Oops, he did it again.
Spencer Lee, a year ago Iowa's phenomenal freshman and now a sensational sophomore, won completed his trek through the 125 lb bracket at the NCAA Wrestling Championships with his hand raised at the end of the match -- and another national championship in his possession. Lee becomes Iowa's first two-time national champion since Matt McDonough won a second national title in 2012 (his second in three seasons) and Iowa's first repeat national champion since Mark Perry won back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008. He's the 23rd wrestler in Iowa history to win multiple national championships.
Lee defeated Virginia's Jack Mueller, the #5 seed, 5-0 with takedowns in the first and third periods and a point earned from two stalling calls against Mueller. Last night Mueller upset #1 seed Sebastian Rivera (who had bested Lee in both of their encounters this season) by scoring an early takedown and putting a fierce ride on RIvera; in fact, he ended the match with over five minutes of riding time. Getting that first takedown has always been big for Lee as well, as it provides the base that he uses to rack up riding time and go for tilts and near fall points.
So getting the first takedown in this match figured to be critical. And it was Lee who struck first, less than a minute into the bout. After a scramble, Lee came out on top of Mueller. He kept him planted to the mat for the rest of the period, working to get hold of Mueller's arm and turn him. He actually came close to turning Mueller -- and possibly pinning him -- at the end of the period, but the clock ran out on the period.
Spencer Lee shuts Jack Mueller out 5-0 to win back to back NCAA titles. pic.twitter.com/1qtxtJdFB4— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 23, 2019
The second period began with Lee choosing to take down (per the announcers), which seemed like a very curious strategic decision, given Mueller's proficiency on top. And, indeed, Lee struggled to get out and got ridden for the entire second period, erasing the riding time advantage he had built up in the first period. But he did draw a stalling call on Mueller, which was the second of the match against Mueller, granting Lee a point and a 3-0 lead. And while Mueller is a strong rider, his top game is quite different than Lee's -- Lee is skilled at turning opponents and constantly searching for tilts or pin, but that isn't Mueller's game. Mueller is a leech on top and makes it extremely hard to get off the mat, let alone get an escape, but he's not a major threat to turn guys or pin them.
Mueller chose neutral to start the third as, down 3-0 and unlikely to score points from top position (and unwilling to go back underneath Lee, since that has been well-established by Lee's performances over the last two seasons as a Very Bad Idea), he needed to score points. He never came particularly close to taking Lee down, though, and late in the match it was Lee who got into Mueller's legs and finished for another takedown, giving himself a 5-0 lead and icing the match. Cue the celebrations.
Spencer Lee's path to this national championship wasn't quite as dominating as it was a season ago. Lee lost three times during the regular season (compared to two losses last season), twice to Rivera and once to Oklahoma State's Nick Piccinnini. A year ago Lee stormed through the field at 125 lbs at the NCAA Tournament, scoring back-to-back 18-0 technical falls in his first two matches, then scoring back-to-back pins in the quarterfinals and semifinals (the former coming against Piccinnini and the latter coming over Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello, a former NCAA champion). In the finals he downed Rutgers' Nick Suriano, not only undefeated but not even taken down to that point in the NCAA Tournament. Lee took him down twice en route to a 5-1 win.
This year Lee opened his NCAA Tournament with an 18-0 technical fall in his first match, though it took him over six minutes to do so. In the second round he beat NC State's Sean Fausz via 10-1 major decision, blowing up a close match in the third period with a takedown and tilt for near fall points. In the quarterfinals Lee regained his pinning mojo, planting Minnesota's Sean Russell in the third period. In the semifinals Lee avenged his earlier loss to Piccinnini with an 11-4 decision in a match he controlled from start to finish.
If this year's title run lacked a little of the sizzle from last year's run, it was perhaps even more hard-earned. A year ago Lee was completing his recovery from an ACL surgery, but he seemed to be in fine form by the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around. This year Lee dealt with an illness early in the season (the details of which were never elaborated upon), which seemed to have lingering effects throughout the season, particularly in Lee's conditioning, which sometimes seemed to weaken as the match went on. But the Lee that took the mat in Pittsburgh this weekend looked pretty damn good -- certainly good enough to end Saturday night on top of the podium for the second straight year.
The champ is here -- again. Long may he reign. Congratulations, Spencer.