Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi looks to continue strong redshirt season at Midlands Championships

Freshman is 11-0 with 10 pins and three Open titles this season

Tony Cassioppi
Tony Cassioppi

IOWA CITY — Like any other college wrestling redshirt, Tony Cassioppi has had to foot his own bills to compete.

There are tournament fees, lodging and food for Iowa’s 6-foot, 285-pound freshman heavyweight from Roscoe, Ill. The investment has yielded three gold medals without a lot of mat time. He's wrestled one full match and reaching the second period only twice in an 11-0 start.

“Paying for stuff isn’t a whole lot of fun,” said Cassioppi, who has 10 pins this season. “Like the last tournament, I wrestled for three minutes and paid $70 for the hotel and $30 for the entry fee.

“It’s great getting in the room and wrestling all these tough guys every day.”

Cassioppi will try to get his money’s worth as one of three Hawkeye heavyweights expected to compete at Northwestern’s 56th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships. Iowa will have 22 total wrestlers in the field of the two-day invitational, beginning Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

Cassioppi pinned his way through the Grand View and UNI Opens. He recorded three falls after a first-round major decision at the Lindenwood Open in St. Charles, Mo. He is ready for the test of one of college wrestling’s toughest regular-season events.

“Obviously, it’s going to be the biggest tournament I’ve had yet,” Cassioppi said. “I’m just ready to go out there and see what I can do and wrestle my hardest. Hopefully, win the tournament.”

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This isn’t the first time Cassioppi has considered the Midlands. He inquired about entering the tournament last year as a senior at Hononegah High School. The two-time Illinois state champion was denied.

“It’s going to be awesome to compete in my home state,” said Cassioppi, who originally verbally committed to Northwestern and switched to Iowa. “I actually tried to get in the Midlands before but they said they weren’t letting high schoolers last year, so they didn’t let me in it. I’m excited to get to do it this year.”

“He’s an animal,” Cassioppi’s roommate and NCAA champion Spencer Lee said. “He’s had 10 pins out of 11 matches or something crazy this year. So, he’s ready to go with the big dogs. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Hawkeyes are loaded at heavyweight. All-American Sam Stoll is ranked third nationally. Redshirt freshman Aaron Costello is 3-2, filling in for Stoll early this season. Former Iowa three-time All-American Bobby Telford joined the Iowa coaching staff this season, giving Cassioppi strong workout partners.

Competing with them in the room produces confidence in his training, which transfers to the mat.

“It really helps me to wrestle a lot of different styles, so I can become the best against each style,” Cassioppi said. “Telford is tall and lanky. He’s definitely a different feel than I ever got in high school. I didn’t have those types of guys. Obviously, Telford is a great wrestler. He’s probably the best guy I’ve wrestled.

“Stoll gives a more Greco feel, but he’s obviously really talented in folkstyle. And Costello is real hard to score on. Everybody struggles to score on him. It’s great being able to try to open him up and getting to my attacks.”

His first few months in the Iowa practice room demonstrated he isn’t a finished product. Despite Cassioppi’s dominance, much work remains in all areas, including hand-fighting and conditioning.

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“I’ve learned that I’ve got a lot to improve on,” Cassioppi said. “There are a lot of areas I can be better than I am.”

A duality exists with Cassioppi, balancing a fun-loving personality off the mat with a tenacious approach on it. He can be a jokester or prankster, but when it’s time to wrestle he’s all business.

“He likes to keep it light when he’s not working,” Stoll said. “When it’s time to get serious, he does a good job of flipping the switch.

“He’s always saying goofy stuff. You turn around the corner and he’s making a weird face at you. You never see the kid not smiling. Where’s he at now? I guarantee he’s got a stupid smile on his face or he’s telling some stupid joke.”

Iowa Coach Tom Brands said Cassioppi shatters a stereotype of successful competitors. He is a gifted student, strong teammate and leader and funny.

“I think he’s unique the way he approaches the sport,” Brands said. “He wants to be good and when you’re totally dedicated to that I think people stereotype you that you aren’t balanced enough. He’s definitely balanced.”

Midlands preview

Iowa’s Mitch Bowman will make his first appearance at 174 this weekend. The senior NCAA qualifier moved down after Michael Kemerer had season-ending surgery. Bowman has wrestled multiple weights over the last few seasons, serving as the 184 starter a year ago. He’s wrestled 197, including a 2-0 mark there this season, and won a heavyweight match as a sophomore.

“We’re expecting Bowman to be Bowman at his best,” Brands said. “We love Bowman. Bowman is a journeyman. He’ll do whatever you ask. If there wasn’t room on the bus, he would take off walking wherever it is.”

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Iowa still has some competition to iron out, most notably at 141. Iowa will have four wrestlers in that bracket. Max Murin, ranked 17th, NCAA qualifier Vince Turk, Carter Happel, who had wins last season over ranked foes, and Justin Stickley will attempt to make their case to be the Hawkeyes’ starter.

“We are looking forward to the Midlands for more reasons than just our top 10 or 11 guys,” Brands said. “141 still is being contested ...

“Murin is our guy but those other guys are anxious to get in there. This is about more than who is going to be the No. 1 guy in our lineup. This is about young guys competing at a high level and proving yourself again.”

Northern Iowa returns to the Midlands for the first time in two years. The Panthers will send 14 wrestlers, including all 10 starters. UNI freshmen Kyle Biscoglia (125), Drew Bennett (133), Michael Blockhus (141) and Cayd Lara (157) will wrestle unattached.

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

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