Iowa Hawkeyes

NCAA Wrestling Championships: 5 Iowa storylines affected by unexpected cancellation

Spencer Lee and Iowa denied shot at titles; seniors' careers abruptly end; Metro wrestlers prevented from competing at home

Iowa's Spencer Lee checks with a referee before leaving the mat after wrestling Wisconsin's Michael Cullen 125-pound mat
Iowa’s Spencer Lee checks with a referee before leaving the mat after wrestling Wisconsin’s Michael Cullen 125-pound match at an Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling meet with the Wisconsin Badgers at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. Lee won the match, 16-0, technical fall. Iowa won the meet, 32-3. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The college wrestling season came to an abrupt end this week when the NCAA decided to cancel its winter sports championships. Here are some notable storylines affected by the turn of events:

1. Spencer Lee declined Olympic redshirt, denied third title

Spencer Lee had options to start this season. The two-time NCAA and three-time World freestyle champion could have taken an Olympic redshirt to train for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team and a chance to represent USA Wrestling in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Instead, Lee decided to balance that pursuit with his return to the Iowa lineup, looking to lead the Hawkeyes to their first NCAA team title since 2010.

The selfless and team-first decision seemed to work perfectly. The top-ranked 125-pounder dominated college competition, posting an 18-0 mark with 17 bonus-point victories and outscoring opponents 234-18. The Hodge Trophy candidate won his first Big Ten Conference title, helping Iowa to the team crown. He also managed to secure an Olympic Trials berth, winning the U.S. Senior Nationals title during a break in the December schedule.

But, the cancellation prevented Lee from an opportunity to match Hawkeye greats, like current head coach Tom Brands, Ed Banach, Barry Davis, Jim Zalesky, Lincoln McIlravy and Joe Williams as three-time titlists.

The cancellation cost him a chance to become Iowa’s first four-timer, joining Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, Cornell University’s Kyle Dake and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber as the only wrestlers to achieve the feat.

Unless the NCAA grants this year’s qualifiers with another season of eligibility (discussions have begun), Lee was derailed by something out of his control and not by an opponent.

2. Iowa was poised for first national title since 2010

Top-ranked Iowa was expected to celebrate its return to the top of college wrestling’s heap. The Hawkeyes rolled through every competition this season and the NCAA tournament seemed to be the likely exclamation mark on a special season.

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Excitement swirled around the fans and program, anticipating the first national team title since 2010. The Hawkeyes were heavy favorites, coming off their Big Ten Conference Championships crown. Iowa boasted top-seeded Lee, Pat Lugo (149) and 165-pounder Alex Marinelli and No. 2 seed Michael Kemerer at 174. The Hawkeyes had all 10 wrestlers seeded 11th or better, including nine in the top eight. They were legitimately flirting with becoming the second team in history to have 10 All-Americans.

Many believed the championship would have an impact on future seasons, building enthusiasm for a vocal fan base and top-tier recruits. Iowa still had an impressive season, going 14-0 in duals and winning a conference dual title and strong tournament triumphs at the Midlands Championships and Big Ten Championships. No national title doesn’t diminish what the Hawkeyes accomplished but it seems like something is missing.

3. Top-seeded seniors have careers ended prematurely

This was supposed to be the chance for Northern Iowa’s Taylor Lujan to go out on top. The Panthers’ two-time Big 12 champion entered the tournament as the top seed at 184 with a 28-2 mark. He had a chance to be UNI’s second straight NCAA champion at the weight class, following 2019 titlist Drew Foster.

For Lujan, this was going to be a chance to soothe the sting of the last two seasons. The four-time national qualifier had reached the quarterfinals as a sophomore and junior at 174, falling to Penn State NCAA champ and three-time finalist Mark Hall both times. He was still a consolation victory from All-America honors, but was denied each time.

Lujan didn’t have the possibility of ending his career on or atop the podium, a finish he was capable of and deserved.

Lujan was one of four UNI seniors in the field. Teammates Jay Schwarm (125), Max Thomsen (149) and 174-pounder Bryce Steiert also had their final seasons cut one tournament short.

Just like Lujan, Lugo (21-1) claimed the top seed in his final appearance. Lugo came to Iowa two years ago, transferring from Edinboro and hoping to win a national title with the Hawkeyes. The Big Ten champ was thwarted by current events rather than a foe on the mat. He was Iowa’s lone senior starter.

4. No payoff for Iowa State’s improvement

For the second straight year, Iowa State qualified nine wrestlers to the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones have shown considerable improvement in three seasons under Kevin Dresser, who took over a struggling program.

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Iowa State had a runner-up finish at the Big 12 Championships and finally had its best lineup in place. The Cyclones didn’t get their big payoff at the end of the season. Ian Parker (141), Jarrett Degen (149) and Sam Colbray (174) seemed healthy and peaking. Heavyweight Gannon Gremmel (26-8) has wrestled well since the New Year. The 11th seed had won 17 of his last 21 matches, including a stretch of 11 in a row. The cancellation stalled his chance to extend that success.

Freshman David Carr suffered the biggest hit. High expectations accompanied him into the Cyclones lineup at 157. He impressed early, had knee surgery during the season and returned to win a Big 12 title. Carr was the third seed and was a threat to win it all. With another 10 days to heal, rest and fine-tune, Carr never got the chance to make a deep run many thought was probable.

5. Former Metro preps unable to compete in hometown

Four former Cedar Rapids/Marion Metro prep wrestlers were slated to compete in front of their hometown fans. First, the disappointment was delivered by the decision to limit the crowds. Next, devastation came with the call to cancel the tournament less than 18 hours from weigh-ins.

Coe’s 197-pounder Taylor Mehmen (Cedar Rapids Prairie), Wartburg’s 174-pounder Kyle Briggs (Cedar Rapids Jefferson), Loras’ Clint Lembeck (Cedar Rapids Xavier) at 141 and University of Chicago’s 184-pounder Ben Sarasin (Cedar Rapids Kennedy) were returning All-Americans in the field. What an opportunity to compete in the national tournament in your hometown.

Mehmen and Briggs were both seeded second after capturing regional titles. Both were capable of being on top of the awards stand.

One thing overlooked is the impact that extends beyond matches and scores. Organizers and workers spent years planning and preparing for this meet. They devoted time and talent to making this a memorable event for competitors and coaches, in addition to a positive for the host community. Those organizers were also crushed.

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

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