IOWA CITY — College wrestling did not receive the closure it needed last season.
Wrestlers were stripped of an opportunity to compete in the climactic event they deserved.
Iowa Coach Tom Brands’ passion was nearly palpable, emphasizing the importance of a season-ending national tournament.
“Really, we have to get to the end,” Brands said during a news conference Tuesday that served as a season media day and the official Hodge Trophy presentation in the McCord Indoor Club Level of the Kinnick Stadium press box. “We have to get to the national tournament. Are you listening, NCAA? Are you listening?
“These are young people that aspire to things. They’re in an age demographic that is not as risky. It’s always risky. It’s risky when I drive from here to the arena, I might get sideswiped by a bus because I’m not looking. We have to get to the end this year. Then we have to get to Tokyo (for the Olympic Games). I’m passionate about that. It cannot go down the way it went down a year ago.”
The top-ranked Hawkeyes will finally start the season and will look to take care of some unfinished business they weren’t allowed to when the NCAA canceled its winter championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So, here we are in January,” Brands said. “We’re starting. We thank the Big Ten. We have a schedule, and away we go.”
Iowa dominated its way to Big Ten tournament and dual titles a year ago, going 13-0 overall and 9-0 in the conference, and was a heavy favorite to claim its first NCAA team title crown since 2010.
The lineup could consist of 10 All-Americans, including two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee, who was presented the 2020 Dan Hodge Trophy as the most outstanding college wrestler, two-time Big Ten champ Alex Marinelli and three-time All-American Michael Kemerer. Nine wrestlers were named All-Americans by the National Wrestling Coaches Association and Missouri transfer Jaydin Eierman is a three-time All-American who took an Olympic redshirt last season.
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They have all the pieces in place to be just as dominant, if not better. Now, the Hawkeyes just want a chance to complete their mission in the pinnacle of the college level.
“I think our guys think of these things as individuals,” Brands said. “That’s one of the greatest things we have. We have a great group that’s tight, they’re together. We’ve had to be together as a country, as a world, through this pandemic. Our guys have come together, as well, through that.”
Strong camaraderie and chemistry were hallmarks of the program in recent seasons, contributing to the success. The Hawkeyes have been together throughout this pandemic. They have relied on and trusted each other to make smart choices.
“Everyone knows their place and their part. That’s to do the best they can, work as hard as they can to make sure they stay healthy, keep everyone healthy.
Sterilization and cleanliness has been a longtime emphasis for wrestling, which has battled communicable diseases in the past. The sport probably has the most experience in this situation, despite the concern for its close-contact nature.
“To compare us to other sports, silliness,” Brands said. “To compare other sports to other sports, silliness. Wrestling has a lot of experience of being very, very clean.”
Brands said that wrestlers are tested daily. Even if a negative test result is accompanied with a hint of an ailment, like a cough or sore throat they are sent home. The Hawkeyes are informed and knowledgeable to ensure safe practices.
Actually, wrestling was one of the first groups to return to campus, restarting workouts June 8.
“We’re going to be okay, but you have to get us to the end,” Brands said. “We did it your way. Now you have to come our way. These are young people. We know this is serious business. We do it right.”
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The Big Ten didn’t release a schedule until last week. Some may have had concerns that this season may not get off the ground, but wrestlers prepared to start anytime those in charge gave the go-ahead.
“I was just focused on myself, getting ready for the season,” Lee said. “We were ready for the season in June. If they said, ‘Hey, national tournament is whenever, August, get ready,’ we would have been ready. We’re just focusing on ourselves, listening to protocol. They know what’s best. The University of Iowa has our best interests at heart.”
Iowa opens the season with a Jan. 15 home dual against Nebraska. The Big Ten will wrestle nine regular-season duals on seven dates. Brands said the conference will allow for extra matches to be held in conjunction with the varsity duals. Only immediate family will be allowed to attend matches at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The postseason consists of the conference and national tournaments.
College wrestlers will have to reach their peak in a more condensed season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Lee said. “We’re ready to go. Doesn’t matter who we’re wrestling.”
“I think you train your body and your mind and your spirit to the point where nothing really matters,” Brands said. “Things happen that upset the apple cart. You could have a regular season that’s normal and only end up with wrestling in the qualifier, for instance, and have to go to the national tournament. You take it and you do the best you can with it. When you have an edge, you’ll be okay.”
Just as long as they get an opportunity to reach the end.
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