IOWA CITY — Name the sport and Tony Cassioppi probably gave it a whirl.
Iowa’s athletic and powerful freshman certainly found his niche on the mat, but the 6-foot, 285-pounder did limit himself when he was younger.
Golf? Played it. Soccer? You bet. Even basketball?
”I got in trouble for fouling a lot,” Cassioppi said with a laugh along with his big grin Hawkeyes fans have grown accustomed to when he’s not competing.
A small video package that has played on the overhead screens of Carver-Hawkeye Arena before duals shows photos and footage from him playing baseball and boxing as a youth. He tried kickboxing as well.
“I did pretty much every sport at some point or the other,” Cassioppi said. “I don’t think there weren’t any sports I didn’t try.”
Cassioppi has made an impact for top-ranked Iowa, compiling a 15-0 record and ascending to third in the national rankings. He is expected to face two of the country’s top heavyweights in consecutive duals, starting with No. 2 Mason Parris when the Hawkeyes (10-0, 7-0) take on No. 22 Michigan (6-3, 5-1) in a Big Ten Conference meet Saturday at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It’s just another match,” Cassioppi said. “I don’t really pay that much attention to rankings or anything like that. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle hard and do my best.”
About midway through high school, Cassioppi pared his activities to wrestling and football. Wrestling emerged as his favorite, winning two state titles and going 100-0 his final two years at Hononegah High School in Rockton, Ill.
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“It was just my favorite sport,” Cassioppi said. “It was the thing I liked doing the most because I had the most control over it. In football, I could only do so much. I had a lot of control but there aren’t as many opportunities in boxing. Kind of hard to find fights.”
Fans have witnessed his power, lifting an opponent as high as his head, driving through them on a takedown or turning a foe over for one of his five pins. They have also seen him scramble and make low-leg attacks like a lightweight.
Cassioppi noted other sports had an effect on the mat.
“There are different skills involved in every sport,” Cassioppi said. “So, honing all those different skills and being able to put them into my wrestling helps.”
Iowa Coach Tom Brands has witnessed successful heavyweights throughout his time as a competitor and coach. He said he doesn’t resemble anyone from the past.
“He’s got great balance, so he’s a good athlete,” Brands said. “I’ve liked some of the things I’ve learned about him over the last two years he’s been here. He is a competitor. He is a nice guy but he is a competitor.”
Cassioppi has duality to his personality. He is determined to be the best and is serious about the sport, but he’s just not serious all the time off the mat. Cassioppi stays looser than most and it suits him well.
“I’m not like some guys on the team where like the entire day leading into the match they’re super serious,” Cassioppi said. “Like if you mess with (Austin) DeSanto a little bit while he’s getting fruit after weigh-ins, it’s not fun. He’s not happy.
“I’m cracking jokes, even while I’m warming up. Maybe 184, I start to focus in on my match more, but I still stay pretty relaxed the whole time.”
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One of the focuses has been on being fundamentally sound and not getting out of position, which is crucial as a heavyweight. Cassioppi demonstrated his growth on an opening takedown against Penn State, earning the first takedown in a 7-0 decision that secured the dual victory.
He admitted he may not have scored that last year and Brands attributed it to what he’s worked on most.
“The impressive part to me is he stuck to the fundamentals and fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” Brands said. “Put the weight on the leg or at least tried to. That leg was straight and then he got a whizzer in and the whizzer was there. There was no rolling, draping, looking for a bunny rabbit right there. It was fundamental and he’s very good when he’s fundamentally sound.”
Cassioppi and Parris met just once previously with Cassioppi winning by technical fall in freestyle at Fargo, N.D. Throw that result out. Parris is 22-0 this season, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and placing ahead of Cassioppi at the 2018 Midlands Championships.
After Parris, Minnesota comes to Iowa City with top-ranked Gable Steveson, who placed third in the nation last season as a freshman.
“They are good tests before the postseason,” Cassioppi said. “Just keeping me going.”
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