In Cory Clark's 113th and final match in an Iowa singlet, he finally secured the only thing that's eluded him for his career: a national championship. On Saturday night in St. Louis, Clark toppled former teammate Seth Gross 4-3 in a tense final to finally get his long-awaited national championship.
Clark had been here before and come up short. As a sophomore, he dropped an 11-8 decision to Oklahoma's Cody Brewer at the 2015 NCAA Tournament finals. As a junior, he lost 7-6 to Cornell's Nahshon Garrett at last year's finals. He had just one shot left to claim that national title and for a while this year it looked like he might be thwarted by outside factors. He suffered a shoulder injury in early December, missed several weeks, and wrestled sporadically after that. When he did wrestle he wasn't at his sharpest, dropping matches against Oklahoma State's Kaid Brock, Nebraska's Eric Montoya, and (most painfully) Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello in the Big Ten Tournament finals. Clark and the Iowa coaches were coy about the exact details of his injury, but it was clearly pretty significant -- he missed several matches, wore a large brace on his shoulder for the remainder of the season and could barely lift his left arm very high in the air. EDIT: He did reveal the extent of his injuries after the match:
Clark is finally talking about his injuries. Torn ligaments in his wrists and shoulder taken out of his socket.
— Courtney Baumann (@cbomb12) March 19, 2017
Goddamn. Cory Clark's toughness is off the charts.
The draw at the NCAA Tournament didn't do Clark many favors, either. As the #4 seed, he was slated to face #5 seed Stevan Micic in the quarterfinals; Micic is a crafty wrestler with strong defense -- Clark only beat him 2-0 earlier in the season. This time, Clark got him 6-4. His reward? A showdown with his Big Ten Tournament conqueror, Tomasello. Clark went down 2-1 early, but he battled back with all the grit and guile he had in his system and got two funky Merkle takedowns to earn a 7-4 win. And in the finals? Just red-hot Seth Gross, the #2 seeded wrestler who had been bonusing his way through the NCAA Tournament. That Gross started his career at Iowa and had rolled with Clark countless times in the Iowa practice room only added to the match's intrigue.
The finals match was a cagey, low-scoring affair, but it didn't lack for drama or action. Clark and Gross both spent much of match trying to get ahold of each other's legs, only to come up with nothing when the other wriggled free. Gross struck first with a takedown in the first, but going down in a match early has never been a problem for Clark. He went to work from bottom and soon found himself in a scramble for a possible reversal. But with time running out on the period, Clark opted for the safer option and took the escape to go down 2-1.
In the second period, Clark chose bottom to start, which was a point of discussion before the match. Gross has been absolutely lethal on top this season, frequently tilting foes for nearfall points and racking up major decision and bonus point wins. But as Clark himself pointed out last night, he's no slouch on the mat, either, and while Gross was able to build his riding time up over a minute, Clark was able to get an escape to tie the match at 2-2. Neither man could get a breakthrough in the second period, so the third period began with the score tied and Gross on bottom. Clark is brutally tough on top, but he wasn't able to hold Gross down for long this time, as his former teammate escape to go up 3-2. Worse, he still had over a minute of riding time.
But Clark would not be denied this time. He got in on Gross' legs again with 90 seconds to go -- and this time he finished. And this time he was able to put his formidable top wrestling skills to use, locking Gross in an iron grip. He erased Gross' riding time advantage -- and then just kept the ride going. The seconds ticked away, but Clark's hold never loosened. With thirty seconds to go, they went out of bounds, necessitating a restart. That was Gross' last, best chance to get an escape -- it never came. Clark kept the locks in on top and rode Gross out. And then -- finally, finally, FINALLY -- Cory Clark was a national champion, getting his hand raised by the referee in the middle of the mat at the NCAA Tournament finals. Hell yeah.
Watching Clark grind out win after win in this national title run was just incredible to behold. He was clearly limited, clearly slowed by his injury -- and yet he just. kept. winning. Cory Clark hasn't been the flashiest wrestler at Iowa over the last four years -- he doesn't do for big throws or rattle off takedowns in flurries. He doesn't crack wise in interviews or give entertaining soundbites. He doesn't score as many bonus points as many of his teammates. But period after period, match after match, year after year, Clark just went out there and won. And won. And won. He was a model of quiet consistency who just couldn't clear one final hurdle. And now he has -- congratulations, Cory. This win was a long time coming and we're so glad that it finally arrived.
GO CORY CLARK AWESOME.