CORONAVIRUS

Iowa Hawkeyes' championship hopes, college wrestling's crown jewel event derailed

Cancellation of NCAA Championships ends what was meant to be banner year early

Iowa head coach Tom Brands watches action Iowa's Austin DeSanto (right) wrestles ISU's Todd Small in their 133-pound mat
Iowa head coach Tom Brands watches action Iowa’s Austin DeSanto (right) wrestles ISU’s Todd Small in their 133-pound match at a wrestling dual between the Iowa Hawkeys and Iowa State Cyclones at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. DeSanto won the match. Iowa won the team dual. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

This was supposed to be the season to propel college wrestling into a new era.

The sport was poised to move its crown jewel event to its biggest venue ever, expecting record crowds and more eyes on the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships than ever.

The unforgettable impact won’t come from a spectacular show packed with exciting performances, but from a decision by the NCAA to cancel all of its winter and spring sports championships Thursday, due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a news release.

Iowa was favored to reclaim its crown and reign over college wrestling again for the first time since 2010. Fresh off a perfect dual season and Big Ten Conference Championships title, the Hawkeyes were expected to place an exclamation point on their dominant season.

Iowa’s Spencer Lee (125), Pat Lugo (149) and 165-pounder Alex Marinelli were seeded first, leading all 10 Hawkeyes seeded 11th or better. Nine were projected to be All-Americans, including No. 2 Michael Kemerer, who hadn’t competed in the postseason since the 2018 NCAA Championships, and third-seeded heavyweight Tony Cassioppi, who was making his nationals debut.

The cancellation also derails Lee’s attempt to make history by joining a select group of four-time NCAA champions. Lee, a junior who won the last two 125-pound NCAA titles, had his most dominant season, earning Big Ten Wrestler of the Year honors with an 18-0 record and outscoring opponents, 234-18, this season.

“Our coaching staff is disappointed for our guys, their families, and our fans,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said in a news release. “I understand the Big Ten Conference and NCAA made decisions based on information available and are acting in what they believe is in the best interest of the student-athletes.

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“We will process this and move forward, as we always do. Our guys have a lot to be proud of and much more still to accomplish.”

This was meant to be a banner year for college wrestling, highlighted by the D-I national tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. More than 30,000 fans were anticipated to attend each session, shattering previous attendance records. Instead of wowing current and new fans, the national tournament won’t be held for the first time since a three-year stretch (1943-45) during World War II.

If there is a group that can rebound from a devastating blow, it’s one that prides itself on the ability to persevere and overcome adversity.

“I think wrestling is in as good of a place as it has ever been,” Northern Iowa Coach Doug Schwab said. “I don’t think that changes. Competition is as good as ever. Guys are prepared and wrestling is as good as ever.

“Obviously, it was going to be quite a spectacle, being in that football stadium.”

The announcement was met with a mix of shock, disappointment and anger across the wrestling world. Schwab said he was “gutted” when he had to deliver the news to his six qualifiers.

“Everyone is going to process this in their own way at different times,” Schwab said. “Some guys are more emotional and react.”

UNI had six qualifiers, including seniors Max Thomsen (149), 174-pounder Bryce Steiert and Taylor Lujan at 184. All four were four-time NCAA qualifiers. Thomsen was an All-American as a freshman and Steiert last year, but Lujan was looking for his first podium finish.

The cancellation is even more of a disappointment for Lujan, who was the top seed in his bracket after earning his second Big 12 Conference title. He was trying to become UNI’s second straight 184-pound titlist, following last year’s NCAA champ Drew Foster.

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“You invest a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears with your guys and you care about them,” Schwab said. “Whenever they hurt, you hurt. It goes beyond just that room. Families have pain, a lot of pain.

“I know all these guys will have more opportunity going forward whatever it is. There is going to be something else. I truly believe something is going to come out of it for them and they will use this to be better in some way, shape or form.”

Perspective is needed in the midst of misfortune. Schwab said his wrestlers discussed faith and how they aren’t defined or anchored to one thing or tournament. He said he hopes wrestling and all sports rebound from the events of the last two days.

“We want everything to be healthy,” Schwab said. “Hopefully, they are on top of this thing and precautions are taken to save a whole bunch of lives. The bigger picture has to be looked at, because we get caught up in sports.”

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

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