The calendar has turned to 2019 and the wrestling season is roughly half over. We've got another two months (or less) of dual meets and then it's showtime: the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis, MN on March 9-10 and the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh, PA on March 21-23. Iowa has been off since Midlands at the end of December, but their two-week hiatus is coming to a close this weekend, with a trip to #8 Minnesota on Sunday afternoon. So I thought now would be a good time to take stock of the Iowa lineup at this point in the season and see how things are looking with the big postseason events getting ever closer.
125: Spencer Lee (9-1, SO) 2 | 2 |2
When last we saw Spencer, he was suffering just the third loss of his college career, a stunning 7-3 setback to Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera. (Two of those three losses have taken place at Midlands; maybe that locale just has bad juju for Lee?) Rivera dashed the hope (expectation?) that this season was just going to be a five-month coronation for Lee; if he's going to win another national title -- and his first Big Ten championship -- he's going to have to earn it by going through Rivera. Lee said this about his loss to Rivera:
“I just have to relax more and just wrestle,” Lee said. “I was very tight, and he wrestled a great match. He’s a great opponent. He wrestled smart. He backed up and exploded. He’s quick. He’s a good wrestler. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s an All-American.
“I have to find a way to wrestle my match. You have to get to your best things. He wrestled his match. That was the biggest thing … you always have to find that fire. Always. Maybe this helped me find more. I don’t know. I’m still working on it.”
Lee is still very, very good and it's worth remembering that we've seen a similar version of this story before: Lee got stunned at Midlands a year ago, then won 16 of his next 17 matches on his way to a dominating performance in the NCAA Tournament. Rivera presents an intriguing obstacle for Lee -- it's very likely that they could meet up three more times this season -- but there's still every reason to have a lot of confidence in Lee come March. One thing to watch over the next few months is Lee's cardio -- he looked noticeably weaker in the second and third periods of several matches in December, an issue that would seem consistent with the reports that Lee was dealing with some sort of medical issue earlier in the season. If Lee's stamina improves over the next few months, we'll have even more confidence in what he can do in March.
133: Austin DeSanto (10-1, SO) 10 | 10 | 10
DeSanto cruised to a title at Midlands a few weeks ago and has generally been a massive upgrade for Iowa at this weight (the only weight they failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament a year ago), but questions about his ceiling persist -- mainly because he hasn't faced many other top contenders at this weight. He's 3-1 on the season against guys currently ranked in the Top 20 (per InterMat), but those three wins have been against Illinois' Dylan Duncan, Purdue's Ben Thornton, and Campbell's Noah Gonser, who are ranked #18, #19, and #20, respectively. His loss came against Iowa State's Austin Gomez, who's currently ranked #9 and, like DeSanto, looks like a possible All-American but could also just miss out on that status. It doesn't help that 133 has some absolute beasts at the top of the rankings -- Seth Gross (South Dakota State) is a two-time defending NCAA champion, Stevan Micic (Michigan) is the defending Big Ten champion, and Nick Suriano (Rutgers) and Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) are elite lightweights. This weekend's match with Minnesota's Ethan Lizak (ranked 7/8/7) might give us a little bit more idea if DeSanto will be able to get onto the podium at 133 this year. DeSanto is definitely good, but there are a lot of good wrestlers at 133 this season and being one of the best 8 wrestlers at that weight is going to be an enormous challenge.
141: Max Murin (9-2, RS FR) 15 | 19 | 13
Murin's rankings have the widest disparity of anyone in Iowa's starting lineup; Trackwrestling has him at 13, near the top ten, while Flo has him down at 19, barely cracking the Top 20. Like DeSanto, Murin's ranking is struggling because he doesn't have any wins against top competition -- he doesn't even have many matches against top guys so far. Murin is just 0-2 against wrestlers currently ranked in the Top 20 at his weight, dropping narrow decisions to #8 Josh Alber (UNI) and #14 Ian Parker (ISU). Matches against Minnesota's Mitch Mckee (#6) and Illinois' Mike Carr (#9) this month should tell us a bit more about whether or not he can vie for a podium spot or if he's more likely to have a short stay at the NCAA Tournament.
149: Pat Lugo (7-5, JR) 12 | 16 | 11
Lugo is another wrestler with a fairly wide range in rankings, from #11 via Trackwrestling to #16 via Flo. Lugo endured a difficult start to the season, losing three of his first four bouts, but he righted the ship a bit at Midlands with five wins in seven matches. Lugo has gone 1-3 against currently ranked wrestlers, defeating Campbell's Josh Heil (#10) via an injury stoppage and losing to Princeton's top-ranked Matthew Kolodzik (twice) and Iowa State's Jarrett Degen (#11). Lugo also has two losses to unranked wrestlers in CSU Bakersfield's Russell Rohlfing and Ohio State's Sammy Sasso, although that deserves a bit of an asterisk as Sasso is redshirting; if Sasso was out of redshirt, he would unquestionably be ranked. Still, the losses to guys like Rohlfing and Degen are troubling if the goal is for Lugo to finish on the podium in March; he's going to need to be able to beat guys like that to achieve that finish. We'll get a chance to see how Lugo fares against a few other top-ranked guys at 149 (he's set to face #2 Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) and #6 Kaden Gfeller (Oklahoma State) later this year), as well as if he can take care of business against fringe Top 20 guys (he has #20 Tommy Thorn (Minnesota) this weekend and should see #18 Alfred Bannister (Maryland) later this month).
157: Kaleb Young (11-1, SO) 5 | 6 | 4
Of all the new additions to Iowa's lineup this season -- and it's worth remembering that Iowa is breaking in about 5-6 new starters this season -- no one has had more success or been a more pleasant surprise than Young, who's taken to 157 extremely well. Young was undefeated on the year before suffering a 6-2 defeat to Northwestern's Ryan Deakin (a top-5 guy at this weight) in the Midlands final. He's secured bonus points in seven of his 11 wins on the season. He's also 3-1 against wrestlers currently ranked in the Top 20, with the three wins coming against #10 Zach Hartman (Bucknell), #13 Griffin Parriott (Purdue), and #17 Josh Humphreys (Lehigh). He should face more wrestlers ranked in the Top 20 during the regular season: #9 Steve Bleise (Minnesota), #14 Eric Barone (Illinois), #15 John Van Brill (Rutgers), and #18 Andrew Shomers (Oklahoma State). Young looks solidly like a Top 10 guy at this weight and a legitimate All-America contender, though it's still TBD how high on the podium he can finish. This is a pretty loaded weight in the Big Ten, too -- in addition to runaway national title favorite Jason Nolf (Penn State), four of the top five, five of the top seven, and six of the top nine at this weight hail from the Big Ten. If Young has a good showing at the Big Ten Tournament, we should feel very very good about his podium chances.
165: Alex Marinelli (11-0, SO) 2 | 2 | 3
Outside of Sam Stoll (who's wrestled just three matches), Marinelli is the only Iowa wrestler in the starting lineup who still has a perfect record, meaning he's the only one on the team with a chance of becoming the first Iowa wrestler since Jay Borschel to complete a perfect season. Marinelli is also coming off his biggest win of the season, a 4-3 win over Wisconsin's Evan Wick that reversed a brutal 16-3 loss that he'd suffered to Wick at last year's NCAA Tournament. This season "The Bull" has emerged as probably Iowa's second-best wrestler as well as one of its most important team leaders. With two key upperclassmen sidelined by injury in Stoll and Kemerer, Marinelli has definitely assumed a bigger leadership role and he's done well in that capacity. On the mat, Marinelli has answered all comers so far and he's done it with bonus points in eight of his 11 wins. The remainder of the regular season will bring plenty of interesting challenges for Marinelli, too: he's set for a rematch with Wick (now #3) next month, as well as showdowns with #6 Isaiah White (Nebraska), #10 Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State), and #16 Joey Gunther (Illinois) over the next several weeks. The matches with Wick and White figure to be critical for Big Ten (and NCAA) seeding.
174: Mitch Bowman (4-2, SR) UN | UN | UN
Losing Michael Kemerer to a season-ending knee injury was a devastating blow to this Iowa team. It removed probably Iowa's second-best wrestler, one of the top point-scorers, and a legitimate team leader. Everything since then has been damage mitigation, a job that got even more difficult when Kemerer's backup, Myles Wilson, went down with his own serious injury. Enter: Mitch Bowman, a reliable grinder who had already competed at 184 and 197 this season before cutting down to 174 to fill the hole left by Kemerer. It's still too soon to say what he might be able to do at this weight; he went just 2-2 at Midlands, but with a few more weeks to adjust to the weight cut, our hope is to see improved performance over the next few weeks. Bowman is set to face a handful of fringe Top 10 wrestlers -- #9 Mikey Labriola (Nebraska), #10 Ryan Christensen (Wisconsin), and #11 Devin Skatzka (Minnesota) -- plus #5 Joe Smith (Oklahoma State) over the remainder of the regular season, which ought to tell us much more about where he stands at this weight and particularly where he sits in the Big Ten pecking order. Penn State's Mark Hall and Michigan's Myles Amine are the top guys in the Big Ten by far here, but there's little settled behind them right now.
184: Cash Wilcke (10-2, JR) 14 | 18 | 17
Wilcke has settled into his new weight with solid, if generally unspectacular results. He's gone 10-2 with four of 10 wins including bonus points, but so far he doesn't have anything close to a signature win. He's faced just two wrestlers currently ranked in the Top 20 -- and he's lost to both, a narrow 7-6 loss to ISU's Samuel Colbray (currently ranked #19) and a slender 3-2 defeat to UNI's Drew Foster (ranked #6). The remainder of the regular season will offer a few more opportunities to capture some impressive results, though, as he's set to face #2 Emery Parker (Illinois) #5 Taylor Venz (Nebraska), #11 Jacobe Smith (Oklahoma State), and #12 Nick Gravina (Rutgers) over the next two months. I'm not sure if I can see him upsetting Parker or Venz, but guys like Smith and Gravina are who Wilcke is likely going to need to defeat to make a third-straight trip to the Round of 12 and vie for possible All-America honors. His success or failure in those matches could help us properly calibrate our expectations for Wilcke in March.
197: Jacob Warner (6-2, RS FR) 6 | 5 | 6
Warner had probably the most perplexing performance of any Iowa wrestler at Midlands. He went 4-2 with two bonus point wins, but he also suffered a shocking 19-3 technical fall loss to South Dakota State's Tanner Sloan, an unranked and unheralded true freshman in his redshirt season. He also dropped a 5-3 decision to Army's Rocco Caywood, currently ranked #5 at the weight. Warner's performance against Sloan was disastrous, but there's plenty of time to avenge that defeat and for Warner to set himself up for a much more successful second half of the season. But we need to see a better Warner than the one we saw for much of Midlands, where he looked tentative and lacked a high attacking tempo and an aggressive mindset. The second half of the season doesn't offer many yardstick matches for Warner -- he's set to face just two more ranked opponents, #10 Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State) and #11 Eric Schultz (Nebraska) -- but they could still be telling indicators of what level Warner is at this year. Is he truly an All-America threat this year or is he more likely to have a short and not-so-sweet stay in the tournaments come March? We'll know more after we see a few more bouts from Warner. Even the matches against unranked opponents should be instructive -- can Warner show the fire and attacking prowess needed to flatten those opponents? If he can, that could suggest that Midlands was just a bad blip for Warner; if he can't, it could suggest that there's something more significant ailing Warner.
285: Sam Stoll (3-0, SR) 1 | 1 | 2
Stoll is the most recent flashpoint for the nature of rankings in wrestling. Stoll entered the season ranked #1 in all polls because he had finished the highest at the NCAA Tournament among last year's returnees. That plus his spotless record is why his ranking is what it is. On the other hand, it's awfully hard to argue that he's the best or second-best heavyweight in the nation; he's only wrestled three matches this entire season and he's hardly looked dominant in them. Several other wrestlers this season have much stronger bodies of work and would seem to be more deserving of a top-two ranking. With Stoll, the only question is what condition he might be in come March and the matches that deeply matter. It doesn't sound like we'll see much of Stoll before March, either, based on Brands' comments earlier this week:
Iowa coach Tom Brands said Wednesday that he and his staff will likely pick and choose when to wrestle Stoll during the second half of the season.
“It’s a day-to-day process,” Brands said. “Our fans are excited to see him. Our coaches are excited to see him on the mat. I know that he’s excited to see the mat.
“All that being said, we have to make sure that he’s healthy and that’s where we’re at.”
It seems pretty clear that the injury Stoll suffered as a result of a gunshot wound last summer was more significant than previously suggested; he's barely competed at all this year and when he has wrestled, it's been with an enormous brace on his knee and he hasn't looked particularly overpowering. We can hope that Stoll is able to regain some measure of decent fitness and performance by March, but I'm keeping my expectations fairly low based on what we've seen so far. It's unfortunate because if anyone deserved a decent bill of health for his senior campaign, it's Stoll, who's already lost the better part of two seasons to knee injuries. This story doesn't seem set to have the happy ending we were hoping for, though.
At this point, I think we know what we have at the two poles of the Iowa lineup -- despite his loss, Lee is still a major threat to score tons of points and repeat as champ at 125, while at the other end, it's probably safest to assume that we can't expect much out of Stoll and any strong results we get there are gravy. But there's quite a bit of variability between those two poles. The biggest question marks are from 133 to 157 and Warner at 197. Marinelli seems rock-solid and should do well at 165, although the quantity of top guys at that weight is still going to make for tough sledding for him in March. Bowman, like Stoll, might be at a weight where we simply can't expect too much right now and any positive results we do get are simply a happy surprise. But DeSanto, Murin, Lugo, Young, and Warner all seem like they could have quite a bit of upside; how they look over the next two months could help us determine how much of that upside they're likely to achieve in March.