Iowa's Spencer Lee on familiar NCAA wrestling path

Hawkeye sophomore won last year as a No. 3 seed

Iowa Hawkeyes' Spencer Lee, walking to the mat to face Indiana's Elijah Oliver during a 125-pound bout at Carver-Hawkeye
Iowa Hawkeyes’ Spencer Lee, walking to the mat to face Indiana’s Elijah Oliver during a 125-pound bout at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, is the No. 3 seed at the NCAA Championships, the same as last year when he won his first national title. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The challenge remains the same for Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee.

As a matter of fact, the scenario is very similar from a year ago.

For the second straight year, Lee enters the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships as the third seed at 125 pounds without a Big Ten title. Of course, that turned out just fine last season, as he won a national crown as a freshman.

Lee will attempt to replicate the results this weekend, beginning Thursday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. He is one of nine Hawkeyes in the NCAA field and opens with Northern Illinois’ No. 30-seed and former Solon and Highland prep Bryce West (15-14).

“It’s the same thing,” said Lee, who is 18-3. “I have the same seed as last year. I’ve got to go out there and wrestle each match like it’s the finals and wrestle hard.

“My opponents want to win, too. We know it’s going to be a tough one. The national tournament is always crazy and crazy things always happen. We have to go out there and wrestle consistent, hard and be the best that we can be.”

Last year, Lee suffered a loss in the conference semifinals to Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, a loss he avenged to reach the national final. He was able to build some momentum with two bonus-point victories to place third at last year’s conference tournament. He is coming off a better overall finish, placing second, but enters the NCAA meet after an overtime loss to Northwestern’s top-seeded Sebastian Rivera.

“There really is no difference,” Lee said. “You go in and everyone has something to prove, because it’s the national tournament. It’s the one that people remember, people care about the most.

“The big thing is to go out and wrestle hard.”

Last year, Lee’s redshirt was removed and replaced with a cloak of enormous expectations. The three-time World champion exchanged those for the pressure of being a defending champion.


Iowa Coach Tom Brands said Lee knows the work in front of him, needing to reverse possible rematches with Rivera and Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni, who have combined to hand him his three losses this season.

“He’s more mature,” Brands said. “He’s been through it. He’s never been one that takes it for granted. He’s overcome a lot of adversity in his career, winning a lot of big matches. He’s a cool customer and a veteran through and through.

“That doesn’t mean anything going forward except for go wrestle your best match because you get ready to go at the highest level. It’s that simple.”

Lee’s reputation and being the reigning champion fixed a target on his back. He was prepared for that from the moment he stepped on the mat in an Iowa singlet.

“The coaches always tell you’re going to get the best out of every guy every single time, because we’re a big-time program,” Lee said. “I think that’s true. It’s been like that my whole life.

“It happens all the time because they really get up for those big-time matches, but now it is nationals. Every match will be like that. You’ve got to be ready to go.”

This week will be a homecoming of sorts for Lee and some of his Hawkeye teammates. Lee was a three-time Pennsylvania state champion and four-time finalist for Franklin Regional High School. He lived in Murrysville, Pa., in the shadow of Pittsburgh.

“I think it is fun,” Lee said. “Tickets are obviously hard to get, so I probably won’t have all that many friends there. They’ll probably just text me or something and laugh that I’m 10 minutes away on spring break or whatever, unless they’re on spring break like a normal college student.


“Our spring break, I think, is more fun. We get to compete in the best place in the world.”

He trained in former Hawkeye Jody Strittmatter’s renowned Young Guns Wrestling Club with teammates Michael Kemerer and Max Murin. Pittsburgh is known for its black-and-gold themed sports teams, like the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins.

Lee was a casual follower of the local sports teams, attending a single Steelers game when he was 13.

“Not because I didn’t want to but just because weekends were for wrestling,” said Lee, who will catch a game on TV but prefers to rib Kemerer, a big Pirates fan, about baseball struggles. “During the week, still wrestling. If there was a game during the week, at night, that’s a school night. It’s different than in college. A little less freedom.”

In addition to Lee and Murin (141), seventh-seeded 133-pounder Austin DeSanto (133) and No. 6 seed Kaleb Young (157) are Pennsylvania preps. Brands said there might be some incentive going back to your wrestling roots, but most consider Iowa City their new home. He likes that as a coach, but the site shouldn’t impact how they compete.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter,” Brands said. “It can be in an arena in the Antarctic and you still have to go perform and that’s what we talk about. That’s what our guys embody and that’s how you stay focused.”

The Hawkeyes also boast top-seeded and unbeaten Alex Marinelli at 165 and returning heavyweight All-American Sam Stoll. Freshman Jacob Warner is seeded fifth at 197. Pat Lugo returns to the national tournament after a redshirt with the Hawkeyes and two NCAA trips for Edinboro in 2016 and 2017. He is seeded 10th at 149. Cash Wilcke (184) is making his third straight appearance.

“We have nine weight classes that tell you they are in this thing to win it,” Brands said. “With attitudes like that, you’ve got a good chance. That doesn’t mean anything except go deliver on that.


“We have always been about the team (championship). We’ve always been about individual champions, regardless of what the pundits’ rankings are, whether it favors us or doesn’t (and) in a big way or not a big way ... Either way, you have to perform.”

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