Iowa Hawkeyes

How top-ranked Iowa wrestling creates a supportive team culture in an individual sport

Hawkeyes host No. 4 Ohio State on Friday

Volunteer assistant coach Bobby Telford stands on a chair and cheers as Iowa's Alex Marinelli competes with Nebraska's I
Volunteer assistant coach Bobby Telford stands on a chair and cheers as Iowa’s Alex Marinelli competes with Nebraska’s Isaiah White in their 165-weight bout during their dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The makeup of Iowa’s wrestling lineup is special.

The Hawkeyes have national title contenders at multiple weights and a legit shot of All-America honors at each of college wrestling’s 10 classes, according to rankings.

Success on the mat and the potential for more are just part of the formula. Consider the team’s chemistry, a force that pushes the Hawkeyes in practice, creates memorable moments outside of wrestling and yields excitement in their teammates’ performances.

“It makes it really fun,” Iowa senior 174-pounder Michael Kemerer said. “It’s like the people you’re with all the time, every day. You just know each other so well and we’re so close. We want to be super successful in wrestling and then we want to hang out after. It’s just really cool. It makes you that much closer.”

The tight-knight group of Hawkeyes have propelled each other to an unbeaten start and have been perched atop the national team rankings. No. 1 Iowa will put that on the line once again when it hosts No. 4 Ohio State in a Big Ten Conference dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, beginning at 8 p.m.

Camaraderie is spurred by the love of wrestling and the lifestyle that surrounds it.

“I think the bond is because we’re all fanatics about wrestling,” two-time All-American Alex Marinelli said. “We all have a drive to get better. I told (associate head coach) Terry (Brands) this a while ago. We have two options: help the team out or make them worse. The only thing for an Iowa Hawkeye is to make each other better, which is building everyone up, having good vibes and a morale boost.

“We’re a brotherhood. You can see it day in and day out and what it stems from is the coaching staff, honestly.”

You don’t have to look hard for examples of the way the Hawkeyes rally around each other. They grouped together in the corner of the arena, watching teammates handle opponents at the Midlands Championships.

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They help each other prepare and mimic moves from the bench, urging each other to wins during duals. Don’t forget the online skits and videos that have created a good laugh or two.

“We do see it,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “We feel it. The most important thing is our guys feel it, so that’s good.”

The team meets for a weekly spaghetti dinner at assistant coach Ryan Morningstar’s home. Marinelli said he often rides a bus with teammates to and from class. They spend plenty of time together in the practice room, but aren’t quick to scatter separate directions outside of the sport.

“Nights like those that make the bond even stronger,” Marinelli said. “It’s a fun time. It’s the best years of my life right now and it probably will ever be. This is where history is made.”

Only 10 Iowa wrestlers get the chance to chase the goal of being a national champion at the end of the season. Despite being a team sport, the individual is at the heart of wrestling, which makes the dynamic more impressive.

The goal is to serve your role the best you can and for the betterment of the program, even if it isn’t scoring points in competition. It can be hard, but pride gives way to solidarity.

“Everybody gets along really well because there aren’t a lot of egos involved,” Kemerer said. “Everyone genuinely wants what’s best for each guy. We all want to see everyone do well.”

Tom Brands said that additional support and more “oomph” behind the wrestlers are always good. He said the team is free of pettiness and bitterness, even though there is a desire to have what starters do.

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Wrestlers are pushed in practice and matches, because not only are they striving to be the best but they don’t want to let down their teammates.

“It is family out there,” Iowa senior Paul Glynn said. “You’re going out there with your brothers. You don’t want to let them down. We have a really hard-working team and when you put in that amount of work, and see your teammates putting in the work too, it makes everyone want to succeed that much harder.”

Make no mistakes. The rivalries are healthy during practice. Each wrestler battles for his place to represent the Hawkeyes. At the end of practice, they return to an all-for-one attitude.

“It is unique because it is an individual sport,” Kemerer said. “We all know we’re about being the best we can be every day. For some of the guys not in the lineup, they’re still doing everything they can to be the best wrestler and teammate they can be. Everyone has embraced being the best you can be every single day.”

Glynn, in his fifth year of the program, manned the 133-pound spot two seasons ago. Austin DeSanto moved in last season, earning Al-America honors at that weight. Glynn has continued to contribute, working out and training with DeSanto and two-time All-American Spencer Lee and preparing in case he is needed as a starter.

“My successes have been helping my teammates get ready every day,” Glynn said. “Really trying to become a leader on this team and help out the younger guys, showing them the way, how to work hard and how to keep the right mentality, even if they’re not the guy.”

Things are different from his first year. Wrestlers were a little more segregated. Maybe it was by role or by grade. He credits former wrestlers and current Hawkeye Wrestling Club members Sammy Brooks and Thomas Gilman for making things more inclusive and working with everyone.

“The biggest thing I think has changed is our culture overall,” Glynn said. “We have our whole team hanging out together. We have older guys hanging out with young guys, being leaders. That is something that is awesome.”

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Getting everyone to buy in and pull the rope in the same direction doesn’t occur every year. Iowa has performed well because of its unity and that has been strengthened by the collective success, which includes everyone in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.

“It’s not always the case,” Brands said. “It’s probably something we should enjoy.

“It doesn’t always happen that way. We’ve had some cases where we’ve had some ninnies, and ninnies don’t belong in elite-level mentality organizations.”

Iowa (7-0, 4-0) faces its second straight top-10 team. The Buckeyes are 7-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference, including nine ranked wrestlers. Ohio State won the last meeting, 22-12, two years ago in Columbus, Ohio.

“They are excited to go into an enemy arena that’s packed and excited about our team,” Kemerer said. “They’re going to be wanting to make a statement, so we have to be ready for that and know what they’re coming for and individually, at each wright, we have to be ready to go.”

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

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