IOWA CITY — University of Iowa Coach Tom Brands has never been scared by the unknown.
After all, he once talked about interplanetary dominance while taking anyone or anything in the universe. So, a few unproven weights aren’t putting a damper on this season many outside of the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex are labeling a rebuilding year for the Hawkeyes.
“This is the first time where I’ve approached a season like this where the exciting things are the unknowns,” Brands said Wednesday during the team’s annual media day. “I really look at it that way, and the reason why is because as a coach, you like seeing how these guys come to work every day. I like coming to work every day because of the way these guys come to work every day.”
Iowa opened the season ranked seventh in the USA Today/National Wrestling Coaches Association Division I Coaches Poll and returns just two All-Americans from a team that placed third at the Big Ten Championships and fourth at the NCAA tournament.
The Hawkeyes will open at the Luther Open this Saturday before hosting Buffalo, Iowa Central and North Dakota State for the Iowa City Duals on Nov. 17.
Brands said it will be a mix of rebuilding and reloading this season, replacing five starters and four All-Americans in national champion Cory Clark, NCAA runner-up and Worlds silver medalist Thomas Gilman, U23 World team member Sammy Brooks and Alex Meyer.
“When you look at the core of that, you know what, we’re going to have to rebuild,” Brands said. “But it’s also a reload where we have some very capable guys that come to work every day the right way. Like Alex Marinelli, we’ve been talking about him for a long time. You know what, we’re excited about him and I know our fans are, as well. When you talk about patience and stuff like that, that’s like maybe coach-speak for: You know what, he doesn’t really know what he has.
“But you’re going to have to be patient because it’s November. It’s November, and we have some things that are going on that you won’t see our best team right away.”
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Senior 149-pounder Brandon Sorensen and sophomore Michael Kemerer at 157 are the most accomplished wrestlers in the room. Both fit the “leader by example” mold, which works well with a strong group of underclassmen.
“I’ve got to display things that a leader does, so I have to do the right things, encourage people to do the right things and it’s easy,” Sorensen said. “We had a good freshman class that are independent, so it makes my job a lot easier.”
Kemerer said, “It’s all just part of that process. When younger guys come in and they’re looking for leadership it just gives them a guideline of what to do and how to give yourself every edge that you can.”
Sorensen is a three-time All-American and a 2016 NCAA finalist. He finished third at both the conference and national tournaments. He is excited for his final season still in search for a Big Ten and NCAA crown.
“I’m ready to go,” Sorensen said. “We still have things we need to work on here. We have a little bit of time, but the season is underway.”
Kemerer was a conference runner-up and placed third at the NCAAs. Brands said Kemerer has matured since March and that has pushed others to match his effort, especially classmates Joey Gunther, Cash Wilcke and Vince Turk, who is expected to start at 141.
“The way that they are coming to work every day is better,” Brands said. “Their maturity is showing, and they know that they have to pick it up and get on par with Kemerer, and he’s raising the bar even more. His change is maturity and his change is maybe knowing when he’s coming to work, it may be about more of a leadership role.”
The Hawkeyes were 13-2 in duals last season. Gunther, who is up a weight to 174, and Wilcke, who was a win from All-American status at 197, were national qualifiers and heavyweight Sam Stoll, who is coming back from a second knee injury, was a 2016 NCAA qualifier.
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Freshman Marinelli (165) will finally get written in the lineup after a redshirt season that saw him flirt with stepping in immediately. Marinelli is one of five ranked Hawkeyes and is 10th by trackwrestling.com.
“I wouldn’t say a rebuilding year,” Sorensen said. “You can look at our guys. There is always depth. We’ve got two All-Americans returning and we have some guys who have experience.
“We’ll see what happens with the lineup. I don’t know. I’m not the coach. I’m not making the decisions, but I wouldn’t say rebuilding year. I think we have a lot of good things here. We have good things going. Let’s show what we’ve got.”
Marinelli’s fellow St. Paris Graham (Ohio) teammate Justin Stickley joins the Hawkeyes and will step in 125. Paul Glynn and Phil Laux will battled for the 133 spot and former North Scott prep Mitch Bowman will take over at 184.
Iowa brought in some high-profile recruits in this freshman class, including 125-pounder Spencer Lee, Jacob Warner at 197 and 141-pounder Max Murin.
Lee is a three-time World freestyle champion and Pennsylvania state champion, mending from knee ligament surgery. Warner is a three-time Illinois state champ and multiple national champion in freestyle and Greco-Roman. Warner knocked off Wilcke during last week’s wrestle-offs that included Murin’s overtime loss to Turk.
All three could make an appearance before the end of the season in an effort to bolster the lineup.
“We have a unique recruiting class this year where we have two or three guys that could maybe step in the lineup, and we have a transfer who, you look at a couple different weight classes he could go and how you would shift some things around, there’s some unknowns there that are exciting,” Brands said. “And with unknowns, you also have some uncertainty. That means that this year, we’re not going to know what we have until later on, and we’re not in a hurry to get everything pieced together. But I know one thing. We’ve got a lot of guys in that room that are bringing a lot of life and a lot of energy every day.”
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