116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa will officially move forward without Spencer Lee.
He will still be there, watching, encouraging, celebrating and probably doing a little coaching from mat side. This does, however, mark the first time the Hawkeyes won’t have the transcendent talent readily available for the season since he came out of redshirt about this time in 2018.
The two-time Hodge Trophy winner announced Saturday that he will undergo surgery to repair the ACL in both knees about 10 months after he became Iowa’s seventh three-time NCAA champion and helped the program claim its 24th national title, the first since 2010.
“It’s well documented my respect for Spencer Lee, this program’s respect (for him), my brother’s respect (for him and) respect for the family,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during the team’s weekly news conference. “You can’t say it enough, the sacrifices. You can’t say it enough, the courage that he has and will have and will have to have, regardless.
“He’s endeared to Hawkeye fans because of his winning ways and much, much more than that and that cements your legacy as a living legend and you’re not even done competing, yet, maybe. Am I overstating that? I don’t think so.”
Now that hopes of the bonus-point dynamo’s return have dissolved, the Hawkeyes will have to find a way to fill the void of his absence. Redshirt freshman Jesse Ybarra and freshman Drake Ayala are the top two candidates to see action this weekend when top-ranked Iowa hosts No. 14 Minnesota Friday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for its Big Ten dual opener, starting at 8 p.m.
Iowa (6-0) will host No. 15 Purdue on Sunday, beginning at 2 p.m.
Ybarra is 5-1 this season, manning the 125-pound spot through the first three duals before Lee returned for the Journeyman Collegiate Duals in mid-December. Ayala has posted a 10-2 mark, wrestling unattached. Ybarra is listed on the probables, but Brands said they will figure it out in time.
“We have Jesse Ybarra,” Brands said. “He’s wrestled this year when Spencer was not on the mat. We have a true freshman (Ayala), who has done well with his results, consistently throughout the early part of this year. We have two options there and we like having options. Right now, Ybarra’s going and that’s we’re at.”
Ayala is coming off a third-place finish at Chattanooga’s Southern Scuffle last weekend. His only losses have been to Minnesota’s Patrick McKee, who placed third at the 2021 NCAA Championships. Ayala has three major decisions, two technical falls and two pins. He won Iowa State’s Harold Nichols Open and was second at the UNI Open.
Brands recalled some of the respect Ayala earned as a three-time state champion and four-time finalist for Fort Dodge. Brands said Ayala is soft-spoken but his actions demand attention.
“All year he’s been consistent,” Brands said. “He’s hungry. He knows this sport takes commitment. He comes from a great place that emphasized that basically his entire life — his family, the people that trained him, his own mindset (and) how it developed. We absolutely love his leadership.”
Lee’s news began to hit social media while some wrestlers were competing. The current starters were in Iowa City and Brands wanted to let them know before the buzz reached them. They took the news in stride, remaining positive without an “oh, poor us” response.
“It’s funny how wrestlers are,” Brands said. “They’re focused on themselves. They love their teammates.”
The next-man in mentality holds true for the Hawkeyes. Whether Ybarra remains the starter or Ayala sheds his redshirt to vie for the spot, all 10 wrestlers have a contribution to the team success. They will have the same work to do, regardless of who is at 125.
“I really don’t think that’s on our minds,” Iowa heavyweight Tony Cassioppi said. “Everybody wants to perform their best and score the most points possible anyway. I don’t think Spencer being out changes anybody’s approach, because we’re all super focused on reaching the top of that podium anyway.
“I think getting our job done individually is how you win the team race and doing the best you can yourself is really what matters. I know everybody wants to be at the top of that podium, so I think that’s really what motivates us.”
Cassioppi could be involved in one of the marquee matches against the Gophers (1-1). He will likely face top-ranked and Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson. In the other matchup of ranked wrestlers, Iowa’s No. 15 Kaleb Young is slated to face No. 5 Brayton Lee at 157
The Hawkeye junior worked in the offseason to transform his body and is leaner than previous years. He said the change has allowed him to become stronger, faster and a better all-around wrestler, in addition to working on his technique.
Cassioppi hopes this will close the gap with Steveson, who has won all four of their college matches.
“Better quickness, better movement and all the wrestling positions I’ve been practicing and all the gains I have made in my game will help me,” Cassioppi said. “I’m wrestling the best I’ve ever wrestled.”