Iowa Hawkeyes

Wrestling is back and Iowa Hawkeyes should fly high

Ogden column: This is an important sport to Iowans

Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands reacts during Abe Assad's match with Ohio State's Rocky Jordan during a dual last Januar
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands reacts during Abe Assad’s match with Ohio State’s Rocky Jordan during a dual last January. This year’s team could be one of Iowa’s all-time best. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Sports often are used as a distraction, something to take our minds off the tough times we occasionally face or a simple break from the routine of our daily lives.

We all know 2020 was full of tough times and, it seems, 2021 is off to a rather rocky start.

So consider this my distraction.

It’s college wrestling season and that’s something to celebrate.

Iowa State actually already has a dual in the books, beating Wartburg on Sunday, 35-6. Iowa and Northern Iowa held media days this week, the Hawkeyes using one of their two-day kickoff to honor Dan Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee.

Wrestling isn’t just another sport to many Iowans. It’s Iowa’s sport, something this state has taken great pride in since Hugo Otopali led Iowa State to a tie with Oklahoma State in the 1933 NCAA Championships, since Cornell College won the 1947 national title, since Dave McCusky at UNI, Harold Nichols at Iowa State and Dan Gable at ISU and Iowa.

Wrestling is big at every level in this state, from youth tournaments, to weekly high school events to sellout crowds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when the Hawkeyes host one of their big rivals.

That won’t happen in 2021 with COVID-19 restrictions, but it doesn’t diminish wrestling’s importance to this state.

And we’re about to get cranking.

Iowa opens its regular season — a nine-dual Big Ten-only schedule — a week from today, hosting Nebraska. The Cyclones host Loras and Nebraska-Kearney this Sunday, the same day UNI hits the road to take on South Dakota State and North Dakota State in Brookings, S.D.

Gentlemen (and ladies), clear the mats.

UNI is in a bit of a rebuilding stage and Iowa State continues its climb under fourth-year head coach Kevin Dresser. Iowa, once again, will be the team to watch, a team very capable of winning it all — something it was denied last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year’s team was very good. This year’s team could be even better.

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“We have a great group that’s tight, they’re together,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during a news conference Tuesday. “We’ve had to be together as a country, as a world, through this pandemic. Our guys have come together, as well, through that.”

The Hawkeye lineup could look like this — Lee at 125 pounds, Austin DeSanto at 133, Jaydin Eierman at 141, Max Murin at 149, Kaleb Young at 157, Alex Marinelli at 165, Michael Kemerer at 174, Abe Assad at 184, Jacob Warner at 197 and Tony Cassioppi at heavyweight.

That’s two-time national champ, all-American, three-time all-American, NCAA qualifier, all-American, two-time all-American, two-time all-American, NCAA qualifier, all-American and NCAA qualifier.

And that doesn’t include, among others, 184-pound contender Nelson Brands.

This isn’t just a good team, this potentially could be one of the all-time great Iowa teams. And that’s saying something.

“We know this is a big year for us,” Lee said during that Tuesday news conference. “... We have guys that have chips on their shoulders.

“We had a great season last year. As you all know, the NCAA tournament is the pinnacle of wrestling. You don’t really feel like your season is finished unless you win that.”

Wrestling is a very individual sport at its root, but it’s also a team sport. And, Lee said, this is a very close group that is all on the same page, all chasing the same dream.

“I wouldn’t say we’re closer because I don’t know how you get much closer than our team is now,” he said when asked about how the pandemic affected the Hawkeyes. “We had to be around each other more because you can’t really go out and do anything.

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“We’re pretty much going from home to practice back home. ... We know that’s what’s best for us because we don’t want to take any risks to hurt our teammates. ... 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.”

It’s wrestling season. That’s a great thing.

Comments: (319) 398-8416; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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