The Iowa wrestling program has been called a lot of things during the Tom Brands era.
Many felt — maybe even accused — the program of being all work and no play. The wrestlers were stiff, even robotic.
This year, of course, the Hawkeyes should have been called national champions — in all likelihood.
But this climb didn’t happen over night. Getting to the summit — getting back to the top — took time.
And it all started with good recruiting and outstanding recruits.
Brands and company had to lure guys like Spencer Lee and Michael Kemerer out of Pennsylvania and Alex Marinelli out of Ohio. If you haven’t been paying attention in recent years, Penn State and Ohio State have been pretty dominant in NCAA wrestling and both states are hotbeds for talented preps.
The climb continues for Brands and the Hawkeyes. Getting to the summit is one thing, staying there is harder.
In recent weeks, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, through its Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award, has honored several of Iowa’s incoming freshmen as the best wrestlers in their states — Arizona, Florida, Minnesota and Montana.
You see, building a team with Iowans is great. But it’s not going to get you to the top. At least not consistently.
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The 2020-21 incoming freshmen include Jesse Ybarra of Tuscon, Ariz., Bretli Reyna of Homestead, Fla., Patrick Kennedy of West Concord, Minn., and Leif Schroeder of Bozeman, Mont.
All not only were recognized with the Schultz award, but three of these four — Ybarra, Kennedy and Schroeder — also were named best in their state by WIN magazine’s Rob Sherrill, who has been covering high school wrestling for more than 30 years.
Unlike the other four non-Iowa natives, Ybarra didn’t win four state titles. He lost in the state finals as a junior. But, as a senior at Sunnyside High School, he went 37-0 and “came back with a vengeance,” Sherrill wrote. “He allowed only three matches to go the distance as a senior, one of them a 16-3 major decision in the Division II state final.”
Ybarra also was a Cadet freestyle national runner-up in 2019 after winning the title in 2018.
Reyna won four Florida state titles and finished his career with a 224-8 record.
He told the South Dade News Leader he’s been in contact with Iowa’s staff during the coronavirus pandemic and is “just excited” to get to Iowa City.
“They’ve told me they’re excited for me to be a Hawkeye,” Reyna said. “... I want to get back on the mat again, especially with a powerhouse like Iowa is really exciting. I’m just itching to get back.”
Kennedy, too, won four state titles in Minnesota. He actually took his honor to another level over his future classmates, winning the Schultz Midwest region award, topping state winners from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Kennedy, who won his last 112 matches and finished his career with 223 wins, actually was a six-time state placewinner, finishing sixth as a seventh-grader and third as an eighth-grader for Kasson-Mantorville High School.
He’s also a Junior National freestyle champion as well as a two-time all-academic honoree.
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The top-ranked wrestler in the country at 182 pounds, he told KTTC in Rochester he, like Reyna, has had to be creative during the pandemic.
“I got mats and put them in my neighbor’s shed so my brothers and I can get on the mats,” Kennedy said. “There’s still roads to run and weights to lift, so I’m doing just fine.
“I’m trying to put myself in position so when we do get to go back to our normal life, I’m at full stride.”
Schroeder is the 38th four-time Montana state champ, winning his final title at 138 pounds, scoring a technical fall in the finals.
He apparently has a flair for celebration, too.
After winning the state title this year, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote, Schroeder “... ripped off his headgear and threw it toward fans. He flexed, pointed and shouted in their direction ... He shook hands with his opponent. He cartwheeled and pulled off his signature back flip, which he had done after winning previous state titles.”
“It’s just amazing,” Schroeder told the Daily Chronicle after winning his fourth title. “Words can’t really describe it. I wish they could. It’s a really special thing to me.”
He went 41-0 as a senior, 163-3 in his career.
“It’s really special. I’m definitely not going to forget this one,” Schroeder said. “I wish I could do it all over again.”
Stiff? Robotic? It doesn’t seem that way to me and, if you see the Brands brothers outside around Iowa City, those shades aren’t only to keep the sun out of their eyes. The future looks pretty darn bright, too.