NCAA WRESTLING

Iowa's Spencer Lee, UNI's Drew Foster capture NCAA wrestling titles

Lee wins second straight, Foster is first UNI champion since 2000

Mar 23, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee (black) wrestles Virginia wrestler Jack Mueller (white) in the finals of the 125 pound weight class during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 23, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee (black) wrestles Virginia wrestler Jack Mueller (white) in the finals of the 125 pound weight class during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — Iowa’s Spencer Lee remained king of the hill, while Drew Foster elevated Northern Iowa to heights it hasn’t reached for a long time.

Both stood tall atop the awards stand Saturday night.

Lee captured his second straight championship and Foster capped his career with his first at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena.

The Hawkeye sophomore defended his 125-pound crown and won the program’s 84th individual title with a 5-0 decision against Virginia No. 5-seed Jack Mueller. He became the first Hawkeye to win multiple championships since Matt McDonough in 2010 and 2012 and could become the seventh three-time champion.

“It was great,” Lee said about the repeat. “I went through a lot of adversity this year. But I really attribute all of my success to my coaches and my teammates who believed in me every step of the way even when maybe I didn’t believe in myself.”

Lee’s title trek may have been different from last season, but he is a veteran now. He rebounded and took care of business after some earlier setbacks, including a disheartening loss to end the regular season.

“Look back at the path he took and he’s a warrior,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “He needs to give himself a lot of credit. He’s got to give himself some credit because it’s up to you to pick yourself up.”

Make no mistake, Lee did the heavy lifting himself in this tournament. He rolled through the field, posting a technical fall, major decision and pin in his first three matches and outscoring all his foes by a combined 55-7.

“He wrestled very poised the whole tournament,” Brands said.

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Lee (23-3) opened with a takedown in the opening minute of the match and rode Mueller the rest of the period. He received a penalty point at the end of the second after being ridden for two minutes, taking a 3-0 lead in the third. Lee iced the victory by getting a takedown with 13 seconds left.

He resembled his dominant form from a year ago and seems to be his best at the national tournament.

“We preach that — big-time wrestlers show up at big-time matches,” Lee said. “I believe that too. I believe we all show up the best we can, especially when you face a great opponent like Jack Mueller. He’s a great opponent.”

Iowa finished fourth in the team race with 76 points. Penn State won its eighth team title in the last nine years with 137 1/2 points. Ohio State (96 1/2) took third and Oklahoma State (84) was fourth.

The Hawkeyes had six All-Americans, their most since 2016.

Iowa opened Saturday by dropping its only two consolation semifinal matches, but rebounded to close with a 4-1 mark in earlier placing matches. Austin DeSanto (133) and Kaleb Young (157) both finished fifth for Iowa, while Alex Marinelli (165) and Jacob Warner (197) were seventh. Pat Lugo was eighth at 149.

“There’s a lot of things today that we can get a lot better,” Brands said. “We won five out of six placing matches with Lee. That’s telltale. We have to get these seventh, fifth and eighth places up to the champion.”

Unlike Lee, a three-time Pennsylvania state champion and three-time freestyle world titlist, Foster’s competitive resume was without a marquee wrestling title. He never won a state title in high school at Mediapolis but he capped his college career as the 184-pound champion with a 6-4 win over Cornell’s Max Dean.

“It means a bunch,” said Foster, UNI’s 25th two-time All-American. “But I can’t take all the credit at all. I got teammates I work out with. I have coaches that believe in me, that help coach me.”

Foster wasn’t heavily recruited and many didn’t consider him a D-I talent. UNI assistant Randy Pugh insisted there was something special in Foster and stuck with him through a 15-18 freshman campaign.

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“Just a shoutout to Randy Pugh,” Foster said. “The guy’s believed in me since day one, been by my side. Been in my ear — he was in my ear the whole match. I owe that guy a lot. I owe my teammates a lot, my family, and all the support from the Panther Train. This is definitely bigger than me. It’s a Panther Train.”

Dean had won three of the last four meetings, including a one-point decision at West Gym in December, but Foster exacted revenge in a back-and-forth affair.

Foster (28-5) scored the first takedown, but Dean responded for a 3-2 lead after one. Dean extended it to 4-2 with a second-period escape.

The tide changed in the third when Foster escaped and his consistent attacks throughout the match resulted in a takedown with 38 seconds left.

“That’s practice from habits,” Foster said. “That’s coaches putting us in situations where it’s a tied match and you’ve got to go get a score with 30 seconds, with a minute or whatever it is. Randy and I have been working on just circling left, a quick little snap, jab, shoot.”

“He went back to his training,” UNI Coach Doug Schwab said, “and hit an incredible attack and then didn’t let him get off his dang belly.”

Foster became UNI Coach Doug Schwab’s first NCAA champ. He is the epitome of hard work and dedication, paving way for future Panthers and his students as an educator.

“He’s going to help change the world,” Schwab said. “That’s what I want our guys to be able to do.

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“Now, you have a guy you can point to. Look at Foster. Look where Foster was at as a freshman. Are you tell me if you go out, work your tail off and you believe in what’s going on that you can’t make those jumps? You have to be willing to invest and believe in yourself and that’s what he did.”

Foster was joined on the awards stand by junior Bryce Steiert at 165. Steiert, a two-time NCAA qualifier who redshirted last season, returned to the Panthers lineup and placed eighth.

The Panthers tied for 13th with 40 1/2 points, marking their best finish under Schwab, who is in his ninth season as head coach. The performance bettered consecutive 15th-place showings in 2013 and 2014.

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

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