which is the phase he’s most dominated this season. He chose neutral for the third, passing a chance to go down and get a possible escape, which could have led to a decisive point.
“You have to get to your offense, get to your scores and build your leads and that didn’t happen,” said Brands, noting the coaches were more responsible for the neutral choice. “It was a close, tight match and he took us down in the end. We scooted out to force it to overtime and got taken down in overtime.”
Things turned even worse for Iowa when junior Brandon Sorensen (149) and 184-pounder Brooks (27-3) suffered first-period falls to Penn State foes in the semifinals. Sorensen (29-5) did earn his third All-American honor, but was denied a return trip to the finals by Zain Retherford, who beat him for the title last year.
“They’re both hard to deal with for those guys,” Brands said. “They’re hard to deal with for this team and this coaching staff.”
Michael Kemerer, who was pinned in the quarterfinals in an upset by Cornell’s Dylan Palacio, moved into the top-six at 157. The Hawkeyes will have their work cut out for them, coming through the consolations to climb in the team race.
“We started that with Kemerer already,” Brands said. “He’s not going for seventh. He didn’t get beat. We have Kemerer getting two wins and that helps.
“We addressed that at the end of last year. We addressed it at the beginning of this year. This is something we’ve communicated that the third day does matter.”
Like Sorensen, Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen reached the 149-pound semifinals. Thomsen experienced the same fate, getting denied a trip to the finals.
Thomsen (30-6) surrendered a takedown in the waning second of the match, falling to Missouri’s Lavion Mayes, 4-2, in a rematch of the Mid-American Conference finals.
“I think I let it play into his game too much,” Thomsen said. “Too much space. I was the one attacking and he was reattacking.”
Before the match began, Thomsen was calm and ready to face Mayes in their fourth meeting this season. UNI Coach Doug Schwab said Thomsen showed poise on the second biggest stage in college wrestling.
“It tells you how much he’s grown,” Schwab said. “It tells you that he’s taking the right perspective when you go out and compete. Not put the weight of the world on your shoulders and really enjoying the moments you have.
“That’s a big stage right there and he was able to do that. I’m proud of that.”
He still can become the program’s highest finisher, earning a top-six finish with a 5-1 decision over Rutgers’ Kenny Theobold in the quarterfinal.
“I’m grateful because there are a lot of people out there that would love to be in my shoes,” Thomsen said. “I’m coming up short of my goal, but I have three more chances.”
Thomsen was joined on the awards stand by Drew Foster (25-5), who earned All-American honors. Schwab said Foster has worked with UNI assistant Randy Pugh, who recognized his potential despite not being a “blue-chip” recruit.
“Awesome,” Schwab said. “We were talking about his growth, growing physically and round out as a man. I’m excited for him.”
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