IOWA CITY — Cash Wilcke has never been in this position.
He didn’t experience it as a two-time state champion and 170-match winner for Ida Grove OABCIG. He really didn’t face it as a three-time NCAA qualifier for Iowa.
In his final campaign as a Hawkeye, the senior 184-pounder is immersed in competition for a starting spot in an ultra-talented and top-ranked lineup.
“This year is a little different,” Wilcke said Tuesday during Iowa’s weekly media availability. “It’s the way it should be when you’re the No. 1 team in the nation and you’re going to have to fight off guys for the spot. Good guys, very good guys.”
Wilcke, redshirt freshman Nelson Brands and true freshman Abe Assad are all listed to travel for the Hawkeyes for a Big Ten Conference road trip through Indiana this weekend. Iowa opens at Indiana (0-1) on Friday before a Sunday dual against Purdue (7-1).
The concern isn’t whether Wilcke will get the nod, but to take advantage when he does get the opportunity.
“It’s not something I think about or dwell on it,” Wilcke said. “If my number gets called, I’ll be ready to go and do everything I can to make sure that I’m the guy the next time out, too.”
Wilcke and Brands have shared time representing Iowa in the lineup and the national rankings. Wilcke is ranked 10th by trackwrestling.com with an 11-2 record this season. Brands is 4-3 overall and 2-1 in duals with a win over Iowa State’s No. 8 Sam Colbray. Assad has wrestled unattached as a redshirt so far, going 15-3 and reaching the finals of three tournaments including a title at the Jim Koch Open.
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“This is not about a young guy getting a nod because he’s got a lot of wrestling left,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “This is not about a loyalty factor and we’re going to let a senior finish out his career. This is about who shows us who has the best chance and shows us they’re going to put forth their best effort every time out, so when we get to national tournament time, Big Ten tournament time, we’ve get the best guy in the lineup.
“It’s hard to predict but it’s not hard to see desire either out on that mat. So, competition is good.”
All three competed at the Midlands Championships at the end of December. Assad earned a runner-up finish. WIlcke placed third, edging Nelson Brands, 4-2 in sudden victory, of a consolation match.
Wilcke closed the tournament with six straight victories.
“Obviously, I want to win that tournament, but I’ve been coached to get the next best thing, so after I lost I didn’t dwell on it,” said Wilcke, whose two losses this season have come to Wisconsin’s Johnny Sebastian. “I just went and kept doing everything I could to make sure I could solidify myself for the spot.
“Time will tell. We’ll find out. I’ll keep doing what I can to make sure I’ve got it, though.”
This situation is different than some in the past for Iowa. Some waited for a strong candidate to emerge as the top guy and separate themselves, forcing coaches to play “musical chairs” with the weight.
“I think this is a little bit different because you don’t have lower-tier guys that have struggled all year,” Tom Brands said. “You have three guys who have done well all year and are capable. It’s not like these guys are all .500 and you’ve got to hope a guy gets hot … it’s three guys who can do the job.”
The trio might battle in the practice room and on the mat, but they’re still teammates. Wilcke said he goes out to eat with Assad a couple times a week. He will play video games with Nelson Brands as well.
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“It’s not like there is any hate toward each other,” Wilcke said. “We just build each other, make each other better.”
This is Wilcke’s last go-around. He isn’t focused on this being his final chance to earn All-America honors that eluded him previously. The goal is to make the most out of his remaining time as a Hawkeye.
“I try not to put that kind of extra pressure on myself,” Wilcke said. “I just like being free and relaxed when I wrestle. I don’t look at it as the window closing or whatever. I’d rather look at it as having an opportunity.”
Iowa will welcome back second-ranked 174-pounder Michael Kemerer this weekend. He didn’t compete in the Midlands. Tom Brands said it was a precautionary move and Kemerer said he is prepared to compete. He could face Purdue’s No. 4 Dylan Lydy, who won the Midlands.
“I’m good,” Kemerer said. “I’m ready to wrestle. I’m looking forward. We have a lot of good matches coming this month.”
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