IOWA CITY — Alex Marinelli and Spencer Lee expect to face familiar foes this weekend.
Each for a different reason, but they are approaching both possible matchups like any other.
Marinelli could wrestle former teammate Joey Gunther when fourth-ranked Iowa wrestles at No. 20 Illinois Friday in Champaign, Ill. The Hawkeyes follow with another Big Ten Conference dual Sunday against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., setting up a potential rematch between Lee and top-ranked Sebastian Rivera.
Marinelli and Gunther were Hawkeye teammates for two years until Gunther transferred to his home state after last spring. He was a two-time NCAA qualifier for Iowa.
“It doesn’t matter who is out there on the mat,” Marinelli said. “I’m going to go out there and wrestle how I know how to wrestle. There’s no bad blood with me and him. It’s just another opponent.”
Gunther started at 165 pounds as a freshman, while Marinelli redshirted. Marinelli stepped into the lineup and Gunther bumped up to 174 to fill a void. The pair drilled and wrestled live during practice in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Joey Gunther was a good training partner for me last year,” Marinelli said. “He knows how I wrestle and I know how he wrestles.”
Iowa Coach Tom Brands wasn’t concerned with the past relationship. He considered it just another opponent.
“We are not about drama,” Brands said. “We wished him well when he left. Our guys have a lot more to focus on than whether their opponent was a transfer from here.
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“I guess the difference is we know him and we know his strengths. We’ve got to be ready. We’re going into his arena.”
Marinelli is ranked second at 165 with a 13-0 record. He has been dominant, posting 10 bonus-point victories including six pins. He has emerged as a leader for this squad.
As much as Marinelli has pushed himself, he is willing to meet the coaches’ challenges.
“He’s about that – more, more, more,” Brands said. “This guy is pretty doggone special. For our program, for his teammates, for recruiting and it’s showing up. It showed up last year, too.”
Gunther (15-7) lost to Iowa freshman Nelson Brands in an earlier open tournament. He was known for being stingy with points. Marinelli said other opponents have tried to slow down matches, but he has to keep a high pace with good position.
“These guys don’t want it hard,” Marinelli said. “They don’t want a hard match. I’m not afraid to get tired, so that’s what I’ve tried to preach to this team. You cannot be afraid to get tired because our shape and our body will not betray us. We train too hard.”
Lee has a different challenge in front of him Sunday. The defending NCAA champion has faced Rivera three times in college, recording 7-4 and 12-0 victories last season. Rivera avenged those losses in the finals of the Midlands Championships, surprising wrestling fans with a 7-3 upset of Lee and supplanting him atop the national rankings.
Lee isn’t caught up with revenge. He views it as just another chance to compete.
“I’ve been wrestling big matches my whole life,” said Lee, a three-time world champion in freestyle. “I see every match as the biggest match in the world, so there is no difference.”
Rivera tallied three takedowns in the December win. He executed his strategy, staying away from Lee’s ties and striking from a distance. Lee said Rivera was a better wrestler that match. He is more focused on his own strengths and improving than countering a foe’s game plan.
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“That match is a good example of just not getting ready to go,” Lee said. “He was ready to go, he wrestled hard and he’s a great opponent. He’s always going to wrestle a good hard match against everyone he wrestles and he brought it for me that day.”
Brands said the more competition the better for the Hawkeyes (8-0, 3-0). He said fans are seeing the strides and coaches and wrestlers can feel the progress. If you’re not moving forward then you’re falling behind and the Hawkeyes are wired to keep making gains across the board.
“It takes effort,” Brands said. “It’s a tribute to how we’re marching or going about our business.”
Illinois is 2-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. Northwestern is 3-6 and 1-3.
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