Iowa Hawkeyes

Young leaders, new faces lead Iowa's attempt to reclaim NCAA wrestling title

NCAA champ Spencer Lee among four returning All-Americans

Iowa Hawkeyes' Spencer Lee poses for a picture during Iowa Wrestling Media Day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes' Spencer Lee poses for a picture during Iowa Wrestling Media Day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The Spencer Lee effect has been in place since he committed to the University of Iowa as one of the top recruits in the Class of 2017.

Lee, the three-time Pennsylvania state titlist and three-time World freestyle champion, energized the University of Iowa fan base. He was an instant boost and role model for the Hawkeyes, training with an intensity and excitement that pushed those around him.

Then, he stepped into the lineup and led the team on the mat, tallying bonus points with ease and winning an NCAA title as a true freshman. Lee could also be a source for Iowa’s haul of talented recruits and a couple highly-touted transfers as well.

The sophomore headlines a Hawkeye team that meshes a few new faces with accomplished competitors from last year’s squad that placed third at the NCAA Championships. Iowa hasn’t won a national team title since 2010 and Lee is an important part of getting back on the top.

“Spencer Lee is an awesome ambassador for our program all the way around,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during the program’s annual media day Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “The thing is he’s still only a sophomore, 20 years old. We don’t expect him to start rah-rah leadership stuff that might be out of his comfort zone.

“But he is a leader just being in that wrestling room. The way he competes, the way he holds himself, the way that he looks to his future, win, graduate (and) do it right template.”

His introduction into the Iowa lineup came with an infusion of bonus points in duals and tournaments that had been missing with the exception of Michael Kemerer. Iowa scored more than 30 bonus points at the NCAA tournament, accounting for almost one-third of its 97 points. Those are the type of match results the Hawkeyes need in order to end the team title drought.

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“You talk about what kind of influence does he have,” Brands said. “Well, he inspires guys to wrestle like Spencer Lee, be like Lee, score a lot of points, turns into bonus points.

“Spencer Lee led all champions with the most points scored in that tournament. It’s a testament to how he trains, his mindset, what he puts on his shoulders for the team.”

Lee said he welcomes a target on his back after steamrolling opponents last season. He was 22-2, winning the 125-pound crown.

“I sure hope so,” Lee said. “I love it. I like knowing I’m going to get the best out of every guy I wrestle. That is the whole goal of the sport.”

He had 18 bonus-point wins, including nine pins and eight technical falls. Lee isn’t the type to be complacent, working to improve throughout the offseason to be even more dominant.

“I have to keep improving in every position,” Lee said. “Top, bottom, neutral. Work more on positioning and being mentally strong out there for seven straight minutes.

“I feel my mental game is a lot better. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle as hard as I can for seven minutes.”

Lee is a leader by example, leaving more of the vocal role to an in-your-face type like sophomore All-America 165-pounder Alex Marinelli. The latter was a big addition to the lineup as a freshman last season, recording an unbeaten regular season and finishing sixth at the national tournament.

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“I know that Tom always says he doesn’t believe in senior leadership,” Lee said. “He believes in leadership, so the guys that go to the top and lead. I don’t see myself as the leader leader.

“I’m kind of a guy that leads more by example than a guy who yells at people. I think me and him have a good balance. He’s more in your face and I’m more of the outside kind of guy. I’m a little quieter, a little more mellow.”

Marinelli said, “Take guys under my wing and be the model for this program. That is just part of me. It’s who I want to be as a leader.”

Lee and Marinelli are among the talented young wrestlers expected to lead Iowa’s resurgence. They are two of four returning All-Americans, joining Kemerer, who is bumping up to 174, and heavyweight Sam Stoll.

They account for most of Iowa’s 85 points from last year, but are still well behind the 117 the Nittany Lions bring back from their 141 total.

“I think a lot of people say maybe next year, maybe next year,” Kemerer said. “The thing is we’re ready to win, right now. We’re ready to go out and wrestle hard and we’ve got guys that can do it. It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. Guys step in and they’re ready to wrestle. I think it’s the right mix of guys, if we’re preparing the right way, wrestling hard and getting better every day.”

The Hawkeyes also return two-time NCAA qualifier Cash Wilcke, who is dropping from 197 to 184. Kaleb Young has won wrestle-offs at 157 after competing at 165 and 174 the last two seasons.

NCAA qualifier Vince Turk is in a heated fight for the 141-pound spot with redshirt freshman Max Murin and sophomore Carter Happel. Turk and Happel shared time last year at 141, but Murin defeated both in close wrestle-offs last week.

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“We like the depth there,” Brands said. “We like our new face, Max Murin. That’s not a done deal. That’s up to Murin to go out and compete hard.”

Murin is part of a group of new faces that include Jacob Warner, the 197-pounder Lee-like wunderkind that competed in the Junior World Championships in September. Two-time NCAA qualifier Pat Lugo joins the lineup at 149, replacing four-time All-American Brandon Sorensen, after transferring from Edinboro and redshirting last season.

The biggest addition comes at 133 pounds with Austin DeSanto. The transfer from Drexel will take over the only weight Iowa didn’t qualify for the NCAA Championships. DeSanto qualified for the national tournament and was seeded seventh. DeSanto, who beat Lee in the state finals their senior season, brings a high-octane style conducive to scoring a lot of points.

“He brings an energy and competitiveness that is contagious,” Brands said. “The way that he competes, sometimes he takes it overboard a little bit. We have to temper that. At the same time we’re going to temper that without taking anything away from him edge-wise. We want him to have that edge. We want him to have that competitive fire. I think he’s going to be a fan favorite right away. His reputation precedes him. That’s a good thing.”

Iowa has built some balance and depth that may not have been present in some previous teams. The Hawkeyes will need strong production from all 10 weights to challenge for a championship.

“The challenge is great,” Brands said, “They try to win a national title by as large a margin as possible every year. We try to do the same. We’ve fell on the short end of that stick. We know we have work to do. We’re doing it. It doesn’t change how we go to work.”

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

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