Iowa Sports in 2021: 10 Great Moments and Accomplishments

By RossWB on December 31, 2021 at 2:16 pm
© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Another year in the books? Another year in the books. Outside of the prism of Iowa sports, 2021 was another challenging year in many respects because of... *waves hands in all directions.* But inside that prism of Iowa sports? Well, it was a pretty good year for fans of the black and gold. A year with a lot to celebrate, in fact, including a handful of Big Ten championships and a first team national championship in over a decade. So let's look back at ten of the biggest and best things to happen for Iowa sports across the last 12 months. 

10. #1 Iowa beats #2 Michigan in field hockey 

The 2021-22 field hockey season ended on a sour note for Iowa; after spending most of the season undefeated and ranked #1 in the country, the Hawkeyes lost their regular season finale to Northwestern, got bounced from the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan in the semifinals, and were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the second by Northwestern. That was a bitter pill to swallow after the great run that had preceded it, but we shouldn't let that mean Iowa's season is cast into the dustbin -- they were an excellent team who played at an extremely high level for several months. And the highest peak of that impressive regular season run came on October 15 when they took on #2 Michigan in a hotly-anticipated #1 vs #2 showdown that lived up to the hype. It was a tightly-contested match full of intensity and high drama, played in front of a large and energetic Iowa home crowd, and the Hawkeyes came away with a highly memorable 2-1 shootout victory. While Iowa didn't end up adding any tournament trophies to their collection this season, the memories of the Michigan game ought to endure for a long time to come. 

9. Jordan Bohannon becomes Big Ten's all time leading three-point shooter

It was a bit of fait accompli that Bohannon would become the Big Ten's all-time leader in three-point shots when he announced his decision to return for the 2021-22 season -- entering the year, he needed to make just 12 threes to overtake Ohio State alum Jon Diebler for the record. But it was still satisfying when Bohannon swished a three-pointer in the third minute against Alabama State to officially become the Big Ten's three-point king. He'll spend the rest of the 2021-22 season putting that record out of sight and he'll forever endure in the Big Ten record books as one of the best three-point shooters the league has seen. Not a bad legacy for a lightly-recruited kid out of Linn-Mar. 

8. Tyler Linderbaum wins Rimington Trophy, becomes unanimous consensus All-American

Speaking of obvious outcomes... Tyler Linderbaum was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's best center, a year ago and a strong case to win it then. He entered the 2021 season as not just the hands down best center in college football, but arguably the best offensive lineman in college football as well. Then he went out and had a 2021 campaign that didn't just meet the lofty expectations set by the preseason hype and college football analyst buzz, he even managed to exceed them with as utterly dominant a season as we've seen from an offensive lineman in quite some time. Linderbaum was an obvious choice -- the only choice -- to win the Rimington Trophy, and he earned first-team All-America honors from basically every organization that named an All-American team. First-team All-America selections by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), Walter Camp Foundation, Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), Associated Press, and Sporting News made him the 12th Hawkeye player to earn unanimous consensus All-America honors. We got to glimpse all-time greatness in black and gold on a few occasions in 2021, but Linderbaum gave us a chance to see it on a weekly basis this fall. 

7. Iowa soccer's Cinderella run to Big Ten Tournament title 

There was no bigger surprise success story in Iowa sports this year than what the Iowa soccer team managed to accomplish over three weeks in April. The 2020 college soccer season had been postponed from fall 2020 to spring 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it didn't look like a season of much promise for the Hawkeyes once it finally got underway. Iowa went 0-6-1 in their first seven games of the season, failing to score a single goal until their seventh game of the season and not recording a victory until a 1-0 OT win over Maryland in their eighth game of the season. They ended up going 2-2 over their final four games of the season, which was just enough to scrape into the Big Ten Tournament. And that's where Iowa caught fire.

A 2-1 OT win over #2 seed Illinois was followed by a 2-0 win over #3 seed Minnesota three days later. That led to a 1-0 win over #1 seed (and #4 overall) Penn State in the conference semifinals, before Iowa polished off their incredible run with a 1-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament final. That not only locked up a Big Ten Championship for Iowa, it also sent the Hawkeyes -- still just 6-8-1 overall -- back to the NCAA Tournament. And it turned out they still had a little magic left in them, as they knocked off Campbell 1-0 in their first NCAA Tournament game. They even pushed #3 overall seed UCLA to the limit in the next game, holding a 1-0 lead deep into the game before two late UCLA goals ended Iowa's Cinderella story. It was a thrilling, tremendously enjoyable ride while it lasted, though, made all the more so by how completely unexpected it was. 

6. Iowa WBB makes Sweet 16

There was a buzz about Iowa women's basketball entering the 2020-21 season, but it was more about what Caitlin Clark would do than what Iowa might accomplish as a team. Clark, a 5* prospect, top-5 overall recruit, and the biggest recruiting get in the history of the program, didn't disappoint in the least on an individual level -- she won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award so often it might as well have just been named The Caitlin Clark of the Week Award and was a leading contender for Freshman and National Player of the Year honors after an absolutely dazzling freshman season in which her prodigious skills as a scorer and passer were on full display night after night. But Iowa turned out to not to be just The Caitlin Clark Show -- she was instead the engine for a very good team that won three games in three days in Indianapolis to make the Big Ten Tournament final and followed that up with a blistering start in the NCAA Tournament (beating Central Michigan and Kentucky by 15 and 14 points, respectively) and a trip back to the Sweet 16. Iowa's run ended there with a 20-point loss to perpetual WBB heavyweight UConn, but no one expected a run that good to happen that soon in Clark's Iowa career. It was a testament both to her tremendous ability as a player and to the quality of the overall team -- and program -- that Lisa Bluder has built at Iowa. A run like that also raises the expectations bar for the next few seasons, but that's a good problem to have and one we'll gladly take. 

5. #3 Iowa 23, #4 Penn State 20

It was the most-hyped Iowa home game in at least 15 years (since #1 Ohio State's visit in 2006), if not since the now legendary #1 vs #2 game between Iowa and Michigan in 1985. The pre-game atmosphere was incredible, the build-up to the game was thrilling, and the game itself ended up being a tense, memorable  showdown as well, featuring an Iowa comeback victory, a Nico Ragaini touchdown that will live in the memory banks for a long time, and one of the most unforgettable and electric Kinnick Stadium crowds ever. As the years pass, this game will lose its luster -- it already has, given that both Iowa and Penn State were quickly ushered out of the Top 5 after this game and never sniffed a return; unlike that Iowa-Michigan game in '85, it's obvious that this wasn't really a titanic clash between two of the best teams in the sport, despite their rankings at the time -- but that the memories and emotions of October 9 will still longer for some time to come. 

4. Spencer Lee wins third national championship

Spencer Lee wins an individual national title and it's only fourth on this list? This ranking is, of course, subjective, but his placement here reflects both the excellence of some of Iowa's other sports moments this season and his own ability to make the extraordinary look almost routine. A 7-0 win over Arizona State's Brandon Courtney gave Lee his third individual national championship, becoming the eighth member of Iowa's three-timers club and first new member since Joe Williams in 1998. Frankly, the most memorable part of Lee's third national championship may have been his post-match revelation that he did it with torn ACLs in both knees. We already knew that Lee had an incredible set of skills on the mat that's made him an absolute juggernaut at the 125 lb weight class; this year we found that his toughness is also off the charts. He's not just one of the most remarkable and most dominant wrestlers to compete at Iowa, he's one of the most remarkable and most dominant athletes to compete at Iowa, in any sport. He's an all-time great already and accomplishments like, say, winning a third national title with two torn ACLs, only add to the legend. 

3. Iowa men's track wins Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships

How rare is the indoor championship that the Iowa's men track team managed to win this fall? Their last shared conference title in indoor track came in the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (1963). Their last outright conference title came before the Great Depression (1929). Iowa's lack of Big Ten team championships (outside of, uh, wrestling) has been a noted sore spot for years (decades?) at this point, which makes it only fair that we take the time to celebrate and enjoy Big Ten championships when they do come around. And this was a sweet one; Iowa scored a team-record 119 points (winning by 36 points) and got career-best performances up and down the lineup. They had eight medalists, including golds by Peyton Haack in the heptathlon and by James Carter, Jr in the long jump.

Iowa followed up that indoor success with even more success at the outdoor level, winning a Big Ten championship in men's outdoor track in May, once again by steamrolling the competition. Iowa scored a school-record 127.5 points, blitzing the runner-up (Michigan) by 33 points. They had multiple medalists, highlighted by gold medals by Jaylan McConico in the 110-meter hurdlers and Jamal Britt in the 400-meter hurdles. The double championships were the first indoor-outdoor sweep for Iowa since 1963. Coach Joey Woody has been building a strong program for years at Iowa; 2021 was when it all came to a crescendo, hopefully the first of more to come. 

2. Luka Garza becomes Iowa's all time leading scorer, wins National Player of the Year awards

For a long time, Roy Marble's all-time scoring mark at Iowa looked like one of those untouchable records, a mark that would stand the test of time due to changing circumstances in the game of college basketball. After all, any player talented enough to score at a clip to threaten Marble's record surely wouldn't stay at Iowa long enough to play as many games -- and score as many points -- as you'd need overtake Mable atop the Iowa's scoring charts, right? Enter: Luka Garza. Marble's record could probably have fallen only to a player like Garza, who was good enough to dominate college basketball but lacked some of the physical characteristics (foot speed, lateral quickness, explosiveness) needed to make him highly desired by the NBA.

Still, it was far from a sure thing that Garza would return for a fourth season at Iowa. But when he did, the opportunity for him to beat Marble's record was there, assuming he could maintain his dominant form from the 2019-20 season (check) and maintain good health (also check). And so, on February 21, in a tight game against Penn State, Garza finally scored the 2,117th point of his Iowa career, officially becoming Iowa's all-time leading scorer

Garza ended his Iowa career with 2,306 points, almost 200 more than Marble's previous school record tally. His accomplishment came at the end of a senior season that was, remarkably, even better in most respects than his already-excellent junior season. He averaged 23.9 ppg and 9.7 rpg as a junior and wound up splitting most player of the year honors with Dayton's Obi Toppin. As a senior, Garza averaged 24.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg (while shooting 55% from the floor and 44% from 3-point range). That consistent dominance earned Garza a bevy of player of the year awards, becoming the first Iowa men's basketball player to win the AP Player of the Year award, as well as the Naismith and Wooden Awards. His career was remarkable and the level he hit during his final two years at Iowa was truly incredible. It was a joy to watch Garza ball out game after game and year after year at Iowa; players like him come along very rarely. 

1. Iowa wrestling wins 2021 national championship

Finally. Iowa's long, frustrating drought in national championships in wrestling came to an end the morning of March 20, as Iowa officially secured their 24th team national championship and their first in 11 years. After completing a three-peat of national titles in 2010, Iowa wrestling fell off the pace, ceding the top spot in the sport to Penn State (who won eight of the next nine championships) and Ohio State (who won the other championship in that span). Then, even after Iowa had assembled a dominant overall team with few weaknesses and seemed poised to end that title drought a year earlier, nature intervened -- the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament, dashing a favored Iowa team's hope of reclaiming their spot at the top of the wrestling mountain in front of some of the biggest crowds in the sport's history at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. 

"Unfinished business" was the theme of Iowa's 2021 campaign and while the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic posed plenty of obstacles -- four of Iowa's nine scheduled dual meets were canceled due to COVID issues with Iowa or their opponent and they ended up not competing at all between February 7 and March 7 -- Iowa came through in a big way in the end. Iowa followed a pretty standard blueprint to their 24th national title: they avoided any crippling losses early, mostly took care of business in the quarterfinals on Friday morning, had a solid semifinal round to put themselves in good position, and then finished the deal with a dynamite showing in the consolation rounds on Saturday morning. Iowa wrestlers went 6-1 in the consolation matches, earning two third-place finishes along with a fourth-place finish and a seventh-place finish to secure the team title before the individual finals took place on Saturday night. All told, Iowa finished with seven All-Americans, five of whom finished third or better at their respective weights. Iowa had the strongest team top to bottom in the country in 2021 and they showed that with their performance at the NCAA Tournament.


 BONUS: Iowa reinstates women's swimming and diving

I focused these rankings on the team wins and personal triumphs that Iowa athletes had over the last 12 months, but there's no question that one of the most significant stories involving Iowa sports -- and, frankly, one of the biggest wins any Iowa team recorded this year -- came away from the field, court, or mat.

In 2020, Iowa announced plans to eliminate four sports -- men's tennis, men's gymnastics, and men's and women's swimming and diving -- citing significant revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Four members of the women's swimming and diving team, Sage Ohlensehlen, Kelsey Drake, Christina Kaufman, and Alex Puccini, filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Iowa in September 2020, alleging that the decision to eliminate the women's swimming and diving team improperly reduced athletic opportunities for female students at the University of Iowa and brought the school out of compliance with Title IX regulations. A judge granted a preliminary injunction to the athletes in late December 2020, ensuring that the women's swimming and diving program would be reinstated until the case was resolved.

Then, in February 2021, University of Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced that the university was reversing plans to eliminate the women's swimming and diving program and instead would be reinstating the program permanently. Whether the decision was motivated by a change of heart (ha) or fears of another ugly and costly legal battle (far more likely), especially one that the school stood a good chance of losing, the outcome was positive: a program was spared the ax and opportunities for student-athletes were restored now and into the future. It's unfortunate that there was no late save for the men's programs that were cut in 2020, but one victory is still a victory and worth celebrating. Congratulations to Iowa's women's swimming and diving team for weathering this terrible storm and here's to a brighter future beginning in 2022. 

So that was Iowa sports in 2021. What were your favorite memories of the year that was for Iowa teams and athletes? Let me know in the comments below, and here's to hoping for more great moments and accomplishments to celebrate in 2022. 

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