Spencer Lee Wins the Hammer Award and InterMat Freshman of the Year

By RossWB on April 8, 2018 at 1:10 pm
Step aside, Thor.

© Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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Iowa City is hosting the Freestyle World Cup this weekend and while there's one former Iowa wrestler in action (Thomas Gilman, last year's World silver medalist, is representing the U.S. at 57 KG), a current Iowa wrestler got some of the biggest cheers of the day yesterday, when he officially received the Hammer Award from Amateur Wrestling News. The Hammer Award is given out annually to the winner of the toughest weight class at the NCAA Tournament. Lee's weight, 125 lbs, featured two former national champions, four national finalists, and a bevy of former All-Americans. As you may recall, he tore through that weight like a chainsaw through Kleenex

Lee also picked up another award this week when he was named InterMat's Freshman of the Year. 

Lee received seven of 10 first place votes for the award and 84 total points. There was a two-man race for the award, with the other main challenger being Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis, who received the other three first place votes and 76 total points. Like Lee, Diakomihalis won an NCAA title as a true freshman. Like Lee, he beat a former NCAA champion (Dean Heil) on his way to the title and won a difficult weight (141). And he did it on a torn freaking ACL, no less. As Iowa fans, we're obviously a bit biased towards Lee, but Yianni would have been a thoroughly deserving winner as well. I'd guess that Lee's bonus point dominance -- two pins and two technical falls in his five wins -- gave him the slightest edge over Diakomihalis. 

Nor was Lee the only Iowa wrestler to receive votes for the award. Alex Marinelli placed on a handful of brackets and received three total points. InterMat has awarded a Freshman of the Year Award every year since 2006; Lee is the first Iowa wrestler to win the award. 

And, finally, a few belated thoughts on the one notable award that Lee didn't win over the last few weeks: the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA Tournament. There was some controversy about Lee not winning and griping from Iowa fans (myself included!), so I did a little bit of digging into the history of the award. As The Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow noted, the award is decided by the coaches, who are sent ballots during the championship round and asked to send them in when the finals are over. This year's winner was Bo Nickal, who unquestionably had the most outstanding moment of the finals with his thrilling pin to clinch the team title for Penn State with his win at 184 lbs. 

Nickal did not appear to be the best (or "most outstanding") wrestler of the tournament and even the "best wrestler on the best team" caveat doesn't really seem to apply; Zain Retherford was the best wrestler on Penn State, just as he's been for the last three seasons. (Retherford did win the award last year, though, and there hasn't been a repeat winner of the Most Outstanding Wrestler award since Cael Sanderson rattled off four in a row from 1999-2002. 

But I decided to do a bit of research and look at the Most Outstanding Wrestlers of the past 20 years to see what patterns (if any) emerged. 

YEAR MOST OUTSTANDING WRESTLER TEAM CHAMPION
2017 Zain Retherford (Penn State) Penn State
2016 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) Penn State
2015 Logan Stieber (Ohio State) Ohio State
2014 David Taylor (Penn State) Penn State
2013 Kyle Dake (Cornell) Penn State
2012 David Taylor (Penn State) Penn State
2011 Anthony Robles (Arizona State) Penn State
2010 Jayson Ness (Minnesota) Iowa
2009 Darrion Caldwell (NC State) Iowa
2008 Brent Metcalf (Iowa) Iowa

As you can see, prior to this year five of the last 10 Most Outstanding Wrestlers have come from the title-winning team. Retherford (2017), Stieber (2015), Taylor (2012, 2014), and Metcalf (2008) all fit that trend. They all also fit the "best wrestler on the best team" criteria, although that one is a bit more subjective. Four of them (Retherford, Stieber, and Taylor x2) also led the tournament in team points from an individual, which was one of Lee's best arguments this year (as he led the field in team points). 

The five wrestlers who received Most Outstanding Wrestler awards and were on teams that didn't win the team championship tended to have one of a few things going for them: a great personal narrative, a big upset, a standout moment in the finals, or a tremendous (and historic) overall career. Kyle Snyder became an all-timer in his own right, but his title win in 2016 was notable because he beat NC State's Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time defending NCAA champion who had been almost unbeatable. Darrion Caldwell recorded a stunning upset over Iowa's own Brent Metcalf to win an NCAA title in 2009 and rode that to the Most Outstanding Wrestler award. Four wrestlers had more team points than Anthony Robles in 2011 and Arizona State obviously didn't win the team title -- but no one else won a title on one leg, which was the sort of accomplishment that's hard to overlook. Six wrestlers had more team points than Kyle Dake in 2013 and Cornell wasn't close to the team title -- but Dake also became the first (and only) wrestler to win a national championship at four different weights. (His win is also probably the only thing preventing David Taylor from being a 3x national champion -- and quite possibly a 3x Most Outstanding Wrestler recipient). And the only conceivable argument for Jayson Ness being named Most Outstanding Wrestler in 2010 was because of the drama of his won -- he recorded a takedown with just a few seconds left to beat Iowa's Dan Dennis and win the title. 

YEAR MOST OUTSTANDING WRESTLER TEAM CHAMPION
2007 Derek Moore (UC Davis) Minnesota
2006 Ben Askren (Missouri) Oklahoma State
2005 Greg Jones (West Virginia) Oklahoma State
2004 Jesse Jantzen (Harvard) Oklahoma State
2003 Eric Larkin (Arizona State) Oklahoma State
2002 Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) Minnesota
2001 Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) Minnesota
2000 Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) Iowa
1999 Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) Iowa
1998 Joe Williams (Iowa) Iowa

When you go back another 10 years, though, you see that there was even less correlation between winning Most Outstanding Wrestler and being on a title-winning team. Only one wrestler in this 10-year period was also on a national champion team (Iowa's Joe Williams in 1998). Oklahoma State won four straight titles from 2003 to 2006 -- but had no Most Outstanding Wrestlers. Minnesota won titles in 2001, 2002, and 2007, but was similarly shut out on the Most Outstanding Wrestler front. 

Scoring the most team points wasn't a reliable way of winning the Most Outstanding Wrestler award in this 10-year period, either -- only three of the 10 winners also led the tournament in team point scoring. Two of Sanderson's four wins did fit that criteria (2000, 2001) and the two years he didn't lead the tournament in team scoring (1999, 2002), he was just 0.5 points back of the leader. He averaged almost 27 team points per tournament in his four appearances, which is your reminder that he was simply incredible as a wrestler. 

Sometimes the award seemed to be a career achievement honor, as when Greg Jones got it in 2005 after winning his third national title in four years. Sometimes it seemed to be the rest of a dominant performance in the finals, as when Derek Moore won it in 2007 after beating his opponent via technical fall in the championship match. And sometimes I couldn't really figure out a particular reason why a wrestler won it, as with Jesse Jantzen in 2004 (he was tied for the fewest team points scored among the champions that year). 

My takeaway from all this: there isn't much of a consistent formula to winning Most Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA Tournament. It helps to be among the tournament leaders in team points -- but it's not essential. Lately it definitely helps to be on a title-winning team, so if Iowa is able to win (or at least contend for) team championships in the next few years, that will certainly help. And it helps to do something spectacular in the finals or to cap off an outstanding career. Ultimately, while Spencer Lee didn't win Most Outstanding Wrestler at this year's tournament if he's able to wrestle that way at future tournaments and manhandle the field like he did this year, then he'll have some more very good opportunities to win one (or more) Most Outstanding Wrestler awards before his career is over. 

In the meantime, congratulations once again to Lee on all the winning he's already done and the awards he's already received. Well done, Spencer. 

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