INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Cory Clark tortured himself at the end of the last two seasons, retreating to his basement with his headphones blaring to try and drown out thoughts of disappointment falling a win shy of his ultimate goal.
Clark might slip on those headphones again, but this time the tunes will be more upbeat. Maybe a little “We Are The Champions” by Queen.
In his third trip to the finals, Clark finally claimed a national title at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in front of 19,657 fans Saturday night at the Scottrade Center. Clark beat South Dakota State’s Seth Gross, 4-3, for the 133-pound crown.
“I thought if it wouldn’t have got done it would have been a disaster because that was my goal as a senior in high school,” Clark said. “I always set high goals. I always said four-time NCAA champ was my goal. I didn’t really tell anybody that, but that was my goal.
“And each year I didn’t accomplish that it hurt me inside. So to get it done this year is incredible. It means a lot.”
It might mean a little more considering the season that Clark endured to earn his title en route to become Iowa’s 19th four-time All-American. Clark also became Iowa’s 82nd individual champion and first since Tony Ramos in 2014.
“It’s big,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “It’s big for our program. It’s big for Cory Clark (and) his family.”
Clark (20-3) begrudgingly discussed the physical injuries that kept him out part of the season and even made him question if he would make it to the postseason.
At the start of the season, Clark tore ligaments in his left wrist. The only fix was surgery, so he soldiered on only to blow his left shoulder out of its socket taking a bad shot, keeping him from raising his arm two inches. After he returned to the mat two weeks later, he reinjured his shoulder. It took rehab and ice multiple times a day and a talk from Iowa Coach Tom Brands to reassure him — reassure himself — he could still win a title.
“But you know looking back at it, maybe that’s why I won tonight,” Clark said, “because I really had to suck it up, and I really had to make sure to become a better wrestler because of the injuries I had.”
“All I said to him was you’re a tough son of a gun, because that’s what he was,” Brands said. “He’s always been like that.”
The toughness came through in the final period against Gross. He surrendered the first takedown and even gave up a minute of riding time, entering the third in a 3-3 tie.
He erased riding time before Gross escaped and then produced the winning takedown with a little more than a minute left.
“He wasn’t racy,” said Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands, who was in his corner. “He didn’t force things. A couple of times he did force them he got in trouble, and then he solved them like the single leg in this finals match. Gross turned it (the first shot) into his score and then he solved it the next time around.
“It shows a lot of mat savvy, poise (and) focus in his mind.”
Clark was clutch all tournament, scoring two third-period takedowns to drop Ohio State’s top-seeded Nathan Tomasello in the semifinals.
“He was dialed in,” Terry Brands said. “He was relaxed. You could tell by his demeanor all week. He was super relaxed and ready to go.”
After the victory, Clark and Terry Brands embraced. Clark celebrated by throwing him to his back, which was replayed multiple times by ESPN. Clark said his coach told him to take the toss.
“I freaked out,” Clark said. “I didn’t know what to do, kind of out of it out there. He said throw me. I go, no. He goes, throw me. I said, all right. I grabbed him and threw him. So that’s what happened.”
He finished highest of five All-Americans that helped the Hawkeyes get fourth with 97 points. Thomas Gilman (125), Brandon Sorensen at 149 and 157-pounder Michael Kemerer finished third. Senior 184-pounder Sam Brooks (28-4) was fourth in his second All-American performance.
“We were 7-for-8 in the morning and 1-for-1 tonight,” Brands said. “We need to be consistent to be competing with the team that had 122 points coming into this session, and that’s Penn State.”
Sorensen, a finalist last season, was fourth as a freshman and can become the program’s next four-time All-American. Sorensen (31-5) rebounded from a semifinal loss and helped Iowa go 7-1 in consolation matches Saturday morning, helping Iowa move up a spot to fourth.
“You have to continue to move forward,” Sorensen said. “It’s good mentally to come back for third place and finish the best I can. It’s not where I wanted to be, but I’ll learn from my mistakes and keep moving forward.”
Penn State locked up the team title Saturday morning, taking a commanding lead with five finalists. The Nittany Lions closed their second straight championship and sixth in the last seven years. They tied the record for most champions in a season with five, matching the mark by Iowa in 1997 and Oklahoma State in 2005.
Penn State finished with 146 1/2 points, topping runner-up Ohio State by 36 1/2. Oklahoma State was third with 103.
Missouri’s J’Den Cox (28-0) closed his college careers with an undefeated season and third NCAA title. Cox, a Missouri native and Olympic bronze medalist, beat Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr, 8-2, in the 197 final.
Northern Iowa finished with two All-Americans, placing 18th as a team with 25 ½ points. It is the third-highest finish for the Panthers under head coach Doug Schwab, who led them to 15th place in 2013 and 2014. It also marks the third time UNI has had multiple All-Americans in Schwab’s seven seasons.
“I’m happy with how our guys are competing,” Schwab said. “Like seeing our other guys down here. I’m happy for the other guys, because it is a team. These understand they wouldn’t be where they’re at without their teammates.
“Love seeing them out on those mats on Saturday.”
Redshirt freshman Max Thomsen led the Panthers, advancing to the 149 semifinals and placing fifth. Sophomore Drew Foster reached the podium, getting seventh at 184. Foster (26-6) beat three higher seeded opponents in the tournament, including an 11-7 victory over Indiana’s No. 9 Nathan Jackson.
“Foster did a great job finishing seventh,” Schwab said. “Got a lot of momentum for him in the future just to see the growth that he’s had from last year to this year. You make another jump like that then you’re one of the best guys in the country.”
Foster is one of six returning qualifiers.
“I’m happy with the finish, but personally I feel I’m better than seventh place,” Foster said. “I’m hungry for more.”
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