CLEVELAND — This season was expected to be a rebuilding year for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes opened with five new starters, returning just two All-Americans from a year ago. Even Iowa Coach Tom Brands said question marks surrounded the team at the start, noting the lineup could evolve into something stronger by the season’s second-half.
The vision slowly became clearer when heavyweight Sam Stoll showed he was healthy after two knee surgeries. Redshirt Alex Marinelli joined the starters and made an impact. Healthy competition led to a stronger representation at 141 pounds. Then, the much anticipated redshirt removal and addition of 125-pounder Spencer Lee came in January, bolstered the lineup.
Instead of a rebuilding project, Iowa may have set the foundation for a resurgence. The Hawkeyes will return four of five All-Americans — including NCAA champion Lee — and nine of 10 starters from a third-place team finish.
Lee now is the face of the program that was projected seventh in some preseason national rankings.
“I think we have a lot of good guys in the lineup already and then we’ve got good redshirts coming up,” Iowa sophomore two-time All-American Michael Kemerer said. “You saw what a lot of those guys did in opens (open tournaments) this year and they’re just going to keep getting better.
“We’ve got a great system and we’re going to keep getting better. I’ve got great people around me and we’ve all got great people around us to make us better and get us on top.”
The team’s culture and camaraderie, fostered by the new wave of talent that is flowing into the practice room, might be a big part of the progression. It was on display when teammates shared in celebrating Lee’s title in the tunnels of Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night.
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“We’re a family,” Lee said. “Every person in that room wants the best for each and every person. Even if you’re wrestling off, they don’t care. I see guys wrestle off then they go in the locker room and they’re sitting there telling each other what they could have done better. The whole team is just about improving, and the coaches are like — they’re family. They tell us we’re family. Iowa is our home.
“And that’s what I want everyone to know about the University of Iowa. We’re not these whatever robots or whatever that stigma was a long time ago. We’re a family and we love each other, and we all want to be national champs. And that’s the goal. That’s what we want to be known as.”
Iowa returns 85 points from this year’s tournament, second to Penn State’s 117. Ohio State will have 77 1/2 back next season. The Hawkeyes return 27 1/2 of their 30 1/2 bonus points, boasting Gorriaran Award winner in Stoll, who had the most falls in the least amount of time during the three-day event.
“We hate to lose (Brandon) Sorensen, but you see what this young team has done,” Marinelli said. “Nine falls for Iowa. Penn State has three.
“We like to pin guys, so it’s pretty fun.”
In addition to Lee’s gold, Kemerer (157) placed fourth, Stoll was fifth and Marinelli was sixth at 165 in his first national appearance. Joey Gunther (174) and Cash Wilcke (197) made their second straight trips with Wilcke reaching the round of 12 again. Vince Turk (141) and 184-pounder Mitch Bowman won multiple matches.
Lee has classmates who can make an impact next season. Redshirt Jacob Warner, at 197, was a highly touted recruit who placed sixth at Midlands and even competed overseas this season. Max Murin finished higher (fifth) at Midlands than Turk and part-time starter Carter Happel at 141.
Iowa also has two-time national qualifier Pat Lugo waiting to replace Sorensen at 149. Lugo, who owns a past win over Sorensen, redshirted after transferring from Edinboro. The Hawkeyes still have to solidify the lineup, which didn’t have a qualifier at 133 and scored no NCAA points at 174.
“We have to have consistency in 10 weight classes,” Brands said. “That’s the difference. We had five All-Americans. Penn State (and) Ohio State had eight. That’s the difference.”
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Sorensen has seen what these Hawkeyes have the capability to do and their effort to turn potential into production.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Sorensen said. “We have great recruits coming in. Obviously, you see some of the freshmen in the finals. That’s what we want.
“We’ve had some true freshmen — the redshirts — that have had good years. Here’s the thing, you get a class like that, and they push the older guys, too. These guys are fighting tooth and nail for everything. When you get done with practice, hey, let’s go to the weight room and hit some sets. Just those little things. Everything adds up.
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