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Iowa wrestling fans received their first glimpse of Spencer Lee.
The Hawkeyes' coveted freshman 125-pounder dominated the UNI Open field earlier this month in his debut. Lee posted a technical fall and two pins in his first competition after a long layoff, arriving in Iowa City in the midst of rehab for surgery to mend a knee injury suffered during his final high school season.
'I feel like I did pretty well,' Lee said. 'Just getting the cobwebs off. I haven't competed in eight months, so I'm just glad to be out there again.'
Even though he'll take the mat unattached and with his redshirt still affixed to his back, the Hawkeye faithful will be glad to see him wrestle again at Northwestern's 55th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Action begins Friday with finals set for Saturday.
Lee was listed as a top contender by tournament officials. The field will be tougher than the last go-round.
'Got to treat it the same way as any tournament,' said Lee, who plans to keep wrestling with a bulky brace as a precaution until staff says he's clear without it. 'Just got to go out there and get ready to wrestle. Wrestle as hard as you can.'
Lee is no ordinary first-year wrestler. He joined the Hawkeyes with two Junior World freestyle titles and one as a Cadet. The three-time Pennsylvania state champion and four-time finalist has been the source of much clamoring to shed his redshirt and plug him into Iowa's struggling lower-weight lineup.
The phrase 'Free the Lee' was used by media wanting to see him wrestle immediately. Iowa Coach Tom Brands seemingly compared Lee's redshirt to famous magician Harry Houdini's binding straight jacket.
'Free the Lee, but you know what,' Brands posed to media. 'Lee's like Houdini, so he can free himself.'
Lee was asked the meaning of Brands' analogy.
'I have no idea,' Lee said with a laugh. 'I think maybe he means I control my own destiny. Go with that.'
Midlands has long been a proving ground for many redshirt wrestlers. Some have used it as a gauge as to whether or not a first-year wrestler is ready for official competition. Lee will let that sort itself out as he focuses on training and getting better daily.
'One thing at a time,' Lee said. 'Right now, I'm worried about Midlands. I'm not worried about pulling redshirt or not.'
Freshmen like Lee, Jacob Warner, Max Murin, Aaron Costello and others are popular, especially at underperforming or injury-plagued weights. They match the popularity of a backup quarterback in football. Fans are interested in the next big thing.
'I think there's excitement and there's unknown,' Brands said. 'Then, you look at our lightweights and how they're doing. Our fans are used to our lightweights doing well.
'The best kids at the high school level are better than they've ever been. They are more ready than ever, even when Randy Lewis wrestled or Joe Williams when he came out of redshirt or Lincoln McIlravy and those guys did well. These guys are as ready as veterans.'
Brands has had a strong record in these decisions. He kept red-shirts on Derek St. John, Brandon Sorensen, Michael Kemerer and Alex Marinelli, who beat Rutgers' U23 World champion and highly-rated Richie Lewis in his debut earlier this month. St. John was a four-time All-American, NCAA champion and two-time finalist. Sorensen, an NCAA runner-up, and Kemerer are on track to being four-time All-Americans.
Brands was asked if he has changed his approach.
'No,' said Brands, noting Lee's situation was different due to the injury. 'They are day-to-day, event-by-event (and) tournament-to-tournament.'
Midlands also has been a chance for a wrestler to distance himself from the competition in the room. The 141-pound spot could become clearer with Vince Turk and Carter Happel both in the field. The division is the only one without a Hawkeye in the top contenders list.
Brands said Turk's early-season emergence puts him 'half-a-head ahead' on Happel, who is coming off a win over a ranked foe in the Maryland dual.
'We're going to find out who represents us best there,' Brands said. 'It's going to be because of how they wrestle.'
Iowa is expected to have 19 total wrestlers at the event, although wrestlers like Lee, Warner (197), Murin (141) and Costello at heavyweight won't officially represent the Hawkeyes. Interestingly, former Iowa State All-American and Iowa Central JUCO champion Pat Downey is listed as a top contender from Iowa at 197. Downey is said to have recently graduated from Iowa State and working on graduate school admittance to become eligible for the second semester.
'We're looking forward to the Midlands and that's a big tournament for us,' Brands said. 'We're going to have some young firepower in there that won't be scoring points and we'll have 10 guys in there that are scoring points for this team.'
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