Going into the 2019 Midlands Championships, we knew that Iowa would win the event for a seventh time in a row, barring an outbreak of food poisoning on the Iowa team. But I don't know that anyone expected a win that was this lopsided. Iowa had seven finalists and crowned five champions on Monday night, finishing with 196.5 points, breaking their own record for most points scored in a single tournament (189, set back in 2014). Iowa scored more than the second and third place teams combined.
1) 196.5 -- Iowa
2) 101.0 -- UNI
3) 94.5 -- Illinois
4) 93.0 -- Wisconsin
5) 84.5 -- Princeton
And Iowa did that with one of their three best wrestlers (Michael Kemerer) not competing at all and their best wrestler (Spencer Lee) only wrestling on Sunday (when he had two pins and a technical fall). It's not inconceivable that Iowa could have pushed for 230 points if they had wrestled all of their top wrestlers for the entire event.
To be sure, Midlands isn't quite what it once was; strong teams like Arizona State, NC State, Oregon State, and Oklahoma have often been there in recent years and none of them were present this year. Some weights were stronger than others in terms of top national competition. Still: Iowa ran roughshod through this event because they have a very, very good team and a team that is strong at nearly all weights. That's an exciting prospect as the remainder of the 2019-20 season unfolds.
Tournament organizers opted to put the 133 lb title match, a rematch between #1 Austin DeSanto and #2 Seth Gross as the main event of the finals round, which meant that the finals started at 141 lbs. Given that Iowa had finalists at 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 184, and 285 lbs, this also meant a heavy dose of Hawkeyes at the beginning of the final session -- and they did not disappoint.
Attention night owls: 5 Midlands champs. Highlights. pic.twitter.com/GIjWaYwtGw— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) December 31, 2019
Max Murin got things going for Iowa at 141 lbs, where he knocked off #3 seed Josh Heil, 5-3. After a scoreless first period, Murin fell behind 2-0 when Heil scored a reversal on him in the second period. Murin didn't get flustered, though, and responded with an escape, followed by another escape to start the third period. He scored a takedown to take the lead and managed to pick up a minute of riding time as well. A solid win to cap off a very nice tournament for Murin.
Pat Lugo made it 2-for-2 for Iowa wrestlers in the finals with a win at 149 lbs -- and he may have had the best win of the night (if not the entire tournament), knocking off #1 ranked Austin O'Connor of North Carolina via 8-4 decision. Even better, Lugo this wasn't a tight, flukish win; he looked in command throughout the match. He picked up three takedowns (one in each period, if memory serves) off of some nice-looking offense (he finished his shots quickly, which is something he's struggled to do in the past) and displayed excellent defense in fending off O'Connor's attacks as well. This was the best version of Lugo we've seen in his time at Iowa and if this Lugo shows up in March, that's going to be a huge boost to Iowa's title aspirations.
At 157 lbs, Kaleb Young made it three straight finals with an Iowa wrestler -- and three straight finals with an Iowa champion. As he did throughout the event, Young left it a bit late -- he scored the winning takedown in sudden victory after a 3-3 deadlock in regulation. Young and Hartman spent a lot of the match on the mat; after a scoreless first period, they traded reversals (and escapes) in the second and third periods. Hartman didn't pose a great threat to Young from neutral, but he showed strong defense and impressive scrambling ability. While Young got to the legs a few times during the match, it wasn't until sudden victory when he was finally able to finish a shot. Young didn't get a chance to avenge his loss to Princeton's Quincy Monday from earlier this month, but he still had a strong tournament in winning his first Midlands title. As has been the case all season, though, he needs to do a better job of getting to his offense early and often. He's good at scoring late and in overtime, but it's dangerous to rely on that in so many matches.
Finally, Alex Marinelli made it four wins for Iowa wrestlers in four finals matches with a controlling 5-3 win over #3 seed David McFadden of Virginia Tech. McFadden upset Wisconsin's Evan Wick in the semifinals, sparing us the 1987234th match between Marinelli and Wick in the final. Instead, it was a rematch of a consolation round match at the 2018 NCAA Tournament, which McFadden won via fall. Marinelli continued the fine form he displayed all tournament in this match, though, and controlled the bout from start to finish. While he didn't score on a lightning-quick attack he took off the opening whistle, he did score on another shot in the first period and added another takedown later in the match. He dominated the center of the mat throughout the match and never let McFadden get comfortable or into any sort of rhythm in his attacks. A 5-3 final score looks like a close match, but this match really wasn't that close.
The fifth Iowa wrestler to compete in the finals was the most surprising name of the bunch: redshirting freshman Abe Assad, who had made a surprising run throughout the bracket by knocking off the #6, #3, and #7 seeds to reach the final. Alas, Assad's magical run came to an end there and he dropped a 4-0 decision to UNI's Taylor Lujan. Lugan is ranked #4 in the country (per Trackwrestling) and looks like a legit threat to finish high on the podium in March; there's no shame in Assad losing to a guy like that. Assad got in on some shots on him in the first and second periods, but wasn't able to finish; in the first, Lujan was able to scramble into a scoring situation of his own and then put a mean ride on Assad. A disappointing outcome in the finals doesn't erase the fact that Assad had a very nice tournament run, though, and gave us plenty to be excited about in the future (or possibly sooner, as Tom Brands suggested in his post-Midlands comments).
Tony Cassioppi got Iowa back on track in the finals with a 5-1 win at 285 lbs over Central Michigan's Matt Stencel. This was a strong result to cap off a very good tournament for young Tony Pins. Stencel is a fringe Top 10 opponent , but the win was even more satisfying because a year ago he pinned Cassioppi at Midlands. No better way to show much you've improved in a year than to pick up a solid win over a guy who pinned you 12 months ago. Cassioppi got a takedown in the second period and also got points via an escape, a stalling penalty, and riding time.
The final Iowa wrestler in the finals was Austin DeSanto, who took on Seth Gross in a hotly-anticipated rematch of their showdown from earlier this month at the Iowa-Wisconsin dual. DeSanto won that match via 6-2 decision, but he lost the rematch to Gross last night, 6-5. Unlike their first encounter, Gross managed to jump out to a good start, quickly getting to DeSanto's legs and finishing for a takedown, then locking up a cradle briefly and exposing DeSanto's back for two nearfall points. That put DeSanto in a quick 4-0 hole. To his credit, he did an impressive job of climbing out of that hole; he got an escape to cut the lead to 4-1, then got another escape in the second period to make it 4-2. After a Gross escape in the third, DeSanto picked up a stall point against Gross in the third to make it 5-3, followed by a takedown of his own to tie it at 5-5. A Gross escape made it 6-5 and DeSanto was unable to secure ta match-winning takedown, though he came achingly close in the final seconds of the match.
The main items I took away from DeSanto-Gross II were that 1) these two guys are very evenly-matched, 2) DeSanto is doing a great job of escaping when Gross is on top, and 3) DeSanto has to finish cleanly when he takes shots. The second point is good news for DeSanto and should be a bit concerning for Gross, given how much of his strength resides in his top game. The third point was one of the biggest differences between the first match (which DeSanto won) and this match (which Gross won): DeSanto finished his shots quickly and cleanly against Gross in the first match, but in this one he wasn't able to do so very often; that led to scramble situations, which either presented scoring opportunities for Gross or stalemate scenarios. DeSanto is a good scrambler, but scrambling with Gross is a dangerous proposition. If DeSanto can finish his shots cleanly and quickly in their next match, he'll have a good chance of coming out on top again. There's a good chance we see this match again at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament in a few months; if those matches are as good as their first two meetings, bring it on.
DeSanto's loss wrapped up the finals and ended things on a mildly disappointing note for Iowa -- they could have cracked 200 points with a DeSanto victory! -- but hardly overshadowed what a strong finals session it was overall. Nor did it overshadow what a dominant display this entire tournament was for Iowa. Some caveats abound given the competition and who wasn't there, but overall this was an excellent display by Iowa and one that should provide them with more confidence for the second half of the season.
I'll be back in a little bit with additional thoughts about Iowa's performance at Midlands, including the wrestlers who didn't compete in the finals.