116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The videoboard in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was lowered to the floor Wednesday afternoon.
The image displayed Iowa’s 10 All-Americans returning this season with three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee at the front. He’s flanked by the familiar faces from the Hawkeyes’ 24th national team title, including national finalists Michael Kemerer and Jaydin Eierman and multiple NCAA placewinners Alex Marinelli, Tony Cassioppi, Jacob Warner and Kaleb Young in traditional black-and-gold singlets.
“And we’re all back” was the menacing message written above them.
“That’s a lot of horsepower up there,” Marinelli said. “That is a scary photo. That is what I think when I walk into the arena.
“It gives me chills, knowing that we have so much depth, so many guys on our team that have a lot of horsepower. It’s a pretty scary thing.”
Top-ranked Iowa enters the season stocked with experience and is favored to repeat as national champion. The Hawkeyes open the season at home Nov. 19 against Princeton.
Scrap the hunter becomes the hunted narrative. Iowa is stalking a second straight title, and each wrestler is focused on reaching their best.
“If you're not a predator in this sport all the time, if you're not hungry for more and you're complacent, it's probably time to take your shoes off at center mat and kiss the mat goodbye,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during the program’s annual media day. “I want to say that we operate the same — we try to win a national title every year.
“And when you're a predator, you don't think about, oh, there's a target on our back now. You're still on the prowl.”
Brands made reference to a comment made by his brother, Iowa asscoiate head coach Terry Brands. Nine NCAA titles were left in St. Louis in March. Plenty remains to claim this time for each Hawkeye.
“I’m not the defending national champ,” Cassioppi said. “My goal is the same. It’s always been to be the national champ. It doesn’t really change anything.
“It’s an individual team sport. I want to be on the top of the podium just like Spencer Lee is.”
This year’s team could have looked much different. At least half the lineup had to decide whether they wanted to use a relief year due to COVID and continue graduate studies.
Eierman and Kemerer have returned for an unheard-of seventh season. Marinelli and Young are in their sixth year. Lee and DeSanto are in their fifth year.
“It shows how close we are as a team,” said Lee, a two-time Hodge Trophy winner. “I know a lot of the guys could have left. They could have gone.
“I think it’s hard to give up on a dream, your brothers. Someone tells you that you can do something special and you leave, then you feel like you’re letting people down. I know that’s not how this team operates. They want to be the best they can be and help everyone else out to be the best they can be. I think them all coming back is a tribute to that.”
Kemerer is a four-time All-American, missing a season due to injury and receiving a medical hardship waiver. He was one of the last ones to announce he was coming back.
“Everybody was going to respect whatever I did,” Kemerer said. “Those are just the type of teammates they are.
“Everyone was super supportive.”
Lee talked to Kemerer the night of the NCAA finals after Kemerer finished second at 174 pounds. He wanted to take some time to avoid an emotional decision. Kemerer admitted hearing other teammates’ plans influenced his choice.
“I feel like being an Iowa wrestler is the best job in the world,” Kemerer said. “Seeing these guys come back and have another year of these experiences. These are things I’m going to take and remember the rest of my life, so how can I pass up a chance to go to battle with these guys?”
Marinelli had his title hopes dashed by injury and a Cinderella run by Stanford’s NCAA 165-pound champion and Outstanding Wrestler Award winner Shane Griffith. He said he had support from his wife, Director of Wrestling Operations Moriah Marinelli, the coaches and teammates, but he had to make the decision.
“It was pretty much an internal thing,” the three-time Big Ten champion said. “I knew what I struggle with every day and what I would struggle with if I didn’t decide to come back. If I didn’t decide to come back, I’d probably regret it a lot.
“I didn’t have to lean on too many people but I had the people there.”
Iowa returns all 129 points from the NCAA Championships. Lee is the lone national champion, but Eierman and Kemerer have finals experience. DeSanto and Cassioppi placed third a year ago, while Warner was fourth and Young finished seventh. Marinelli, Murin and Abe Assad received All-America honors in 2020. The video board did not include Nelson Brands, who was a national qualifier at 184.
“I think it’s pretty cool that there is 10 of them,” Lee said about the videoboard picture. “We never had that before while being a Hawkeye. It shows our team is growing. We’re improving every single year (and) that’s the goal. … Make sure that there are 10 guys on that board. Make sure that it says national champs.”