Iowa Hawkeyes

10 most memorable moments covering Iowa wrestling and other sports in 2020

Iowa's Spencer Lee (right) wrestles ISU's Alex Mackall in their 125-pound bout at a wrestling dual between the Iowa Hawk
Iowa’s Spencer Lee (right) wrestles ISU’s Alex Mackall in their 125-pound bout at a wrestling dual between the Iowa Hawkeys and Iowa State Cyclones at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. Lee won the match. Iowa won the team dual. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

2020 has been a year filled with memorable moments, while being one that many want to forget. High schools managed to finish winter sports, while most colleges were denied to compete in pinnacle events. Competition resumed with summer sports and fall followed.

Here are 10 of my memorable moments from the last year.

10. High school baseball returns to Metro

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring sports and some expected a similar fate for the summer seasons. When it was announced that summer sports could compete, a whirlwind preseason started in June and competition began on June 15.

The traditional season-opening Bob Vrbicek tournament was canceled, so Cedar Rapids Kennedy at Cedar Rapids Washington the following day signaled baseball’s return to the Metro.

The atmosphere was weird to say the least. Caution and excitement mixed in the atmosphere on the field and in the stands. Washington had about a half-dozen staff members to enforce social distancing. Markings on the bleachers showed fans where they were allowed to sit, but most sat in lawn chairs or stood alone.

Mason Behn threw a no-hitter and struck out 11 batters, helping Kennedy win, 10-0, in five innings.

9. Ben Kueter vs. Tate Naaktgeboren: Fab freshmen face off in finals

Two freshmen in the state wrestling finals isn’t necessarily rare or notable in Iowa. Totally see it happening in the lower weights or even in a smaller class. But, these were two freshmen, who were battling it out for a Class 3A upper-weight title.

Iowa City High’s Ben Kueter and Linn-Mar’s Tate Naaktgeboren faced off for the 160-pound title in a rematch of the Mississippi Valley Conference final. Naaktgeboren scored the opening takedown in the first. Kueter had a reversal in the second. He added a takedown with 25 seconds remaining and held off Naaktgeboren’s late effort to score for a 4-3 victory.

Both were impressive and have bright futures.

8. Remsen St. Mary’s beats Montezuma in 8-Player semifinal scoring outburst

Yeah, so what? A plethora of points and yardage is common in 8-player football. The state semifinal between Remsen St. Mary’s and Montezuma was anything but regular. The teams combined for 202 points and 1,497 offensive yards with St. Mary’s winning, 108-94. The UNI-Dome scoreboard displayed symbols instead of numerals when St. Mary’s surpassed triple digits.

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Montezuma’s Eddie Burgess passed for 689 yards and nine touchdowns, connecting with Trey Shearer 20 times for 389 yards and seven scores. Cole Watts added 204 yards and two TDs on eight catches for the Braves, who made their second semifinal appearance and first in 8-Player.

7. North Linn’s state baseball comeback

It was started by scrappy young players at the bottom of the batting order and finished by veteran players at the top. North Linn looked to be making an early exit, trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh in the Class 2A state baseball quarterfinals at Principal Park in Des Moines.

Durant pitcher Nate Dierickx stifled the Lynx. Freshman Corbin Woods drew a leadoff walk after an 11-pitch at-bat. A pinch-runner was picked off before two freshmen, Cael Bridgewater and Jarin Peyton, could follow with a single and hit-by-pitch. With two outs, Austin Hilmer and Parker Bechen delivered back-to-back singles to give North Linn a 2-1 victory and a third straight state semifinal appearance.

6. Cael Happel wins fourth state title

Lisbon’s Cael Happel made quick work of Underwood’s Logan James, building a 9-1 lead and recording a pin in 3:29 for the Class 1A 138-pound title. He became the Iowa’s 28th four-time state champion and joined his brother, Carter, as the second brother duo in the select four-timer club. The current University of Northern Iowa wrestler increased the family state gold total to 11, which began with their father, Dean, a three-time champ.

Cael Happel was at his best against the state’s best. In 16 state tournament matches, he scored 25 1/2 bonus points with nine technical falls, five pins, one major decision and a default. He finished with 217 career victories, which ranks second all-time. The Happels were honored by the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame of Iowa earlier this summer, receiving the Bowlsby Family Legacy Award.

5. Aidan Noonan denies four-time bid

If people were totally honest, many would admit they expected Cascade’s Aidan Noonan to be a footnote in the annals of the IHSAA state wrestling finals. Instead he posted a noteworthy victory for the Class 1A 126-pound title.

Despite being a defending state titlist himself, he had to face West Sioux’s Adam Allard, who was looking to join Happel as a four-time champion. Keep in mind, a three-time champion had never lost in the finals.

The Wyoming signee surrendered the opening takedown and was ridden in the second. He remained in position to win, applying a tough ride in the third. He began to reap the rewards on top, forcing a second stall call for his first point with 46 seconds remaining. Then, down by one, as time ticked down, Noonan cranked a power-half and scored nearfall points as time expired for a 4-2 victory. The crowd was split between shock and excitement.

4. Alec Wick rewrites record book, Regina wins state crown

Alec Wick and Ashton Cook were one of the top passing combinations in the state, regardless of class. The greatest example came in the Class A title game. Wick torched Grundy Center for 226 receiving yards on nine catches in a 52-28 victory.

Wick set a Class A championship game record for receiving yards, topping the old mark of 163 set by Fredericksburg’s Jason Steege in 2001.

He had a knack for eye-popping plays, like how he planted his toes inside the sideline on a key first-down catch that led to a Theo Kolie touchdown or how he burned the Spartans for an 88-yard TD reception, which was his last of 242 career catches that is a new state record. Wick led the state with 1,401 receiving yards, giving him 3,655 for his career, which ranks third all-time.

3. Michael Kemerer beats Mark Hall, Iowa beats Penn State

The battle between Iowa’s second-ranked Michael Kemerer and Penn State’s No. 1 Mark Hall should be considered with some of the most exciting matches in Carver-Hawkeye Arena history. Kemerer, a two-time All-American, was wrestling in just his ninth match after missing his junior season due to injury.

Both produced fireworks from the start with a big headlock from Hall, but the CHA crowd erupted as Kemerer slowly rolled through and had the wherewithal to grab a single-leg and finish a takedown. They exchanged points throughout the first that ended with Kemerer up 5-4. Kemerer scored takedowns in the final two periods, including one that caused Hall to drop his head as time ticked down. He tacked on a riding-time point for an 11-6 victory, which is an unheard of total against Hall. It also helped the Hawkeyes beat the Nittany Lions, 19-17, which ended with a Tony Cassioppi decision at heavyweight.

2. Spencer Lee’s postseason trophy haul

Not only did Spencer Lee prove to be the top college wrestler in the nation, but Iowa’s two-time NCAA champion garnered the nation’s top individual award in amateur athletics. Lee was named co-winner of the AAU James E. Sullivan Award, sharing the honor with Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu.

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Lee became the first Hawkeye and just the fifth wrestler to earn the coveted award since its inception in 1930, joining John Smith (1990), Bruce Baumgartner (1995), Rulon Gardner (2000) and Kyle Snyder (2017).

Lee also claimed the Hodge Trophy as the most outstanding college wrestler and earned Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, NCAA Division I Most Dominant Wrestler and InterMat’s Wrestler of the Year honors.

Lee finished 18-0 with a 125-pound Big Ten title and was the top seed at the NCAA tournament. He throttled opponents by a combined score of 234-18 with bonus points in 17 matches, including four first-period falls and nine technical falls. Only four of his 18 matches went the entire seven minutes.

1. All NCAA wrestling championships canceled due to pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the unthinkable slowly came into focus as a reality. The NCAA canceled winter sports championships, including the national wrestling tournaments for each division. The news was tough for Iowa, which was favored to win its first NCAA title since 2010, and Lee, who likely was in line for a third title. Luckily, the NCAA ruled to grant wrestlers another year, keeping Lee’s hopes to be the Hawkeyes’ first four-timer intact. Don’t forget this was supposed to be a banner year for the D-I tournament, being held in front of a record crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Other wrestlers and teams weren’t as fortunate. The decision was released less than 18 hours before the start of the Division II and Division III meets. Some were preparing with one last workouts at the now Alliant Energy PowerHouse when it was announced over the arena’s speakers. Wrestlers were stunned and some tears were shed, having what might be the only or last chance to achieve their goals ripped away. Not only did Cedar Rapids miss out on the D-III wrestling tournament, but it suffered another blow with the cancellation of the D-III baseball world series.

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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