It's happening: Spencer Lee is going to wrestle for Iowa as a true freshman. Iowa teased the possibility on social media on Tuesday with this tweet of the program for Friday's dual meet against Michigan State:
— Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) January 2, 2018
"I expect to compete in front of the best crowd in the world and the best fans in the world and that's what I'm here for."
Spencer Lee: https://t.co/OHNh2BBavA
Tix: https://t.co/VEI98q2zOY pic.twitter.com/GcdwRN82f7
— Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) January 3, 2018
Brands and Lee talked about the decision to pull the redshirt yesterday as well:
Wednesday Media Availability. Brands | Lee | Kemerer: pic.twitter.com/c3ROztw9Mh
— Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) January 3, 2018
Hello, Spencer Lee. https://t.co/9C7Ts1cUhJ
— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) January 3, 2018
Lee, the #1 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class, will become the first true freshman to compete for the varsity under Tom Brands. (Give or take Nathan Burak and Justin Stickley, that is; Burak never officially redshirted at Iowa, but he did take what was effectively a grayshirt year between his high school career and his time at Iowa at the Olympic Training Center, while Justin Stickley spent a year working in Iowa and training on his own before joining the Iowa program this season. Lee is the first freshman at Iowa to compete at varsity after wrestling in high school the previous year.) Lee is, of course, no ordinary true freshman: he was not just the top overall recruit last year, but one of the most heralded recruits in several years. He won three Pennsylvania state championships as a prep and despite being hampered by a torn ACL and mono, he came moments from winning a fourth state title last spring. He also won three freestyle world titles and served as Dan Dennis' training partner during the run-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
And his college career has gotten off to a pretty smashing start, too: he got things rolling with two first-period pins and a 16-0 technical fall on his way to cruising to a title at 125 lbs at the UNI Open in his first collegiate action. He followed that up with an impressive opening salvo at the Midlands Championships outside Chicago last weekend, notching another first-period pin and two more technical falls on his way to a spot in the semifinals. He was stunned in the semifinals by Oregon State's Ronnie Bresser, who used a late escape and takedown to beat him 3-1 (Lee then medically forfeited to sixth place in the consolation bracket, but Brands said that was for precautionary reasons and, health-wise, he's fine).
That loss was disappointing, both for the fact that it kept him from contending for a Midlands title but also for the fact that it denied us a chance to see Lee take on another mega-hyped young 125er, Nick Suriano (now at Rutgers, formerly at Penn State). Bresser is no scrub, though -- he was ranked #10 in InterMat's rankings before Midlands and could be sniffing the Top 10 after his performance there and he also wrestled a very smart match against Lee, one that Lee can surely study from and and use to improve himself. If you're going to suffer a shock loss, it's a heck of a lot better to do that in December than it is in March. (Iowa fans have been on the other end of this phenomenon recently, too -- just last year another mega-hyped freshman phenom, Penn State's Mark Hall, made his official debut for Penn State in the PSU-Iowa dual, where he was stunned by Iowa's Alex Meyer, 7-5. Hall went on to win an NCAA tittle at 174 lbs in March, so things seemed to work out just fine for him despite that loss.)
And so now we get to see what Lee can do in an Iowa singlet in matches that (officially) count. The arguments against pulling Lee's redshirt mainly centered around health and Iowa's status as a national contender (or lack thereof). As far as the former concern goes, it seems to be all systems go on the health front for Lee. He is wearing a fairly bulky-looking knee brace but it seems to be mainly for precautionary purposes. It's very hard to imagine Brands rushing a true freshman Lee onto the mat if he hadn't received a clean bill of health from Iowa's medical staff, either; there's not much value to that decision. As The Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow noted, too, preserving a redshirt for the future also makes it possible to use one if Lee suffers another injury down the road. We hope it doesn't come to that, of course, but it isn't terrible to have that option available; we've seen some great Iowa wrestlers like Matt McDonough and Cory Clark have to grind through injury-influenced senior seasons in the past and while that still managed to work out very happily in Clark's case, it often doesn't.
The main reason true freshmen redshirt, in wrestling or in any other sport, is because they're not ready to compete against more experienced competitors, either physically or mentally (or both). That doesn't really apply to Lee. Even as a true freshman, he's already among the best in the sport at 125 lbs and his skill set is hugely impressive, as Cody Goodwin broke down for The Des Moines Register earlier this week. He absolutely demolished Sean Russell, ranked #7 at 125 lbs by Intermat, in the form of a 15-0 technical fall in the Midlands quarters. Russell isn't quite a national title contender, but he's very solid and he'd never lost a match like that before. Last year, when Thomas Gilman was manning the 125 lb spot for Iowa, he only beat Russell via 10-2 major decision. Lee isn't ranked yet, but he'll likely enter the national rankings in the Top 10 and should only climb from there.
As far as the second argument goes -- re: national contention -- it's true that pulling Lee's redshirt doesn't instantly make Iowa a favorite or even necessarily a serious contender for a Big Ten or NCAA title this year. Penn State (again) and Ohio State have seriously loaded teams. Even with Lee in the mix, Iowa has some serious question marks in terms of point-scoring potential at 133, 141, 174, and 184. Right now Iowa's best case scenario is for Lee, Brandon Sorensen (149), and Michael Kemerer (157) to be wrestling in the finals, Alex Marinelli, Cash Wilcke and Sam Stoll to wrestle above their current rankings (14, 8, and 6, respectively), and Pat Downey III to a) make it to Iowa, b) keep his nose clean, and c) go on a tear at 184 lbs. If that happens (and Iowa maybe gets some unexpected points from one of those aforementioned question mark weights)... then maybe? It's still a long shot -- and requires a lot of things to go right -- but at least it's a chance, which Iowa didn't have without Lee. (In addition to the ability to pick up wins and make a deep run, Lee also gives Iowa some of the bonus point firepower that's fueled so much of Penn State's success; his six wins to date have featured three pins and three technical falls.)
There's also no guarantee that the Iowa team around Lee in a hypothetical 2022 season (when he would be a redshirt senior) would necessarily be better-equipped to contend for a national championship. Iowa's recruiting has ticked up in recent years, but they're still playing catch-up to Penn State and Ohio State in that regard. Letting him wrestle now gives him a year to compete with Brandon Sorensen and it maximizes the number of years he can wrestle in a lineup with Alex Marinelli (four years) and former high school teammate Michael Kemerer (three years). That's not bad. Plus, five years is a long time; we have no way of knowing who recruiting decisions will play out in that time, which wrestlers will develop well in college and which ones might struggle, or who might get injured, to note just a few of the many variables that could come into play.
Plus, Iowa's already gone eight years since winning their last national title (2010); the "wait 'til next year" cry is getting old. Lee might not lead them to a title this year (again, the odds are still stacked against that), but he helps gives Iowa some hope and some excitement in a season that otherwise could have been a very long and painful slog (minus the Sorensen-Kemerer-Marinelli axis at the middle weights). That's a meaningful thing; Iowa fans want more championship banners, yes, but they also want to be excited and they want to dream of big things -- Lee allows you to do that. Having him wrestle also could give Iowa some more buzz on the recruiting trail, which might help lure some future studs to join him in Iowa City (the dream scenario for Lee is that he is able to serve as something like Iowa's version of what David Taylor was for Penn State, a pied piper-type whose exciting style and overall excellence inspires other top wrestlers to join the program too). It also rebuts the argument that Brands won't wrestle true freshmen -- he will, when the situation is right.
Now the situation looks right and now we get to watch one of the most exciting and dynamic wrestlers to hit the Iowa program in years do his thing on stages a lot grander than the UNI Open or Midlands. He's going to be doing it in front of thousands of fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and at the Big Ten and NCAA Championships later this year. This is a very big deal for Iowa wrestling -- and we can't wait to enjoy the ride.